Missouri lawmakers began the legislative session full of hope they would hit the ground running on important issues.
A few weeks in, some are still holding their breath.
"We are still holding out hope that someday we'll be able to sit down to talk about stuff that moves this state forward and not drag queens," said John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat and the minority floor leader of the Senate. "It's a serious statement. Our door is open. We are ready and willing to talk about different policies and things like that, that could move the state forward."
"And we have plenty of great bills out there that will do that, so being in the minority, we have to have a willing partner to do that. We will wait and see if that happens next week and go from there," he said.
Rizzo leads the 10-member Democratic caucus of the state Senate. Republicans have the remaining 24 seats.
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said the upper chamber saw forward motion on a few priorities as it passed a couple bills out of committees last week. Floor debate should begin this week, he said.
There are a total of four bills before the full Senate. The bills include SB 3, establishing the Regulatory Sandbox Act; SB 4, creating the Parents' Bill of Rights Act of 2023 and limiting the teaching of topics relating to race, ethnicity, color and national origin; SB 25, authorizing a state tax cut for recipients of federal broadband grants; and SB 51, lifting restrictions on physical therapists. No bills are before the House yet.
"We're working really hard with folks on a lot of the key issues," Rowden told reporters Thursday. "Big things that are, I think, making good progress behind the scenes and stuff that we're trying to work out with Republicans and Democrats alike."
After a session largely stalled by Republican infighting last year, Rowden said the body was moving in a "relatively peaceful direction" this year.
Majority Floor Leader Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said conversations with senators have focused on issues they see as important and working through differences of opinion.
"We're all looking forward to getting started," she said.
Rizzo said Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, laid out clear priorities to move Missouri forward during his State of the State Address on Jan. 18 "and this week it seems like the Republican Legislature once again spent its time on a lot of culture wars from last year."
The House held a marathon hearing nearly 10 hours long to debate transgender sports and healthcare, and drag shows. Bills moving through the House would make it a crime for minors to attend drag shows, defining them as "sexually oriented businesses."
"I think we have more important stuff to talk about," Rowden said of those bills.
He did express interest in taking action on transgender issues, vowing to take action that would ban transgender athlete participation in school sports and gender-affirming medical care for minors.
Rizzo said it "absurd" Republicans would focus on those issues while the state is ranked seventh worst in maternal mortality rates, third worst for average teacher salary and has "crumbling infrastructure." He said he expects lengthy discussions on the bills aimed at transgender youths, calling it a "travesty of all kinds."
The leader of Senate Democrats said teacher shortages continue to be ignored and not much progress has been made on supporting child care, an issue Parson highlighted during his speech. And with more mass shootings around the country than days so far this year, he said, not a single bill related to gun violence has received a hearing in the state Senate.
"We'll try to continue to move forward and push back on some of the culture war issues so we can get back to real issues, real ideas that help real people," Rizzo said.
Parson gave the Legislature a mandate to pass a supplemental budget with an 8.7 percent pay raise for state employees by March 1. It's the second session in a row the Republican governor has proposed a pay increase for the largest employer in Jefferson City.
In addition to the 8.7 percent cost of living adjustment, Parson is suggesting an increase to the shift differential -- an extra bump in pay for those working outside of normal business hours -- for congregate care staff within select departments. Altogether, the increase would cost a total of $151.2 million, according to the governor's office, with $82.4 million from the state's general revenue fund and the remainder coming from federal and other funding sources, according to the budget bill in the House.
Last year's effort saw back-and-forth between the two chambers. While Parson requested a set $15 minimum wage for all employees, the House passed a pared-back version setting the floor for front-line workers at $15 an hour and all other employees at $12. The Senate restored the original request, omitting language specific to a minimum wage for the state workforce, and it was signed into law passed the governor's planned implementation date.
The governor wants lawmakers to pass the supplemental budget and pay raise by March 1 so it can be in the hands of state workers by March 31. The bill last saw action with a public hearing Jan. 23.
Rowden said he hasn't heard any opposition to moving the supplemental budget through the Legislature over the next month and expects that to happen. He said he also hasn't heard any opposition to the proposed 8.7 percent increase, but cautioned that doesn't mean there isn't any. He said that conversation will become more clear once the bill gets to the Senate.
"Not making promises to what it looks like, but I think we'll certainly take it up when it comes," he said.
The pay raise has been pushed as a way to help the state attract and retain workers. OpenPayrolls, the nation's largest nationwide public salary database, says the state's average pay for its workforce was 37.7 percent lower than the national average and 33 percent lower than the average of its fellow states.
"I think everybody knows and wants to do something, again, we just have to hone in on the details," Rowden said.
Modifying Missouri's initiative petition process, which allows voters to put a question on the ballot, is another priority for Republicans this session. The party has filed numerous bills and resolutions seeking to make the process more difficult, several of which received a House committee hearing last week.
Rowden said the Senate isn't necessarily waiting for the House bills but "sometimes it makes more sense not to have the fight twice" and the upper chamber would be willing to work on House proposals if they move faster.
Rizzo said he expects to have a "deep discussion about what it means to the people and what I would consider taking their voice away."
He said the first week of floor debate, and the bills that will go before the full body, set the tone for the rest of session, particularly for new senators. He said he's interested in seeing what Republicans bring to the floor first because it signals their priorities. Addressing Missouri's maternal mortality rate should be among the first items, Rizzo said, but it doesn't seem it will be. He did note, however, "a lot of people hold their cards close to the chest until we get on the floor so we'll see if the dysfunction is still there."
The House and Senate reconvene at 4 p.m. Monday.
SB 3: Establishes the Regulatory Sandbox Act
Sponsor: Sen. Denny Hoskins
SB 4: Parents’ Bill of Rights Act of 2023
Sponsor: Sen. Andrew Koenig
SB 25: Broadband tax cut
Sponsor: Sen. Lincoln Hough
SB 51: physical therapists
Sponsor: Sen. Karla Eslinger