The regular legislative session is over, and the people of Missouri are, for the time being, safe from additional acts of ideological extremism by the Republican-led General Assembly. Not that lawmakers didn’t manage some lasting damage while encamped in Jefferson City since January.
Most of the harm lawmakers have done this year was about what they refused to do: Medicaid won’t yet be expanded, which will continue to cost the health and even lives of vulnerable Missourians until a court inevitably orders the state to do what the voters have already mandated. Gun violence will continue ripping through St. Louis’ streets, with police officers’ hands tied by a gun-addled Legislature that denies the city even the most basic tools to confront it. The missing state leadership that made the pandemic worse here than it had to be is still missing, which will likely make recovery slower than it has to be.
The few bright spots in the legislative session that ended Friday include an accomplishment that should have happened many years ago — an increase in Missouri’s gas tax, currently among the lowest in America and unchanged for decades — to finally address the state’s distressed infrastructure. Better late than never. Ditto with last week’s passage, finally, of a statewide prescription drug database to battle opioid abuse, something every state but Missouri had managed long ago.
The long delays in approving the gas tax and drug database, and the continued failure to tackle other pressing issues that shadow Missouri, all stem from the same dysfunction: The Legislature’s Republican majority is so far right on taxes and social issues, and so radically anti-government in general, that just about any attempt at all toward responsible governance runs into a wall of crazy. That point was driven home Thursday with final passage of a measure declaring Missouri outside the reach of federal gun laws. The bill doesn’t ultimately matter because, even if Gov. Mike Parson signs it, the courts will undoubtedly find it unconstitutional. Yet it stands as a glaring reminder of just how unhinged the legislative majority is.
The greatest betrayal lawmakers inflicted upon their constituents this session is a variation on the one Republicans here have been inflicting for the past decade: their refusal to expand Medicaid as envisioned under the Affordable Care Act. By broadening the eligibility standards for that joint federal-state health care program for the poor, Missouri could bring lifesaving care to some 275,000 of the state’s citizens who are currently ineligible for that help but still too poor to afford their own insurance — with the federal government picking up most of the tab. But Missouri, like other red states, has long refused that lifeline, opting instead to let its own citizens suffer for the sake of undermining a Democratic policy initiative.
Missouri voters’ patience finally reached its limit last year. They passed a referendum ordering the state to expand Medicaid. But, incredibly, the Legislature this session refused to allocate the state’s portion of the funding for it, effectively turning down the far greater federal portion and thumbing a nose at the voters by unlawfully ignoring the referendum. Parson — a Republican who, like his party, has long opposed expanding Medicaid — nonetheless began setting up the expansion process in what appeared to be a principled bow to the voters and a challenge to legislative Republicans, earning him editorial kudos from us on Wednesday. Boy, were we wrong.
Parson’s principled stand lasted all of one day. On Thursday, Parson fell back in line with the petulant cruelty of his party and announced he was scuttling the Medicaid expansion plans because the funding wasn’t approved. Kudos revoked. The suffering people of Parson’s state will see him in court.
It’s not the first time Parson seems to have been briefly gripped by an impulse to do the right thing, only to be reminded by his party that he’s not allowed to. In 2019, he met several times with St. Louis leaders regarding gun violence and appeared open to giving the city some flexibility to impose reasonable restrictions here. City leaders have long asked the state to grant an exception to the obtuse state law that allows concealed weapons virtually anywhere in public with no permit required and no way for police to ascertain if the carriers are felons barred from possessing firearms. Yet this legislative session, as usual, the self-described law-and-order crowd in the General Assembly sided with the criminals and did exactly nothing to help law enforcers stop the bloodshed.
Then there’s the pandemic, which has killed close to 9,000 Missourians yet never seemed to get the kind of legislative attention lavished on petty culture-war battles like regulating transgender participation in sports. When the Legislature has addressed the pandemic, the action has generally been in unhelpful ways — like the passage last week of a measure allowing election officials to bigfoot the decisions of public health experts regarding emergency pandemic restrictions.
On voting issues, Republicans here, as around the country, have used former President Donald Trump’s false election-fraud claims to push measures making absentee voting more difficult and putting up other roadblocks designed to hamper voting. Missouri House Republicans, upset that their Senate counterparts didn’t complete those measures this session, are asking Parson to call a special session this summer to revisit the issue. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen. With this crowd, Missourians are safer when Jefferson City is empty.