The Missouri General Assembly’s 2020 legislative session began with procedure and ceremony: lawmakers reading the Bill of Rights, new legislators being sworn in and hundreds of bills being formally introduced.
But even though Wednesday’s opening was fairly mundane, legislators from both parties are expecting fierce debates in the coming weeks over state legislative redistricting and gun violence — issues that could play a big role in the impending 2020 elections.
The Missouri House and Senate gaveled into session shortly after noon Wednesday. The most significant official action was in the House, where six new lawmakers took their oaths of office. They included three Democrats from the St. Louis area: Trish Gunby, D-St. Louis County; Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, and Michael Person, D-Ferguson.
While legislators often deal with issues that were off the radar before the session began, both Republicans and Democrats are bracing for an effort to substantially change a state legislative redistricting system that voters approved in 2018.
Under the new system, a demographer has much of the power to draw House and Senate districts. Several Republicans have put forth proposals that if approved by voters would transfer most of the power to a bipartisan commission — or, if that commission deadlocks, appellate judges.
“When you have an election, Democrats have an opportunity to make their case why they should be elected. Republicans have the same. People vote,” said Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “I cannot imagine why we should change our entire redistricting process in order to engineer a different result.”
Although some African American Democratic legislators have expressed concerns about the new system, most Democrats contend that the GOP-controlled Legislature should respect the decision voters made in 2018.
“We understand that under the Missouri Constitution, all political power is vested in and derived from the people,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “And we will respect, not undermine, reforms imposed by voters at the ballot box.”
Lawmakers are also likely to debate legislation aimed at cracking down on violent crime. House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, pointed to enhancing the protection of witnesses as a proposal that could find bipartisan support.
“We stand at the ready to try to do what we can as a state to help the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City as they deal with this,” Haahr said. “Obviously we’ve been in discussions with a lot of the community leaders there. There are a variety of different proposals that have been discussed and some that have been filed. We’re just now starting the process of sorting through the bills so we can make our first round of referrals.”
Gov. Mike Parson expressed support for a state law prohibiting minors from purchasing handguns and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and violent offenders. But House leaders, such as House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, have pushed back against calls for stricter restrictions on firearms.
Quade said she understood that passing wholesale gun control in Missouri would be challenging, adding that “we understand the political climate here.”
“We need to be having conversations about funding after-school programing, looking at the root causes of poverty and addiction and the things that we know lead to the violence,” Quade said. “And we need to have a serious conversation about what those changes look like instead of just continuing to say, ‘Oh, more kids are dying. We’re not going to do anything about it.’”
Because 2020 is an election year, some lawmakers have lowered expectations that big, sweeping policy changes can happen over the next few months. But there are examples of the Legislature being quite productive before an election, as was the case in 2018.
“I think it’s less about the election and more just because those groups of legislators have been together for a year. We’ve already seen what they will and won’t do,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. “It’s just less likely for something that dies year one after an election to somehow make it across the finish line in year two.”
It’s also possible that lawmakers may make headway on expanding and further regulating gambling — including sports betting. They may also take a closer look at how real estate assessments are conducted.
“I prefer the loudest roar we can have,” Haahr said.
Republicans will head into the upcoming elections holding sizable majorities in each chamber. But Quade did note positive momentum for her party, pointing out that Gunby captured a historically Republican House seat late last year.
“Election years tend to be a lot less about policy and more about presentation and elections,” Quade said. “I’m hopeful that we can work with the other side to have some real, solid policy discussions — because there’s a lot of things that need to be done.”
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