In the past week, Missouri lawmakers filed hundreds of bills they hope to make law in the coming session.
Some deal with hot topics like college sports and toll roads sure to make headlines, if nothing else. A healthy number will address important but obscure concerns that may only draw notice in certain quarters.
But a few will command everyone’s attention: the big issues that reporters ask about all session, that leaders negotiate for weeks and that the rank-and-file debate for hours at a time.
It’s difficult to predict all the big issues before the session gets started, and surprises are inevitable. But with a month to go before things get going, here's what top lawmakers are thinking.
‘Fixing’ Clean Missouri
This could be the biggest issue, and it might sound familiar.
In 2018, 62 percent of voters statewide — and 66 percent Greene County voters — approved a constitutional amendment that, among other things, changed the way legislative districts are drawn after each census.
Under the new rules, a new "nonpartisan state demographer" draws the lines instead of the usual bipartisan panel of political appointees. Also new is the requirement that the process be guided by a special formula designed to produce more competitive elections and ensure the assembly's partisan balance reflects the will of voters statewide.
The half-Republican, half-Democratic House and Senate panels could still override the demographer with seven of ten votes, but recent history suggests such unity is unlikely.
The GOP lawmakers who currently dominate the legislature are not fans.
Multiple Republicans have filed resolutions this week that would ask voters to reverse themselves in 2020, just like they did this year.
At least three Republicans filed resolutions this week that would ask voters in 2020 to put redistricting back in the hands of existing commissions and make competitiveness the least important consideration when drawing districts.
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said they'll be top priorities.
“Putting something together on Clean Missouri is something that will take precedence at some point,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Democrats remain vehemently opposed to the idea, which they say disrespects voters.
“The people have spoken,” Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said.
Republicans have argued many voters likely didn’t know what they were voting for since the redistricting changes were part of a larger package with attractive ideas like limiting lobbyist gifts to legislators.
“It was cleverly written in order to put something out there that people would have a hard time voting down,” Schatz said. “ ... We’ll have to send it back to the voters, though, and they’ll be given the chance to accept or reject the changes that we believe should be made.”
Not that Republicans will necessarily refrain from adding their own sweeteners to the ballot language: Two of the Republican resolutions filed so far package their redistricting changes with complete bans on lobbyist gifts to legislators.
That may simply be good politics.
An Associated Press analysis predicted the new formula could bolster Democrats’ chances in 2022, after the next census, and found Republicans won 13 more House seats in 2018 than would be expected given their average performance across the state.
A violent year in the state’s largest cities has also sparked discussion on the ever-controversial issue of access to firearms.
In August, Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, spoke approvingly of background checks. And after concern over shootings of children in St. Louis reached a fever pitch this summer, he had multiple meetings with the mayors of Springfield, Columbia, St. Louis and Kansas City to discuss ways to curb violent crime.
Meanwhile, the Senate convened an interim committee on the issue, and House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, asked a small group of GOP lawmakers to start working on legislation for January.
Late last month in Columbia, Parson threw his weight behind limiting access to guns for young people, domestic abusers and prior offenders.
That doesn't necessarily mean anything will pass, especially in the Missouri legislature. In recent years, GOP supermajorities have repeatedly voted to loosen firearm restrictions, including allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
But even weary Democrats see some reason for hope, and several have filed bills along the lines of what Parson supports.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said the measures Parson and the mayors support won't solve everything, but she applauded the governor for "starting the conversation.”
Walsh, the Senate minority leader, said she hopes the legislature will rise to the occasion.
“We have to come up with some common-sense gun reforms,” Walsh said. “We’ve got to keep the guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and minors.”
Still, they may be worlds apart from where Republicans are on the issue, especially if and when they get beyond Parson’s relatively moderate proposals, which mostly mirror existing federal law.
Few if any Republicans are saying that restricting access to firearms is a viable solution to gun violence, and top Republican legislators seem more interested in strengthening law enforcement than gun laws themselves.
“The problem is criminals breaking the law,” Schatz said. “Restricting access to law-abiding citizens doesn’t help.”
Fixing roads and bridges
Next up, a longtime standby: infrastructure.
After voters shot down another attempt to hike the gasoline tax that pays for Missouri's roads and bridges in 2018, Gov. Parson made finding an alternative funding source a top priority this year.
He succeeded, in part, convincing the legislature to issue $301 million in bonds to repair more than 200 bridges across the state.
But that’s only a fraction of the bridges the federal government currently rates in “poor” condition, to say nothing of the roads. Leaders readily admit there’s still work to do.
“We’ve got to find a solution for infrastructure,” Schatz, the top Senate Republican, said. “There’s some ideas out there, and I don’t know if we’ve settled on one completely, but that’s going to be a part of the conversation.”
It’s hard to say what Parson will suggest until he gives his annual address to lawmakers next month, but as Schatz said, some ideas are circulating already.
Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, has once again proposed raising the gas tax — which is the lowest in the country — from 17 to 23 cents per gallon over three years and adjusting for inflation afterward, which wouldn’t require voter approval.
Rep. Jeff Messenger, R-Republic, thinks raising license fees would be better because many new cars are getting better gas mileage or ditching gas completely, making the gas tax less valuable over time.
“The need for licenses is never going to change,” he said.
Messenger also filed a resolution that would ask voters to make toll roads an option.
It’s not clear whether hikes of any kind will fly with conservative hardliners, though.
When Libla presented his gas tax hike bill this year, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said the state had plenty of money in its budget already.
“The failure is not on the part of the citizen to make a proper commitment to send money to (the Capitol) so that we can make our priorities,” Eigel said. “The failure is this body has been unable to do something with record amounts of money."
Schatz, for his part, said he supports raising the gas tax, but he conceded it would be tough to pass. Enacting a sales tax on online purchases and using some for roads and some for an income tax cut to please conservative Republicans might be a better bet, he continued.
“Infrastructure and tax policy will collide at some point,” he said.
Prescription drug monitoring
Schatz and Walsh, the Senate leaders, will also be fighting the conservative Republicans on another long-debated issue: creating a statewide database to track drug prescriptions.
For years, politicians in both parties, along with health care providers like CoxHealth and local governments including the Springfield City Council, have said the system is needed to stop people from visiting multiple doctors to avoid limits on drugs like opioids.
The House has approved the idea several times, but conservative senators have always killed it. They say such a database would violate the privacy of Missourians regardless of whether they’re breaking the rules and leave their medical information vulnerable to a hack.
For the past few years, a program led by St. Louis County has filled some of the void. Greene County physicians have access to data from 75 participating cities and counties.
But as of August 2019, Polk County was the only neighbor participating, meaning physicians here couldn’t tell if someone's already obtained a prescription in Nixa or Marshfield before coming to them.
Supporters feel an obligation to fill those gaps.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Schatz said. “I’m certain that’ll be something we’ll focus on, and hopefully we can get that done this session.”
Whether conservative opponents will bend is an open question.
In April, a group of them told the Kansas City Star they were open to approving a database that tracked fewer drugs or a bill that created a tracking program at the same time it banned counties from requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, which can be used to make meth.
Those ideas went nowhere.
In a news conference on the last day of the legislative session in May, Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, offered a candid assessment of six-senator Conservative Caucus position.
“We are pretty much opposed to a government database," she said.
If the past few sessions are any indication, charter schools will also catch the spotlight at some point.
Many Republicans advocate for allowing the schools, which are taxpayer-funded but run by independent boards or nonprofits rather than a traditional public school district, to expand beyond St. Louis and Kansas City.
They argue that charter schools can be laboratories for innovation and refuges for students who have special needs or find themselves attending failing schools.
Other Republicans, many Democrats and school districts like Springfield Public Schools disagree. They see the idea as an unnecessary diversion of money that could be used to sustain and improve local public schools.
Haahr, the House speaker from Springfield, tried to push a charter school bill past their opposition last session, but it faltered as Republicans splintered and its sponsor suffered an ultimately fatal car accident.
Senate Republicans in favor of the idea fared no better, running headlong into a filibuster from opposing colleagues, including Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.
That isn't stopping them from trying again, though.
"We have room for many different forms of education when it comes to raising our children," Sen. Bill Eigel, who's already filed an expansion bill, told the Missouri Times on Monday. "If you look at more rural areas, if you look at some of our suburban areas, we've got really good traditional public schools. If you look at some of our more urban areas, schools may be struggling. So there's room in those areas to offer more choice."
Opponents are also girding for another fight. If they can't stop the legislation again this year, they'll propose amendments requiring charters to get approval from often hostile local school boards or voters themselves before opening.
Quade, the House minority leader from Springfield, said her bill requiring a public vote would ensure people actually want charter schools before they open their doors.
"I don’t think it should come from the top down," she said.