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Last-minute push for election changes underway in Missouri Senate

Last-minute push for election changes underway in Missouri Senate

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Missouri House passes controversial new abortion bill

Missouri state Sen. Bill Eigel, (left), R-Weldon Spring, and Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, listen to the speaker on the Senate floor on Friday, May 17, 2019, on the final day of the legislative session in Jefferson City. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — An end-of-session debate over election laws continued late Wednesday in the Missouri Senate.

The Senate was weighing a proposal to prevent judges from editing ballot language the Legislature writes; require the use of hand-marked paper ballots, with limited exceptions; and create a new primary election process for the U.S. House, Senate and Missouri statewide offices. 

The primaries would move to June, with a run-off election in August if no candidate initially receives more than 50% of the vote. The changes expire after the 2024 election. 

The proposal, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, would also prohibit contributions to election authorities and add stricter rules for naming ballot measures. 

Close to 11 p.m., the Senate was debating an amendment from Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, that included additional election changes such as no-excuse absentee voting and photo ID requirements. Hegeman later withdrew his amendment.

The Senate eventually adopted Eigel's election package, and it awaits final action in the upper chamber before the House can send the package to Gov. Mike Parson.

The debate began shortly after Democrats lost a separate debate about GOP-backed contraception restrictions that Democrats said could jeopardize the state's Medicaid program.

The Senate voted 22-10 to ask for a conference committee on a bill authorizing a hospital tax that pays a significant portion of the state's health care costs, the Federal Reimbursement Allowance.

That move will allow senators to negotiate with the House with the goal of adding prohibitions on Medicaid covering certain types of contraception. The effort was originally pushed by Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial.

Wieland caused a stir in April when he added the amendment to the FRA.

Some lawmakers worried the state could lose billions of dollars of federal funding because the federal government requires the state’s Medicaid program to provide contraception. Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, had said last month the FRA would likely pass without the amendment.

Wieland said his amendment would not jeopardize federal funding because states are allowed to choose which forms of contraception they provide through Medicaid. His proposal would still allow some contraception coverage, ruling out only four types that can end the life of a fetus, he said.

“I think it’s a good public policy for the state to say that we as the state of Missouri are not going to fund drugs or devices that destroy human life,” he said.

But others argued the consequences of the amendment were unknown and that the risk was too great.

“This amendment could put us out of compliance and jeopardize billions of dollars that our state budget relies on,” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.

Democrats have just 10 of the 34 seats in the Senate, but have seen a number of their priorities advance to the governor’s desk, including the hike in the state’s gas tax and a prescription drug monitoring program.

Their success hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans unhappy with the direction of the session under Senate President Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan.

“It’s been a great year for you and the Senate Democratic caucus. You’ve had one heck of a year,” Sen. Denny Hoskins told Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.

Senate Republicans huddled behind closed doors earlier Wednesday following Tuesday action that included passage of the phased-in, 12.5-cent increase to the state's gasoline tax, and the passage of the prescription drug monitoring program — two items long opposed by many conservative legislators.

Conservatives have been pressuring Senate leadership to take up GOP-backed proposals that have been stalled in the upper chamber.

In addition to GOP-backed plans on contraception and voting, many Republicans are pushing for action on the "Second Amendment Preservation Act," which would declare invalid federal gun laws deemed to infringe on gun rights.

"Republican #moleg cannot pass #SecondAmendmentProtectionAct, #ElectionIntegrity or a prolife amendment to a Medicaid bill," Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, wrote on Twitter. "But it can raise taxes!"

“People are terrified about what’s happening nationally,” said Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, who is sponsoring the legislation response to potential gun measures being pursued by Democratic President Joe Biden.

The election legislation is House Bill 850.

Updated at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday.

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