‘Animosity’: MO session ends in GOP infighting, failed plan to limit direct democracy

The Missouri General Assembly on Friday ended an annual session defined by fierce Republican infighting that derailed the party’s hopes of passing limits on direct democracy ahead of an expected statewide vote this fall on overturning Missouri’s abortion ban.

Republicans had made raising the threshold for amending the state constitution a top priority. But as Democrats mounted the longest filibuster in state history earlier this week, GOP senators, riven by internal conflict, were unable to agree on cutting off debate and forcing a vote.

The Senate on Wednesday backed off the proposal, which would have overhauled the state’s initiative petition process. The decision effectively ended any hope of passing additional major legislation. By Friday, the Senate simply adjourned without any debate hours ahead of a mandatory 6 p.m. adjournment

The measure’s failure capped a turbulent session often gripped by GOP conflict. An ethics inquiry into House Speaker Dean Plocher, a St. Louis-area Republican campaigning for secretary of state, divided the House as some lawmakers called on him to resign. And amid an election year, the session pitted GOP candidates against each other as they scrapped for votes ahead of the August primary.

The House passed some bills on Friday, including a sweeping public safety package. The House also passed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit ranked-choice voting. The proposal will go to a statewide vote later this year.

Earlier in the year, the legislature approved an extensive education bill targeting four-day school weeks, raising teacher pay, and expanding a scholarship program to send students to private or charter schools. Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill in May.

Several significant measures died, however, including a bill to ban child marriage.

Republican lawmakers on Friday fought over who was to blame for the failure of the initiative petition overhaul, which had loomed over the entire session. House and Senate leaders each pointed the finger at the other chamber. And mainstream Republicans and a hard-right group called the Freedom Caucus also fought over assigning responsibility.

Before both chambers adjourned for the day, Plocher called a press conference Friday morning. He blamed the Senate for failing to pass the measure to overhaul the initiative petition process.

“This is their mess,” he said. “They haven’t functioned. Debate the bill and vote on it. That’s all we’ve asked for the last six years.”

After the Senate adjourned for the year, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, placed the blame on the House.

“They’re good guys,” Rowden said. “They’re just wrong on this one. They have a bill. They can pick the bill up and pass it if they want.”

The legislation would require future amendments to the state constitution to be approved essentially twice, a majority vote in at least five of the state’s eight congressional districts, and a majority vote statewide.

Currently, constitutional amendments only need a majority vote statewide and have been used by voters of both parties to pass policy measures when the General Assembly fails to come to an agreement.

Senate Democrats had vowed to block the measure unless Republicans agreed to strip deceptive language attached to the measure that has been labeled as “ballot candy” to entice voters.

The ballot question placed before voters would have asked Missourians whether they wanted to ban foreign interference in ballot measures and allow only U.S. citizens to vote on constitutional amendments. Both are already illegal.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, speaks to reporters.
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, speaks to reporters.

Republicans had hoped to put the proposal before voters in August, raising the possibility that if adopted, supporters of overturning the state’s abortion ban would face a more difficult time during a vote on that issue expected in November.

One of the most vocal leaders of the Freedom Caucus, Sen. Bill Eigel from Weldon Spring said Friday signaled he was still optimistic that the potential abortion rights vote could fail.

“Don’t be afraid of the message…that this fight against the abortionist culture of death is just not something we can win, we can win,” said Eigel, who is running for governor. “No matter how many failures we see from all these politicians, I think a lot of folks are going to be surprised a whole bunch whether it’s in both August of this year or November.”

After the Senate adjourned, Sen. Jill Carter, a Granby Republican who left the Freedom Caucus this year, took to social media to criticize the session’s final weeks. She pointed to a push by Republicans to deploy a rarely-used procedure to shut down debate called moving the previous question or PQ.

“Multiple PQ Sheets, multiple signatures, many discussions…half truths on both sides and a chamber full of animosity that equaled to nothing,” Carter posted on X, formerly Twitter.

Plocher investigated

House lawmakers began this year’s session with a cloud of controversy hanging over their top Republican leader, Plocher, who faced a months-long ethics investigation into a slew of scandals.

The secretive House Ethics Committee pored over the onslaught of allegations, including revelations that Plocher received nearly $4,000 in government reimbursements for expenses already paid by his campaign, pushed for the House to issue an expensive technology contract to an outside company, and allegedly threatened House staffers.

The investigation dragged on for months and exposed some divisions among Republicans: Those who fervently backed Plocher and those who called for him to step aside as speaker.

Those fractures came to a head last month when the committee’s chair, Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Mountain Grove Republican, forced a public vote on a draft investigative report on Plocher. While the vote failed, the report became public and alleged that the top Republican’s office had repeatedly obstructed the investigation.

Kelly went on to accuse Plocher, or his office and supporters, of taking steps to intimidate witnesses and blocking subpoenas issued by the committee that would have compelled witnesses to testify.

The Ethics Committee eventually dismissed the complaint against Plocher, a vote in which the top Republican touted as a victory. Soon after, another complaint was filed — this time against Kelly. That committee promptly rejected that complaint as well.

As this year’s chaotic legislative session came to a close on Friday, lawmakers — many of whom are leaving office this year — took time to reflect on where the General Assembly was headed in the future.

Was this year’s session, which was largely defined by Republican infighting and insults, a sign of things to come?

“I don’t know what the Senate is gonna look like in the future,” said Rowden. “I hope that the folks who run this place and the folks who make up the chamber respect the institution. The institution is important.”

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, said it was up to Republicans, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, to decide what decorum looks like in future sessions.

“You have a…clear opportunity to really change how the Senate was working in the last few years and the dynamics of it and the vitriol,” he said. “Don’t let the bullies win. And I think they took the first step to do that.”