Things are (unfortunately) back to normal in Jefferson City after losing a week of session due to another COVID outbreak. The Republican supermajority moved quickly on a few of their top legislative priorities including liability protection for their corporate donors, public education "choice" and others. Here are some highlights:
Voter ID Requirements
On a near party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Feb. 24 voted 109-46 in favor of legislation to suppress voter participation by requiring government-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot. The bill now advances to the Senate. During Republican lawmakers’ 15-year quest to impose a photo voter ID requirement, they have twice successfully enacted one into law, but the Missouri Supreme Court struck down both for violating Missourians’ constitutional right to vote. Although the current attempt, House Bill 334, avoids some of the specific problems that contributed to the court invalidating the previous two laws, it still has to overcome a high constitutional hurdle that could be hard to clear.
In the earlier cases, the Supreme Court held that since voting is a fundamental constitutional right, any regulations must survive strict scrutiny, meaning they must address a compelling governmental interest, be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest and do so by the least restrictive means. Republicans’ professed reason for waiting to impose a photo voter ID requirement – to combat fraud – on its face seems to qualify as a compelling state interest.
However, the court also noted in its cases that voter impersonation at polls is the only type of fraud a photo ID requirement could prevent, and there has never been a documented case of it in Missouri. As a result, HB 334 doesn’t appear to meet the other elements of strict scrutiny that would justify the drastic action of disenfranchising the estimated 200,000-plus Missourians who don’t have a valid government-issued photo ID.
During the years-long debate over this issue, Democrats have maintained the GOP’s claim of fighting fraud is merely a pretext for voter suppression since those who are least likely to have a driver’s license or other form of photo ID – particularly racial minorities – tend to be solid Democratic voters. Only one Republican joined unanimous Democrats in opposing the bill.
Private School Voucher Bill
The House of Representatives on Feb. 25 voted 82-71-1 to pass controversial legislation that would establish tax breaks to provide vouchers for students to attend private K-12 schools. Meanwhile, the Senate on Feb. 24 shelved a charter school expansion bill amid questions about whether it has sufficient support for passage following a late-night debate.
House Bill 349 would allow people to donate to private organizations that would provide scholarships on a first-come, first-serve basis to qualifying students to partially pay for private school tuition. Donors would receive a tax credit for the full amount of their contribution, meaning the donor is out no money while the amount of tax revenue the state collects for public education and other services is reduced. The amount of available credits initially would be capped at $50 million annually but could eventually rise to $75 million.
Although the bill originally would have applied statewide, it was amended to only allow students in more populous cities and counties to apply for the scholarships in order to mollify rural lawmakers worried about the impact it would have on funding for their local public schools. Even with the change, HB 349 only garnered the bare minimum number of votes needed to clear the House. The bill now advances to the Senate.
That chamber’s major education measure, Senate Bill 55, also would authorize private school tuition vouchers plus expand charter schools to allow them operate in the state’s largest counties, as well as cities with populations of more than 30,000 residents, among other provisions. Charter schools, which are currently authorized only in St. Louis and Kansas City, are independent public schools that operate free of many state regulations. They have had mixed records in Missouri, with some outperforming their local school district and others doing worse. Senators debated SB 55 for nearly 12 hours before setting it aside. Further debate is expected.
The Missouri Senate voted 20-13 on Feb. 23 to grant final approval to legislation providing businesses, religious organizations and medical providers with immunity from most lawsuits relating to alleged wrongful exposure to COVID-19. The bill, a top priority for Republican Gov. Mike Parson, now advances to the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 51 would prohibit most lawsuits, even when a business or medical provider acted negligently and only allow them cases in which an exposure resulted from “recklessness or willful misconduct” and a plaintiff was injured as a result. Religious organizations would be completely immune from COVID-related lawsuits unless a plaintiff could prove a deliberate intent to harm.
Senators defeated an attempt to include an emergency clause on the bill that would have allowed it to take effect immediately upon being signed into law by the governor. As a result, SB 51 wouldn’t take effect until Aug. 28 should it win final passage. Missouri businesses groups have been pushing for legal immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits ever since the pandemic began a year ago despite the lack of any such lawsuits yet being filed.
Meanwhile, Kansas City and St. Louis area residents seeking the vaccine have had to drive hours away to mass vaccination sites that were overdelivered to rural areas. One example included 2000 doses sent to a town of 65 residents.
Representative Annette Turnbaugh Quickly Returns to Work
Jackson County's own freshman State Rep from Grandview has proven herself as a fighter. After suffering a heart attack in February, she is back to work in Jefferson City after only missing one week of session. Short article: https://www.kctv5.com/missouri-lawmaker-to-return-to-work-after-heart-attack/article_d2c0900b-0226-55dd-a8d7-e2ea1e45603a.html
How We Can Build Toward 2022 Now
Over the past few months, local and state Democrats have learned from the numbers and candidate actions what are strengths, weaknesses and opportunities are as we move toward the 2022 campaign cycle. The most important thing we can be doing in Jackson County is putting resources toward voter registration, specifically in Kansas City's core and Independence.
Voter registration will be the biggest focus for 2021 and lead into our county wide turnout and persuasion efforts across the area. With legislative redistricting and a US Senate race, we can't waste the momentum Democrats are showing nationally. With weather improving (welcome to March!) and life with in-person contact slowly getting back to normal, the clock is ticking.
Show your commitment toward progress in 2022 by giving to our registration drive campaign. Funds received here will stay entirely in Jackson County and be used to find new voters and update registrations of lapsed voters. Missouri can look like Georgia soon and this is the best path to get there!