The first regular session of the 100th Missouri General Assembly was primarily defined by infighting among Republicans — and that came to a head during the last week of session.
However, the divides began early in the Senate, before this session even began, as contentious leadership races for Pro Tem and floor leader — as well as the governor’s decision not to select a senator as State Treasurer — set the slate for more Republican versus Republican feuds rather than just Republican versus Democrat fights.
The tension percolated early but was tempered by the normal House versus Senate battles that happen each session. Some observers noted after eight years of a Democratic governor and two years of a Republican governor who aimed most of his attacks at fellow Republicans, many had forgotten how to govern in a normal one-party environment. Added to that: it was the first time in 16 years that the Missouri General Assembly met without Jay Wasson or Ron Richard in office.
The temperature reached a boil when General Motors announced it was considering a $1 billion dollar expansion in Wentzville — which is, of course, in St. Charles County, the seat of the rebellion against both Senate leadership and the governor. However, with the expansion set to take place in St. Charles County, a little foresight by two senators and oversight by a couple of House Budget conferees would set the scene for tensions in the Senate to come to a head.
Early in session — with workforce development dubbed the favorite buzzwords in the Capitol — freshman Sen. Lincoln Hough, accompanied by his experienced chief of staff Pat Thomas (previously of Sen. Brian Munzlinger’s office), offered a simple consent bill with the perfect title and slid it through the Senate early where it sat in the House waiting for its opportunity.
In the meantime, the Conservative Caucus’ relationship with Hough deteriorated to the point that the group eventually demanded Hough kill one of his own bills in order to allow another piece of legislation to move to a vote.
This went on while two of the governor’s workforce development priorities — Fast Track and the closing fund — saw staunch opposition from the Conservative Caucus, one-third of which is from St. Charles County.
Hough’s consent bill sat in the House for weeks waiting for its moment until the Budget Conference Committee passed language that would allow some non-citizens to utilize state programs for free or reduced tuition.
After the bill passed out of conference, some supporters of the DACA language couldn’t wait until the budget was third read before informing a couple of the more liberal media outlets — who would, of course, cheer their move. And after the news broke before it was TAFP’ed, it was clear the House was never going to let it stand.
At that point, Sen. Jason Holsman, a veteran of many complex Senate maneuvers, stepped in and offered to allow the DACA tuition language to be removed, but of course at a price. Holsman, some will remember, had a bill to change the term limits in Missouri die on the House floor last session that left him with a less-than-favorable relationship with House Floor Leader Rob Vescovo.
He was all too happy offering terms to those in the party of Donald Trump that led the Missouri House in which the price for them not to have unknowingly afforded illegal immigrants free college tuition was to take Hough’s innocent consent bill, add the GM incentives, and attach the governor’s economic development priorities — in essence turning a consent bill into “GM Heavy” piece of legislation.
In a less than advantageous position, the House took the deal, and what was now the “GM Heavy” bill was voted out of the House Thursday night — the same night the budget language was changed to afford access to free college tuition to documented American citizens only.
If ever a billion dollar industrial expansion in someone’s district can put a politician in a bad spot, it probably did to Sen. Bob Onder who was placed in the nearly impossible position of choosing to allow two pieces of legislation he has strenuously opposed or block the massive incentive package.
The six-member strong Senate Conservative Caucus chose to hang together, and in an old Sen. Rob Schaaf move, grabbed the journal first thing Monday upon the opening of session and began a nearly 30-hour filibuster — not so much to kill the GM incentives, although the proud members of the party of Trump who has perhaps been the receiver of more government investment incentives than anyone to ever hold federal office, did attack the concept of development incentives a great deal. But the group’s real goal was likely to see the governor’s priorities stripped off the bill.
However, the Senate rules wouldn’t allow for the amending of the bill at this stage, only an up-or-down vote, making the filibustering amendments to the journal an even better strategy.
The lawmakers got a brief respite as the House, who in a surprise to some who cut the deal the previous week, sent a clean “GM Light” bill over to the Senate to give the Conservative Caucus, particularly the St. Charles County contingent, some cover to argue they weren’t trying to prevent the incentives for their county.
During the filibuster, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin showed herself willing to hold the floor late into the evening. Also throughout session, she proved her detractors wrong as she spent her time becoming knowledgeable about the process and the nuance of state government.
One of the few silver linings of the filibuster was the consummate gentleman Sen. Eric Burlison, who used his two-hour shifts for the best by speaking at length on pregnancy crisis centers and why they deserve more funding.
There were some negotiations between Sens. Bill Eigel and Onder with the governor’s office and Senate leadership, but it was the rank-and-file Republican senators who demanded the “GM Heavy” bill remain as it is, even if that meant ending session with the Conservative Caucus still filibustering the journal from the previous Thursday — which, by the way, would have also mean no per diem for four days.
In the end, while Democrats watched with glee as hours melted off the clock, the rank-and-file Republican senators forced the Conservative Caucus to eventually back down.
The concessions extracted were minor: the passage of an abortion bill that was already destined for success. And proving that its always a good move to be a gentleman, Burlison got an increase in tax credits for pregnancy resource centers that offer prenatal services while attempting to discourage women from having abortions.
You would think that is the end. There would be a PQ on the abortion bill and maybe a whole flock of PQs to move a measure to change Clean Missouri out of fiscal review and through the chamber, then the Democrats would shut down the chamber, and session would be over.
However, in a surprise to some, the Democrats were willing to make concessions on the abortion bill in order to avoid a PQ and move onto the normal end of session passage of omnibus bills. This stemmed from hours of negotiations between several senators, but mostly out of a desire by Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh not to have the Senate denigrated by a PQ on her watch.
In a feat of parliamentary brilliance or opportunism (it can be a fine line), Sen. Jill Schupp — probably the biggest opponent of the abortion legislation — grabbed the floor during a moment of dead space in the order of business, and the Democrats held the floor for several hours. It would have probably required several PQs to bring their inquiries to an end to move forward.
In the meantime, Republicans chose Sen. Andrew Koenig — also a Conservative Caucus member — to negotiate a compromise, and most of them agreed to support whatever he negotiated. This was a real vote of confidence and respect in Koenig.
But it wasn’t long before all sides began attacking him during a highly contentious negotiation. However, he emerged from the bargaining process not only with the support of the pro-life side, but with a great deal more esteem from his Senate colleagues overall.
In the afternoon, the Senate stood at recess in order for Republicans to discuss the compromise which would have allowed the Senate to move onto normal business.
Early on 23 of the 24 senators agreed to the deal Koenig had negotiated. However, Onder — who had stood down on the GM bill for his district, in part, so that he could see the abortion bill passed — held out, and held out, and held out.
After 10 hours in recess, the compromise bill was brought to the floor and passed in a relatively anti-climactic 24-10 vote with Onder ending the second day in a row disappointed. He remarked, “We should be ashamed of ourselves of what we are doing today.”
In the end, the large majority of Republican senators rose up on both the GM bill and the abortion compromise taking the key conflict away from the Conservative Caucus versus Senate leadership to the Conservative Caucus versus the rest of the caucus. It will be interesting to see how that subtle shift affects next session.
Some other odds and ends:
The rumblings of former Gov. Eric Greitens having meetings to thank supports and to casually discuss a political comeback in either 2020 or 2022 are true. He is still an imminently interesting figure who would be a force in a Republican primary for either governor or U.S. Senate.
It’s a loss for the state to see Rep. Bruce Franks retiring from the House. His impact on the lives and views of legislators from all parties will live on throughout future sessions.
Catch Show Me Missourah this week as we interview the head of Orscheln Farm and Home, Barry Orscheln.
Scott Faughn is the publisher of The Missouri Times, owner of the Clayton Times in Clayton; SEMO Times in Poplar Bluff; and host of the only statewide political television show, This Week in Missouri Politics.