Representative Holly Rehder has been at the forefront of several contentious issues during the year’s legislative session. We sat down with her to get her thoughts on a number of topics, from the governor to prescription drugs, but Rehder shared even more with us, discussing her family, faith and convictions, the very things that drive her to be the passionate voice that has rang out so clearly in Missouri’s legislature.
BP: Republicans pulled off a major victory in the November elections in Missouri. What does that tell you about what the state’s voters want from the government, and do you think that the party can continue building on that success in the coming elections?
HR: I do. I think that the voters spoke very loudly in November. We had two very distinct positions running for governor, Eric Greitens, who was for labor reform, and Chris Koster, who has always been against it. And so I think that was an incredibly strong message that what the largest majority in the legislature have been pushing for several years now, and the voters really locked that in by voting overwhelmingly for Governor Greitens. It’s a very exciting time for us.
BP: With so many Republicans now in the Missouri House and Senate, do you think that makes it easier to accomplish the party goals, or is it tougher to be heard with so many voices?
HR: That’s a great question. As our caucus has grown over the past years, we’ve definitely seen more infighting, but I think that everyone is very respectful of each other’s’ opinions. Take my bill on prescription drug monitoring. It’s one that very much has many Republicans that are against it. For me, this is business. Business and personal are two different things, and I’m a businesswoman. So I’ve never had hard feelings when some of my closest friends do not support my legislation. It has nothing to do with how well I like them. We have fun with it at times, because there are many things that we are going to have to support each other in. But we have to also understand that there are some things we cannot support each other in, whether it be our district, our personal convictions. But it’s still important to respect one another.
BP: The story of your life has been a rather unique one – you grew up on welfare, became a mother at a young age, experiencing many of the struggles that many Missouria families face every day. How did you overcome that, and how has that helped shape you and your values?
HR: When I look at our system, our social net, I feel that it was put in place for the right reasons, and it was very compassionate. Yet our compassion overrides our common sense at times. In our efforts to do good, we are keeping people from ever realizing their potential. For whatever reason, God allowed me to get out, and I have my family to look at.
My cousin, a brilliant, beautiful, and intelligent lady, died at 39 from years of opioid abuse, and left behind two children. I look at my family, and see my sister broken. I’m 47, she’s 49, and she’s on full disability from years of addiction and not having that solid foundation that she needed. She never realized her potential, what she could do. My cousin never realized that, and my mother never realized what she could be. And I think that we need to understand our self-worth.
And for me, being in the legislature, I always say God didn’t give me a microphone to keep my mouth shut. I want to talk about these things, to say that when we reform the welfare system, when we help people, we require education and volunteering. I can tell you that volunteering is what got me involved in politics, and through all of those things, God is able to open doors to a world you never knew.
So requiring these things of people on TANA or getting SNAP benefits, it gives them more opportunity and we have to show them that. For people who have been raised like this, the people who are going to get on the government system, there’s so many times that we need that helping hand – that’s what it’s for. But to have requirements in place to help us get educated, to open us up to the world that we don’t know, that is what is going to change the poverty cycle. And I am so blessed to be a vessel for God to work through, and I hope I continue to be.
BP: Coming from southeast Missouri, how would you say that has influenced you as a legislator, and what it’s like working with fellow southeast Missourian, Speaker Todd Richardson?
HR: I think that what surprised me most when reaching the legislature was that it wasn’t so much of a Democrat vs. Republican rivalry but a rural vs. urban one. We all want our piece of the pie, and we all see great value in our area. Someone who grew up in St. Louis talks about the community coming together and economic development and how beneficial it is to the rest of the state, and it absolutely is. From my area, we see the value in the fact that we are feeding and clothing the world with our farming. Agriculture is so huge for our rural areas. But we all have unique problems. Down in our area, we have a very small sliver of public transportation, and we have pregnant women who don’t go to the doctor because they don’t know how they’ll get there. That leads to babies being born too soon, or born addicted, because doctors were unable to catch it.
Speaker Richardson is great. It’s really cool having the Speaker from our area, because he understands it, and I don’t have to explain it. But it’s been eye-opening, traveling around the states with other legislators and learning about their districts. They have things important to them that we have never experienced in southeast Missouri. So it’s great to work around the state to see what others are fighting for, and understanding their backgrounds.
BP: For the first time in years, Missouri has a Republican governor. What’s your take on Gov. Eric Greitens, and what does that mean to you to have his support on your legislation?
HR: It’s been outstanding. Paycheck protection was a bill that I have carried for the last several years, and I watched it die last year at 12:30 in the morning by one override vote in the Senate. I have often felt that I was banging my head against a brick wall. To have him not just there to sign, but speaking out and help, to me, it’s tremendous. With the right to work tour, he wanted to include myself and Senator Brown. He wasn’t just someone who wanted to take credit for something, he is someone who really wants to bring others up. I had the opportunity to get to know him a bit, and he’s a very thoughtful and unique person, and I think Missouri is really going to do well under his leadership.
BP: You were named to the Governor’s Tax Credit Cutting Committee. What do you hope to accomplish with that?
HR: I am honored to be on that. I’m a business owner, and I have always said that the corporate welfare structure bothers me about as much as the social system. I think there are many things that we do as a state to be helpful and to really move us forward, but it’s not really the government’s role. If I can’t make without the state propping me up, then I don’t need to be in business. There are a lot of things that taxpayers wish their money wouldn’t go to. I think we need to be extremely cautious going forward and be very thoughtful moving through the tax credit programs that we have now to see which are a good use of government’s time and money, and which ones we should not be tinkering in. I look forward to being involved in this and having Will Scharf, who I know is an incredible conservative thinker, and Jason Crowell, who was my senator at one point, to work with. I look forward to learning some things from them, and it looks like a great group of folks who can be thoughtful, look through this, and bring back meaningful reform for this state.
BP: As a small business owner, you have insight into how regulations can be burdensome for Missourians. How have some of these regulations affected you, and what do you believe needs to be done to fix the business environment of Missouri?
HR: Our work comp system is incredibly expensive for business, especially small businesses. The amount of money that I spend in work comp is incredible. And the lawsuits – I’ve worked for every penny I’ve got. As a high school dropout, it took me 17 years to get my college degree, but I did it because it was important to me. My husband and I started our business because he lost his job of 16 years, and it took me a year to talk him into starting a business, because I’m more of a risk taker than he is. He’s more of a numbers guy. So all of that, and putting all of our money on the line, putting our house up for collateral, and raising my babies while not getting a paycheck because we were making sure we paid our employees while getting this off the ground. We’ve been sued for some pretty ridiculous things, and we win, but the cost of winning is extreme. One case alone took two-and-a-half years of my life, over $250,000, to fight and win, because I wouldn’t settle. It wasn’t honest, and it wasn’t right. Businesses get sued because settlements are so easy to come by. It just costs too much to fight, and the businesses get judgments against them for settling, when all they were trying to do was get out of it. So, we need a better business climate in Missouri. We need a “loser pays” law.
I want people to have their day in court, but the frivolous lawsuit against businesses, simply because they’re a cash cow, it has to stop in Missouri, and the only way we’re going to do that is through tort reform.
BP: Tort reform has been a major topic in this session, with multiple bills filed on the issue. As a member of the special committee on litigation reform, why do you feel tort reform is so important, and what would you like to see done, and have any caught your eye?
HR: All of the bills are looking at tweaking the law a little. None of them have been, to me and my business, earth-shattering, and that’s what I’m looking forward to is doing something that is strong. We’ve seen some work comp tweaks, but nothing as substantial in my opinion. I think the arbitration law is very important. There’s a lot of money spent in courtrooms that don’t have to be, when an arbitrator could suffice. But I look forward to doing something much stronger.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.