Missouri Democratic leaders in the legislature believe they’re taking a realistic approach to the new legislative session in Jefferson City.
Republicans hold a supermajority in both the House and Senate and have control of the governor’s seat, which means the minority party has little power to determine which laws are passed.
Incoming House Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield is starting her second two-year term in Jefferson City. But the sophomore Representative has honed in on priorities her party can pursue.
Quade says Democrats in the House will focus on defending progressive ballot measures passed by voters, noting the new laws are already under threat.
“There’s already been lots of talk about Clean Missouri and undoing provisions of that,” says Quade. “I don’t know if folks are going to go after the minimum wage increase. And of course, we’ve seen right to work (where) there are already bills filed.”
Republican Governor Mike Parson has said he would support a repeal of the “Clean Missouri” ballot initiative, officially known as Amendment 1. The measure modified Missouri’s Constitution to ban lobbyist gifts to state lawmakers, open legislative records to the public and change the process for redrawing legislative districts.
The law could see more legal challenges for being too broadly written to encompass more than one subject and alter too many sections of the Constitution. Such claims stood up before November’s election in Cole County Circuit Court but were overturned by a higher bench on appeal, preserving its place on the ballot.
Some Republicans led by former U.S. Senator John Danforth supported Clean Missouri, but the party largely solidified against it because of the redistricting changes that members think would tilt the process in favor of Democrats. It was also opposed by black, mostly Democratic lawmakers, who believe the redistricting arrangement would rob them of the concentration of minority voters in their districts.
Senate Democratic Minority Floor Leader Gina Walsh of Bellefontaine Neighbors supports Clean Missouri but acknowledges some members of her party are uneasy about it.
“The redistricting part, there’s a lot of concern in the black caucus about how it would be redistricted,” says Walsh.
The ballot measure to make Missouri a right to work state lost by a landslide 67%-to-32% margin in November’s election. Although Governor Parson’s office studied the idea of having a county by county ballot referendum on the measure, a Parson staffer told KSDK-TV the effort was “a research project” last month and said the governor was now focused on other statewide issues.
Still, incoming Republican State Senator Eric Burlison of Springfield filed a right to work bill for this year’s legislature.
Walsh, who’s long been heavily involved in organized labor at the state level, is baffled how voters responded to the right to work issue.
“I just don’t understand how you fail to pass right to work and beat it overwhelmingly by 67 percent, and then send the folks back that want to go back at it again,” Walsh says.
Right to work laws prohibit the practice of requiring workers to join unions as a condition of employment.
Missouri’s new minimum wage hike passed by voters in November went into effect on January 1st. Workers receiving minimum pay now make $8.60 per hour, up from $7.85 in 2018. The wage will increase 85 cents a year to reach $12.00 in 2023. The public approval of the pay boost came after the Republican-led legislature had blocked minimum wage hikes in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City in 2017.
Representative Quade says another priority of House Democrats this year will be efforts to change the criminal justice system. She noted that there’s bipartisan support to deal with issues such as mass incarceration.
“Some of our caucus members have been working with folks on the other side, filing bills together and working on some things,” says Quade. “We do expect to see more of that.”
Quade also says the Black Caucus would be active in tackling change to the criminal justice system. Missouri has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center. The rate has increased by 4% since 2010, while the national incarceration rate has declined by 8%. The state’s female prison population is the fastest growing in the nation. Nationally, President Trump signed a sweeping criminal justice bill passed by Congress last month meant to reduce prison populations.
Moving forward in the state’s upper chamber, Minority Leader Walsh is happy to have converted a seat to the Democratic side in November’s election.
“We have three new members, Lauren Arthur (Kansas City), Senator-elect Karla May (St. Louis) and Senator-elect Brian Williams, (St. Louis)” says Walsh. “They’re all new, and we’re no longer at nine, we’re at 10 again.”
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