Capitol Perspectives: Legislative independence

(photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Public Safety)

A major question for this year’s session of the Missouri General Assembly is whether Republican legislative leaders will continue a recent display of independence from their fellow Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

Three times in recent months, Republican legislative leaders have shown near historic resistance to their party’s leader.

In the first 2020 special session, the Republican-controlled legislature failed to pass major parts of the governor’s anti-crime package.

Then, in the second special session, the governor’s call for immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits against businesses and health care workers was dropped.

That idea never cleared a Senate committee and the House speaker refused to even assign it to a committee.

Finally, in the 2021 regular session, House Republican leaders rejected the governor’s request to be allowed to pack the chamber with his guests for his annual State of the State address, forcing the governor to move his speech to the Senate chamber on short notice.

COVID-19 was an underlying factor.

As the pandemic was getting worse during the two special sessions, there was obvious legislative concern to avoid spending unnecessary time in the Capitol on issues that would go nowhere or easily could be addressed in the longer regular session, when there would be more time to craft compromises.

In many of the special sessions I’ve covered over the decades, there’s been a strong desire to act quickly so lawmakers can get back to their jobs and families.

I’m sure that was a much stronger factor with COVID-19.

Compounding the problem was that weeks after issuing each special call, Parson threw in a last-minute additional proposal so controversial it likely would require lawmakers to spend more time than planned in the statehouse as Missouri was facing the greatest health threat in decades.

A strong indication of discontent about the timing is that the two special topics traditionally have enjoyed strong Republican support — lawsuit protections for business and a tougher approach to crime.

But in the first special session on crime involved provisions of such controversy, even among Republicans, that it likely would have extended the session.

Then, after the session had begun, Parson threw in a measure to strip the St. Louis circuit attorney of exclusive authority to prosecute murder cases — an idea that triggered immediate opposition from the state’s association of prosecuting attorneys.

For the second session, after it had started the governor added the COVID-19 lawsuit protection idea to what was expected to have been a very short session to simply meet a federal deadline to authorize spending federal funds for COVID-19.

The Missouri Independent reported the lawsuit protection measure was dropped at the request of the governor after he had added the idea at the request of legislators.

These last minute additions to the two special sessions struck me as Parson’s failure to fully understand legislative concerns about COVID-19.

Three months later, he apparently still did not appreciate those concerns when he pushed for a large audience in the House chamber for his State of the State address.

These incidents raise the question as to whether Republican legislative leaders will continue this spirit of legislative independence.

Or, will the governor seek to improve communication and collaboration with his own party’s legislative leaders?

I’m doubtful because of a three-page letter he sent to Republican lawmakers complaining about having to change the location of his State of the State address on short notice.

Parson charged that the location change for his presentation was “a purposeful and disgusting scheme to embarrass me” and a “petty show of arrogance and political power.”

Ironically, the governor who has refused to issue a state mask mandate, also attacked the House by noting that the night before his speech, he saw pictures of House Committee hearings with witnesses and legislators without masks.

Good point, but I cannot remember more hostile words by a governor against legislators of his own party since Gov. Warren Hearnes 50 years ago.