A ‘Darth Vader moment’: Missouri Republican infighting blocks priorities as session ends

The Missouri General Assembly’s annual session came to a shambolic end Friday as Republicans, ensnared by infighting that included a bizarre dispute over the “Star Wars” character Darth Vader, left Jefferson City without approving much-sought changes to make it harder to amend the state constitution.

The failure allows abortion rights supporters to push forward with an initiative petition that would reverse the state’s near-total ban on the procedure without fear, for now, that a constitutional amendment would have to clear a higher hurdle at a statewide election. GOP lawmakers want to raise the threshold needed to pass amendments from a simple majority to 57%.

Republicans hold commanding super-majorities in the legislature, but sharp divisions within the Senate thwarted several of their key priorities. While lawmakers approved a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors and funding to expand Interstate 70 across Missouri, they once again couldn’t pass bills to legalize sports betting, allow open enrollment in public schools or restrict foreign ownership of agricultural land.

Senate Republicans have been riven by divisions within their own ranks in recent years, as a noisy hard-right faction has battled a more traditional establishment wing, and the final days and hours of the session proved no exception. But tensions also emerged between the House and Senate, with representatives growing impatient with the at-times molasses pace of Senate work.

“If the Senate fails to take action on IP reform, I think the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri,” House Speaker Dean Plocher, a St. Louis Republican, said just before the session ended without action.

Plocher said he believed an initiative petition restoring abortion access in Missouri would “absolutely” pass under the current 50% threshold.

After the General Assembly managed to pass public safety measures Thursday that will allow the Kansas City Police Department to raise the maximum pay for its chief and officers, the Senate spent the final hours of the session before its constitutionally-mandated 6 p.m. Friday adjournment mired in gridlock.

Sen. Bill Eigel, a hard-right Weldon Spring Republican exploring a run for governor, held the floor for much of the morning as he railed against his fellow senators for not allowing his bill cutting personal property taxes to come up for a vote. He delivered an extended “Star Wars” analogy about how senators faced a “Darth Vader moment” — a test of their character.

“Perhaps the Darth Vader moment we face today is for this chamber because we have spent an entire session, with few exceptions, passing bills that will not change the trajectory of this state,” Eigel said.

Other senators were fed up with Eigel, however. Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican who sits next to Eigel, said in a pointed rebuttal that “we’re not Darth Vader” and that Eigel and other hard-right senators had fueled a chaotic session.

“We’re not all running for governor, so we are trying to do things in an orderly fashion,” O’Laughlin said.

Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican.
Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican.

After the final gavel, top Republicans tried to put their best foot forward, emphasizing a ban on gender-affirming care for minors and a ban on transgender athletes in women’s sports that Gov. Mike Parson appears likely to sign.

One bill would ban all “gender transition procedures” for people under 18, but would allow minors to continue hormone therapy or puberty blockers if they were already prescribed them. The restrictions on hormone therapy and puberty blockers expire in 2027. The ban on gender-affirming surgeries does not expire.

The other bill would ban transgender girls and women from competing in women’s sports, including at private schools and colleges. The legislation also expires in 2027.

Lawmakers also touted long-sought funding to expand I-70 — a bipartisan goal. The General Assembly earlier this month approved $2.8 billion to extend the highway that connects Kansas City and St. Louis from two lanes each way to three each direction.

For their part, Democrats promoted several key wins, including a long-sought plan to extend full state health care coverage for low-income pregnant mothers. In the Senate, senators praised a bill that bans texting while driving. If Parson signs the measure, Missouri will be the second-to-last state to enact a full ban.

But for Republicans, the absence of an initiative petition overhaul came as a disappointment. Still, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, said lawmakers could advance the measure next year.

“The fact that we didn’t pass it this year puts more pressure on us next year, no doubt,” he said. “But it does nothing to change the outcome relative to whether abortion should be enshrined in our constitution or not.”

Democrats, on the other hand, welcomed the proposal’s failure. Missouri voters have passed several progressive priorities through initiative petition in recent years, including medical and recreational marijuana, Medicaid expansion and minimum wage increases. Voters also approved an ethics and campaign finance overhaul in 2018 called Clean Missouri.

While Republicans contend amending the state constitution has become too easy and that the process is too susceptible to manipulation by out-of-state money from liberal groups, Democrats have said the process offers an important pathway to enact policies that are popular with Missourians but blocked by lawmakers.

“It’s really funny when Republicans say the quiet part out loud and that’s exactly what the speaker did,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, said of Plocher’s remarks that failure to change the initiative petition process could allow abortion to return to Missouri.

“They want to do IP reform because they know the citizens don’t like what they’re doing here. And he said it with that.”

If the General Assembly had approved an initiative petition overhaul, voters still would have had to approve it — ironically, with only a simple majority. The measure would have almost certainly led to a significant campaign against it, in part because abortion rights supporters see an initiative petition as their only realistic way to restore some level of abortion access in the state.

Missouri’s ban on abortion, which includes exceptions only for medical emergencies and to save the life of the mother, went into effect immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022. Even before then, the state had effectively eliminated nearly all surgical abortions through regulations and just one clinic, in St. Louis, performed abortions.

The group Missourians for Constitutional Freedom has offered a series of amendments to restore abortion access. The amendments vary in scope and the level of regulation they would allow.

A dispute between Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick, both Republicans, over the cost estimates for the amendments have delayed the posting of official ballot summaries for the measures. In turn, the ACLU of Missouri has filed a lawsuit seeking to force publication of the summaries, which would allow Missourians for Constitutional Freedom to begin gathering signatures.

Beyond abortion, supporters of sports betting may be more likely to take a proposal directly to voters after another annual session has ended without passage of a bill. At least 33 states, including Kansas, have some form of legal sports betting.

While lawmakers are in general agreement about a framework for legalizing betting, legislation was bogged down this year by a dispute over Video Lottery Terminals — casino-like slot machines that have proliferated across the state in recent years at gas stations, truck stops and fraternal organizations and exist in a legal gray area.

“It’s embarrassing that we can’t get it done,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, said Friday, referring to the sports betting fight.

“We really need some adults in the room…it’s ridiculous.”

Missouri state senators debate a bill in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.
Missouri state senators debate a bill in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.

Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican, had insisted that any sports betting bill also legalize and tax the machines, miring the Senate in hours-long filibusters to block bills without the video terminals.

Hoskins and other lawmakers appeared to be engaged in last-ditch talks to find a compromise late Thursday. But no breakthrough was ultimately reached. O’Laughlin and other senators used procedural tactics Friday to bring a sports betting bill to the floor but Hoskins, unwilling to support a bill that didn’t legalize VLTs, had it withdrawn.

The disagreements among GOP senators sank major GOP-priority legislation that would allow students to transfer to schools outside of their home district. While bill supporters had high hopes of passage this year, the plan was derailed in the session’s final weeks amid the Senate’s infighting.

Kansas City area school districts and Democrats had criticized the legislation, saying it would drain resources from districts and segregate schools.

Lawmakers also left the building without action on a bipartisan proposal to claw back a controversial 2013 law that allows foreign companies to own Missouri farmland. While similar efforts have gained little traction in recent years, the proposal had renewed interest this year.

The new push came after foreign-owned farmland became a central focus in the race for U.S. Senate in Missouri last year when a series of campaign attacks highlighted then-Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, the Republican nominee, and his vote in favor of the law.

While both parties appeared to be willing to support the legislation, delayed action in the Senate ultimately killed it this year. Hard-right senators spent the final three hours of the session filibustering approval of the Senate journal, an official record of the chamber’s proceedings, provoking a rebuke by Sen. Travis Fitzwater, a Holts Summit Republican.

“We can and we should do better,” Fitzwater said. “The people of Missouri deserve better than what has happened at points in this chamber.”