By Phill Brooks
For the last several years, partisan and ideological issues have dominated Missouri's General Assembly. Republicans have used their super majority to push conservative and business issues strongly opposed by Democrats.
These issues have included blocking St. Louis and Kansas City's minimum wage ordinances, "right to work" that prohibits employers from requiring union fees or dues to hold a job, tax breaks for businesses and, of course, abortion restrictions.
On the other side, Democratic legislators have sponsored bills fiercely opposed by Republican legislators including gun-rights restrictions and expanding Medicaid health coverage.
When the next General Assembly convenes, Republicans will continue to hold greater than a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. In fact the general election maintained almost exactly the same party lineup for the legislature as the general election two years ago. Of the 197 seats, when the General Assembly convenes in January Democrats will hold just one seat more than two years earlier.
But there's a possibility for change.
The next legislative session will begin with new top GOP leaders in both the House and Senate. November's general election could be a game changer in other ways.
Missouri Democrats now have an obvious titular leader in State Auditor Nicole Galloway—who voters made the only statewide elected Democrat. In the same election that handed the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate a landslide victory, Galloway easily won her race.
Further, as State Auditor, she holds an office in which she can pick subjects for investigation that have the potential to dominate public attention. Former Democratic State Auditor George Lehr did that decades ago. In using office audits to dominate public attention, he was on the fast track for higher office.
But his meteoric rise in Missouri politics came to an end when he resigned from office because of his child's health problems.
Another factor from the November elections involves a suggestion that Republican voters may not be so unified on some divisive issues as their leaders. If Josh Hawley's results reflect a high GOP turnout, then thousands of those GOPers ended up voting for a minimum wage, legalized medical pot and came close to approving a tax increase for highways.
Will those results cause Republican legislators and their new leaders to moderate their agenda to avoid the bitter partisanship of past sessions? Will Gov. Mike Parson, who's been extremely low key since he became governor, use the final two years of his current term to push through an agenda that can win over Democrats? As a senator, he had a reputation for reaching across the aisle.
Will Galloway use her position to develop a comprehensive agenda for Democrats that does not trigger GOP opposition? Like Parson, there's an alternative approach she could take. In fact, so far, Galloway has focused her office on issues that do not involve deep partisan divide -- such as public school digital security.
These two officials raise the possibility of putting aside partisan objectives to help develop a bipartisan approach to the biggest problems facing the state. Those issues include addressing the growing problems with Missouri's under-funded highways and dealing with the growing influence in government of "dark money" from secret funding sources.
Both parties can look back to when one of the Republican Party's most successful governors in recent decades found a way to rise above partisan divide. Kit Bond's legislative achievements with a Democratic General Assembly included opening up government to public access, toughening disclosure of special interest money in government and a broad consumer protection package. Since Bond's era of the 1970s, Missouri has not seen such an expansive consumer-protection program pass the legislature.
But I must confess that some of my colleagues have questioned my previous predictions about the possibility of a productive and harmonious legislative session in an era of increasing partisan and ideological divide in Missouri government. In the last few years, they've been proven correct.
And, I suspect the looming presidential and gubernatorial elections less than two years away will impose tremendous pressure on the legislature to put politics ahead of policy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.
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