2008 Session Roundups: Missouri

Missouri's legislative session was largely a repeat of last year - the best that can be said is that some particularly bad bills failed to pass. Unfortunately, others did.  The state passed a particularly regressive immigration bill, but failed to take action on voter ID legislation.  Beyond those issues the session mostly played out as a swan song of the corporate giveaway-focused tenures of Governor Matt Blunt and House Majority Leader Rodney Jetton.  Blunt (who is under federal investigation -- his father, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt also has ethical issues) withdrew from his re-election race and Jetton is being forced out by term limits, creating a woeful lack of accountability.  This situation, combined with the majority's fear that this may be the last year while they remain in control of all three branches of state government, created a seriously hostile climate for progressive reformers.

Immigration: The most hotly contested and debated bill this session was the omni-bus immigration bill that passed on the last day.  The bill is a stew of right wing anti-immigrant provisions, including deputizing state highway patrol to enforce immigration laws, mandatory immigration checks for all arrestees, suspending the licenses of businesses that hire undocumented workers, implementing the federal e-verify system that is know to have serious reliability problems, so-called "sanctuary city" proscriptions on municipalities choosing not to pursue immigration enforcement, and the bill even codifies federal prohibitions on public benefits for undocumented workers in state law.

Some members of the legislature fought the bill fiercely, and its passage seemed unsure just days before the session ended.  At the very tail end of the debate, Sen. Tim Green took advantage of his colleagues' weariness and the time winding down on the session to add an amendment that penalizes companies for misclassifying workers as independent contractors. This provision applies to all workers and is the only part of the bill that will actually help workers in Missouri, a state with a small population of undocumented workers.

Gutting Campaign Finance Reform: Missouri became one of only a half dozen states to remove all limits on campaign contributions for state elected officials.  As a supposed reform of the currently dysfunctional system that allows unlimited contributions to donors who set up personal PACs, the legislative leaders decided to broaden the loophole to include everyone.  Given the multiple ethics scandals that the top leaders of the state have suffered under, it is a bit surprising that this would be the legislatures response.  The bill was almost killed by an amendment that would have prohibited fundraising in the capitol, but the amendment failed by a few votes.

Voter ID: Lawmakers seemed poised to pass a very strict voter proof-of-citizenship law that was attempting an end run around a state supreme court decision that invalidated the state's previous voter ID law.  However, in the final weeks of the session local and national activists initiated a vigorous grassroots campaign against the law that brought the bill to a halt.

The rest of what the session produced was a potpourri of bad policy, special interest favors, and marginal gains.

  • Giveaways to corporations and special interests were both large and small.  A group of both progressive and conservative lawmakers balked at promising almost a billion dollars in tax credits to Bombardier to build an airplane manufacturing plant, but lawmakers jumped at the chance to give them almost 250 million.  At the same time Majority Leader Jetton let the legislative process grind to a halt as he protected a provision he had slipped into a law last year allowing a major contributor to evade zoning laws by incorporating his property as a village.  And a power plant, built in violation of the law because it never received local approval, was given retroactive approval by the legislature.
  • The privacy rights of Missourians got more tenuous as a bill passed that allows a search warrant to be executed after it has expired, possibly years after the warrant was signed by a judge.  State leaders are obviously taking a page from the Bush administration on unchecked executive power, to the detriment of residents' rights.

Their were very few notable reforms:

In the end much didn't get done:

  • The Governor's top priority of expanding healthcare coverage for the working poor failed to go anywhere. After removing a hundred thousand people from Medicaid and cutting the benefits of hundreds of thousands more a few years ago, the state still has yet to help low income Missourians access healthcare.  This is reflected in the fact that Missouri has the 5th highest growth among states in its uninsured population
  • Teacher pay failed to be raised to a minimum of $31,000.
  • Girls in low income families will not be provided the HPV vaccine for free.

Several bad measures failed to pass as well:

  • The voter ID bill died at the end of session.
  • Opponents defeated an attempt to change the state's much lauded process for picking judges.
  • Driver's licenses won't be denied to high school dropouts and students with low grades.
  • The minimum wage for workers earning tips wasn't rolled back.  Which is heartening, since it was just last year that the state raised the minimum wage, and the state's child poverty rate is rising dramatically.

Its been several years in a row that bad policies have been foisted on the people of Missouri by their government while lawmakers and the governor pass legislation that either serves their individual interests or those of their and corporate supporters.  The two hopeful aspects of this story are that some lawmakers and activists have managed to kill several terrible legislation, a majority of lawmakers are up for re-election, and the people have a great opportunity to seek more progressive representation in the fall.