JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri legislators returned to the Capitol on Wednesday for the start of the legislative session for the 99th General Assembly, a ceremony that is typically a lighthearted affair.
But that was not the case, as Secretary of State Jason Kander began the ceremony with an unprecedented display of partisanship, addressing the House in a fashion he was certain would not be favorable in the eyes of Republicans.
“None of this is what you wanted to hear, but I am your Secretary of State for a little bit longer,” he began.
The outgoing Secretary of State pleaded with the Republicans of the incoming legislature to not to overstep voting rights, taking one final jab at the Voter ID law he so strongly opposed.
“Today is the first day of the legislative session, and that law has not taken effect,” he continued. “I know many of you personally, and I know you did not come here to try and constrict the rights of your constituents.”
In the November election, voters were asked to approve the voter ID law, which was passed in an overwhelming fashion.
“I believe, and I’m sure you believe, they did not have the intent of disenfranchising any eligible voters in Missouri,” he said, receiving applause. “Last year, you decided to pass, over my objection and the Governor’s veto, a photo ID bill. And in doing so, you made a deal with Democratic legislators. In that deal, Democratic legislators agreed to end their filibuster in exchange for you accepting some provisions into the law that could mitigate the damage that could limit the number of people who could be disenfranchised by the law.”
“Now, already, I have heard members of this body make public statements saying that the law needs to be revisited, that it doesn’t go far enough,” he continued. “Already, there are folks who are saying they want to go back on their word and go further and possibly restrict the rights of Missouri voters.”
He asked them to consider the actions in other states, saying that after Wisconsin put a similar law in place, it experienced their lowest voter turnout in 20 years.
But his remarks received a negative reaction after he left the podium, as the House Republicans skipped a planned resolution that would have thanked Kander for his service.
The next Republicans to take the stand addressed his remarks, to the sounds of applause from GOP members and much of the audience.
“Your opening remarks have been a slap in the face of the democratic process and the voters of this state,” Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, said.
But when Speaker Todd Richardson took the podium, after being elected to continue in his role as the House Speaker, he matched Kander’s intensity with a more calm message of bipartisanship and change.
“I’m not going to lecture this side of the aisle,” he said, pointing in the direction of the House Democrats. “With this greater power comes even greater responsibility – a responsibility to make the legislative process deliberative. That means we must respect the voices and viewpoints of every Missourian, as represented by each and every one of you.”
Richardson pivoted to the issues that lay ahead, telling his fellow members of the House that spirited discussion is encouraged, but disagreements should always be professional in nature.
“Today, I want to focus on where we are as a state, and more importantly, the kind of state we can become,” he said.
The Speaker’s language turned to the common grounds and strengths of both major parties, their love of their home state, the diversity of Missourians, the natural resources and industry, and the agriculture the Show Me State is known for.
He also spoke of the issues facing Missouri, including stagnant wages, explosive growth in welfare, decreased economic opportunities and competition for jobs.
“I’ve sat in this chamber and listened often to governors and others speak about programs and insist that ‘the legislature, the government, is creating jobs,'” he said. “Let’s get it straight. Government does not create jobs. Real people do.”
Speaker Richardson said that to increase job growth in Missouri, one of the first steps must be the removal of “unnecessary government regulations”. He said he asked two House committees with looking into the state’s regulations and licensure requirements and creating legislation to relieve some of the burdens on businesses. As an example, he pointed to the two ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, saying that instead of operating here, they have been met with regulations to keep them from operating in Missouri.
He also said that Missouri must become more attractive to prospective employers and that he will take steps on Thursday to get right-to-work on the floor as soon as possible.
Tort reform was also an issue expected to play a major role in the 2017 session, and Richardson said he intends to get “major pieces of tort reform to the floor” and over to the Senate.
One of the final issues he mentioned was education.
“I don’t think the blueprint to economic success is that complicated,” he said. “Give kids access to a world-class education and make sure there is a job available in a thriving private sector without government overreach.”
But perhaps the most definitive promise from the Speaker was his vow that a lobbyist gift ban would be the first bill out of the House. And with Republicans holding a supermajority in both chambers, along with a Republican governor, it seems that his promises of change will be kept.
“This is our time to restore the belief and faith that everyone has the opportunity to build a great life for themselves,” he said. “The time for half-measures and solutions around the edges is over.”
“This is the time for bold action,” he finished, receiving a standing ovation.
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced 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.