JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri moved a step closer to having its own, state-level witness protection program Tuesday, but there is no money earmarked for the crime-fighting effort.
The proposal, which won final approval in the House on a 109-43 vote, heads to the Senate where it earlier was endorsed as part of a larger crime package.
With its passage all but ensured, the next step will be to find a funding source and bring lawmakers back for another round of voting. That could come as early as mid-September when the Legislature is scheduled to return for its annual veto session, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jon Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit.
The delay brought catcalls from Democrats.
“If we really believed this is an emergency, wouldn’t we be funding it right now?” asked Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis.
“We’re in a rush to do nothing,” said Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis.
But Rep. Nick Schroer, a St. Charles County Republican, argued that the various provisions of the overall anti-crime package would help address violence.
“It’s going to lead to a decrease in crime,” Schroer said, adding, “I don’t think this is the end of the conversation.”
Action on the witness protection fund came 42 days after Republican Gov. Mike Parson called lawmakers back to the Capitol for an emergency special session to address an “unprecedented wave of violent crime.”
The session has not gone smoothly, prompting bipartisan complaints that the governor’s orders are motivated by election year politics.
The Senate earlier approved a package of crime-fighting tools, but the GOP-led House took its own route to address the issues, resulting in the session being extended into September.
The House also is ignoring a call by Parson to approve legislation allowing the state attorney general to intervene in homicide cases in St. Louis.
County prosecutors have balked at the idea, saying the proposal will erode local control. Lawmakers view the maneuver as a political attack on Democratic St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, who came under fire for charging Mark and Patricia McCloskey for waving guns during a Black Lives Matter protest outside their home in the Central West End.
In a statement, Parson urged lawmakers to move faster.
“Our administration is pleased to see House members making progress on the bills, but there is still more work to be done. With each passing day, violent crime continues to escalate across Missouri, making it even more imperative that we act quickly. We need to stay focused on what this is all about — fighting violent crime and making our communities safer,” he said.
About 50 protesters briefly interrupted proceedings in the House as they chanted, “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives are under attack.”
Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, D-Kansas City, said “doubling down” on violent crime with harsher penalties will not solve problems that plague poorer urban areas.
“You have to find an actual solution,” Bland Manlove said. “We’re not animals. We’re people who’ve been left out by the system.”
The House plan will create a pretrial witness protection services fund, to be administered by the state Department of Public Safety to local law enforcement agencies. The $1 million pool of cash will provide security to witnesses, potential witnesses and their immediate families in criminal proceedings.
On a 117-35 vote, the House also approved a repeal of the residency requirements for St. Louis police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel in an attempt to open the pool of potential recruits.
There are more than 140 unfilled police officer positions in the city. Democrats who represent the city, including Democratic Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, voted “no,” saying St. Louis residents will be voting on residency requirements in November.
Republicans rejected pleas that the legislative action was an affront to local control, saying that city officials have failed for years to rein in criminal behavior.
“They don’t have control of their city,” said Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake Saint Louis.
The House also approved legislation allowing people to give firearms to children without their parents’ permission.
Parson had sought to increase the penalty to crack down on criminals who use guns unlawfully and then give them to minors to avoid being caught with them by police.
But Republicans said current law would allow grandparents or other family members to be charged with a misdemeanor for taking children hunting without their parents’ permission.
The new version would end the misdemeanor crime of giving guns to minors without parents’ permission but would make it a felony to give firearms to children to avoid felony arrest or criminal investigation.
The full Senate isn’t likely to take up the legislation until next Tuesday, with final action expected on Sept. 2.