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In fight over birth control in Missouri, ‘women saved the day’

In fight over birth control in Missouri, ‘women saved the day’

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Gov. Parson delivers the State of the State address

Gov. Mike Parson waves to senators as he enters the Senate chambers of the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City as he prepares to deliver his State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. The speech was moved from the House chambers to the Senate chambers over Coronavirus concerns. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — An unscripted meeting by female members of the Missouri Senate is getting credit for helping to break a monthslong stalemate over a key tax for Medicaid funding.

With negotiations over the tax bogged down late Friday, the bipartisan group of 10 female lawmakers gathered around a table in Sen. Jeanie Riddle‘s office.

As the Democrats and Republicans talked, they began to find common ground on how to resolve an impasse over language in the legislation that would have limited birth control options for women, said Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, who was at the table.

“It was such a peaceful, calm conversation. We were respecting each other’s opinion. We were honest with each other,” May said. “That honesty is what was key in that room. That’s why we were able to arrive at a solution so quickly.”

The solution, which was adopted after hours of negotiations among male members of the chamber, eased concerns over a provision that could have otherwise hurt the ability of low-income women to receive certain kinds of birth control.

“The women saved the day,” May said.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson has threatened to cut $722 million from the state budget July 1 if lawmakers don’t renew the tax on hospitals and other medical providers, known as the Federal Reimbursement Allowance.

The tax has been in place since the early 1990s as a way to supplement the state’s Medicaid program, generating roughly $1.5 billion, which is then used to leverage another $2.7 billion in federal Medicaid funding.

Democrats say conservative Republicans “hijacked” a normally routine budget procedure and turned it into a litmus test for Republicans on the subject of abortion.

Senators were able to advance the measure on a 28-5 vote early Saturday after some Republicans joined with Democrats to vote down a proposal pushed by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, that sought to cut off any government money for Planned Parenthood.

The Senate version also includes a ban on Medicaid spending on any medications or devices “used for the purpose of inducing an abortion” after the group of female senators agreed that the language should not name specific drugs and devices, which are sometimes used for other medical purposes.

May said she’s not sure the group will continue meeting on issues in the future, but said the agreement was refreshing at a time when partisanship is dominant.

“It was a real discussion about avoiding unintended consequences,” May said. “The room was totally talking about women and young girls having access to birth control. We were respectful that we were on different sides of the issue.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, was tight-lipped Monday about the prospects of getting the Senate version of the bill to the governor’s desk. Although the House approved the tax without any birth control or abortion-related language three times during the Legislature’s regular session, the speaker said the circumstances of the ongoing special session are now different.

“The goal posts have moved and we’re trying to figure out where those posts are,” Vescovo told the Post-Dispatch.

He offered no insight into the Senate legislation.

“I’m reviewing it now,” Vescovo said.

Some members of the House have signaled that they want to include the birth control and Planned Parenthood language despite concerns that the additional wording could trigger a rejection from the federal government, thus imperiling the money raised by the tax.

“We must keep our promise to Defund Planned Parenthood,” Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, wrote on Twitter Friday. Coleman is planning a run for a state Senate seat currently held by the term-limited Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial.

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