Winners and losers of Missouri’s 2024 legislative session

The Missouri House of Representatives commemorates the end of the 2024 legislative session by tossing hard copies of bills into the air upon adjournment (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The final day of the 2024 legislative session lasted less than 10 minutes in the Missouri Senate. 

The lightning-quick adjournment was aimed at avoiding bitter flare ups that plagued the previous day, when a member of the Freedom Caucus tried to amend the Senate Journal to say a “stampeding herd of rhinoceroses” had rumbled through the chamber while another offered an amendment admonishing the attorney general for using taxpayer money to represent Freedom Caucus members in a defamation lawsuit. 

It was a fitting end to a session that included one Republican publicly musing about expelling a colleague from the Senate and another essentially expelling a fellow Senator from their shared Jefferson City apartment. 

The infighting — along with the more typical disagreements between the House and Senate and between Democrats and Republicans — caused lawmakers to head home with a new record for futility, passing fewer bills than the previous low set during the COVID-shortened session of 2020. 

So who were the big winners and losers of the legislative session? 

Winners

John Rizzo 

The Independence Democrat exuded relief on the final day of the legislative session. 

Part of it was that he’s heading home after eight years in the chamber and four as the leader of his caucus. Part of it was that after orchestrating a 50-hour filibuster of changes to the initiative petition process, the bill was finally dead. 

But mostly, Rizzo’s relief stemmed from optimism about the Senate’s future. 

Rizzo built a reputation as a good-faith negotiator who respected the Senate’s traditions and the limitations of his party’s power in a building with GOP super majorities. And for years, as ever-intensifying factional fights within the GOP left the Senate mired in gridlock, he publicly pleaded with Republican leaders to stand up to dissidents he argued weren’t interested in governing. 

He got his wish in the final week of the session, when leadership rebuffed the Freedom Caucus push to cut off debate and kill the Democratic filibuster. 

“There has to be follow up next year,” Rizzo told reporters Friday. “Don’t regress. Keep moving forward. Don’t let the bullies win. I’ve been waiting for it for four or five years. I think they finally did it.” 

Cody Smith 

For the first time in six years as chairman of the House Budget Committee, Smith got what he most wanted this session — a final budget that spends less than the one the governor  proposed in January.

In each of the past two years, as the state surplus built up and a flood of federal COVID-19 relief cash was spent, Smith guided the House to spending plans below the governor’s.

But a familiar pattern would always play out, where the Senate would largely ignore Smith’s efforts, restore the money and add a few million dollars of spending of their own into the kitty. Then, House Democrats and a unified Senate would leave Smith on the outside looking in as the budget was shipped off to the governor. 

It was looking like deja vu all over again this year before the Freedom Caucus hijacked the Senate for 41 hours to demand action on a bill changing the initiative petition process. 

That filibuster kept the Senate from taking up the budget until just before the constitutional deadline. With no time to go to conference to work out differences, the House played hardball and won concessions that trimmed $1 billion from the spending plan. 

Despite Smith’s success, state agencies, the governor and Senate leaders are already questioning whether ongoing programs have enough cash to make it through the fiscal year. 

Parson leaves office in January and has said he would not leave it to his successor to fill in the gaps, making it a near certainty that a special session will be convened at some point this fall to debate a supplemental budget.

Scott Fitzpatrick

In a legislative session where nothing came easy and even bills with wide bipartisan support struggled to get traction, it’s telling that a bill expanding the powers of the Missouri auditor sailed to the governor’s desk with unanimous support.

Rather than having to wait for permission from cities, counties and other local governments in order to launch an audit, the bill will let Fitzpatrick move in if he believes “improper activities” are taking place.

The legislation, and its overwhelming support from lawmakers, is a huge vote of confidence for the first-term auditor. And at 36 years old, with no term limits and every other statewide office occupied by one of his fellow Republicans, the bill expands Fitzpatrick’s authority in an office he seems likely to hold for many years to come. 

‘School choice’ advocates

Two years ago, proponents of “school choice” policies scored historic wins by convincing skeptical lawmakers to create a voucher-like scholarship program for private schools and to boost funding for charter schools. 

They returned this year facing long odds and a buzzsaw of opposition from all sides in their efforts to build on those wins. 

Public school advocates feared taxpayer resources being drained away to benefit private, often religious, institutions. And homeschool families voiced fears about overbearing state regulations.

In the end, in exchange for committing the state to hundreds of millions of dollars of additional spending on public schools, the legislature signed off on expanding the private school scholarship program statewide and allowing charter schools in Boone County for the first time.

Losers

Freedom Caucus

On one hand, the Freedom Caucus got exactly what it wanted this year. 

Despite holding only five of 34 seats in the Missouri Senate, the caucus dominated the legislative session, repeatedly holding up the chamber with procedural hijinks and largely dictating whether bills could find their way to the governor’s desk.

The caucus’ leader, GOP state Sen. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring, referred to the group as the goalie of a hockey team that forgoes the glory of scoring points in favor of stopping the other team. 

“…a lot of the bad things that didn’t happen this session didn’t happen because of the folks you see standing behind me,” Eigel said of his caucus’ work this year. 

Yet those tactics galvanized critics, sinking the group’s top legislative priority — an initiative petition making it harder to amend the constitution — and making life easier for backers of an abortion-rights amendment likely to end up on the November ballot

Much of the group’s other legislative priorities didn’t fare much better, with Republicans growing weary of the caucus and unwilling to grant them even small victories. 

Whether or not the 2024 session was a win or a loss for the Freedom Caucus will ultimately be determined by the outcome of the August GOP primaries. Three members are seeking statewide office. Another is being challenged for his seat by a pair of House Republicans. Open Senate seats are shaping up as a showdown over the idea of the Freedom Caucus itself. 

Dean Plocher

The embattled Republican from Des Peres spent most of this final year as speaker under investigation for a litany of alleged misconduct

Even when that inquiry was finally dropped, Plocher’s celebration was muted. None of his leadership team showed up to his celebratory press conference, and he continued to be hounded by allegations he obstructed the committee’s work and threatened potential witnesses and legislative staff. 

As the session wore on, Plocher stalled or killed bills carried by his critics and often refused to recognize them to speak during floor debate. He stormed out of press conferences when faced with questions he didn’t like, and endured criticism, and a fair amount of mockery, over a $60,000 remodel of his office that included converting another lawmaker’s office into a makeshift liquor pantry

And after raising $1.3 million last year between his candidate committee and PAC, his political fundraising dried up. He took in just $15,000 during the first quarter of 2024. 

Throughout it all, Plocher denied any wrongdoing. And he still has a larger campaign war chest than any of his eight GOP rivals for secretary of state. His exuberance was on display the night the ethics inquiry was dismissed, when he made the same joke over and over again. 

“If the glove doesn’t fit,” he proclaimed to anyone in his proximity, quoting O.J. Simpson’s former lawyer, “you must acquit.”

The process

The 2024 legislative session will be remembered for its futility, with fewer bills finding success than any other year in living memory. 

But that’s not the only remarkable thing about the session that ended Friday. 

An entire session came and went without a single conference committee, the sometimes pro-forma joint House and Senate panels assigned to work out the differences on particular bills. And on the session’s final day, the Senate refused to accept messages from the House, a breach of legislative decorum that contributed to the death of the initiative petition bill. 

But just because legislation didn’t pass doesn’t mean legislative staff could sit around on their hands.

Just to start the session, staff had to prepare hundreds of bills for pre-filing, and hundreds more after it started. In all, a record 3,494 proposals to change state laws or the Missouri Constitution were filed this year, along with unknown thousands of amendments that never came up for debate.

When the Senate was kept up all night by filibusters, staff had to be there, ready to draft amendments and substitute bills. Long hours preparing bills and amendments that weren’t used specifically hard on appropriations staff, especially in the House, where lawmakers had staff draft myriad changes to the budget that they were never allowed to offer. 

On top of the workload, the ethics investigation of the speaker revealed many staffers fearful for their futures

“In my over 21 years of state government service, I have never witnessed or even been involved in such a hostile work environment that is so horrible that I am living in fear every day of losing my job,” House Director of Administration Lori Hughes wrote in a March 5 email to the Ethics Committee Chair Hannah Kelly.

Mary Elizabeth Coleman

Senate leadership gave Coleman the job of shepherding two major priorities for the GOP and the anti-abortion movement through to passage this year — a bill banning Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood and another raising the threshold for passing constitutional amendments by initiative petition. 

It was a huge vote of confidence for a first-term senator.

The Planned Parenthood bill made its way to the governor’s desk with only minor turbulence along the way.

By March, with the initiative petition bill out of the Senate and in the hands of the House — and its success looking promising — Coleman jumped into the secretary of state’s race, saying there is “no more important job than protecting the integrity of our elections and our founding documents.”

But around the time Coleman decided to run for secretary of state, she managed to enrage her Democratic colleagues in the Senate by publicly asking the House to restore “ballot candy” to the initiative petition bill, a move seen as a betrayal of the deal cut to get the bill out of the Senate in the first place. 

When it finally returned to the Senate, she was accused of betrayal again — this time from the other side of the ideological spectrum, when the Freedom Caucus decried her decision to send the legislation back to the House for further negotiation.

Coleman noted that the bill was dead either way if Republicans couldn’t muster the votes to end the 50-hour Democratic filibuster. Sending it back to the House, she argued, at least left the door open.

But the House slammed that door shut the next day, and the loudest proponents of the bill heaped much of their scorn onto Coleman.

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