Missouri lawmakers return, outline priorities
JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers returned to the Capitol Wednesday to launch the 101st General Assembly and lay out their plans for the next two years on a wild day in American politics.
Republicans who dominate the government began the afternoon pledging the usual efforts to improve schools and infrastructure as well as new emphasis on things such as election security, foster care and shielding businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.
Leaders also gave nods to the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic, which has sickened more than 400,000 Missourians, and promised to work to help people and the economy recover. The face masks on Democrats and some Republicans offered another reminder.
'Superhuman demands and expectancy'
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, gave the first address and kept it brief, taking inspiration from an address Gov. Frederick Gardner gave 100 years ago following another pandemic.
He specifically quoted Gardner’s statement that in 1921, the task of public officials in previous years had been “trying” and even “heartrending because one felt so unequal to what appeared to be superhuman demands and expectancy."
"100 years later, we face the same monumental hurdles,” Schatz said. “Families are struggling, and Missourians, to put it bluntly, are exhausted.”
Nevertheless, he said, there are reasons to hope: After the pandemic a century ago, Missourians rebounded to reform schools, crack down on corruption and make large investments in infrastructure that provided many jobs.
Schatz concluded by saying lawmakers needed to step up again.
“Missourians are counting on us,” he said.
Schatz, for his part, is proposing another bid to raise the gasoline tax that pays for Missouri’s roads, despite voters’ rejection of a similar idea two years ago.
Emotional appeal in the House
Over in the House, newly anointed Speaker Rob Vescovo gave a longer speech outlining his agenda with an emphasis on overhauling education and the foster care system.
In an emotional appeal to his colleagues, Vescovo told them how he struggled in the education system as a boy, bouncing from school to school before dropping out at age 16.
He said the system answered his struggles not with a learning plan he could grasp but medicine for ADHD. That experience, he said, taught him that a public school system approach he described as “one size fits all” doesn’t work for everyone and has to be fixed.
He said one way to help will be authorizing public money to help people pay to send kids to private or parochial schools.
“That will give parents the option to send their kids to the schools that will best serve their needs,” he said.
He added he would also work to make sure schools have what they need to stay open through the pandemic so students avoid learning loss and social isolation.
Fifty-two school districts in charge of roughly a quarter of the state’s students were online-only as of Wednesday, according to a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education count.
He said he also wanted to make a “stronger commitment” to early childhood education.
“We know if we fail these kids early in life, they may end up on a path that will lead them to incarceration,” he said. “We must support policies that focus on empowerment rather than imprisonment.”
With that in mind, he said he also wants to better support foster parents and make it easier for people to adopt.
A foster child himself, Vescovo said, “I am thankful each and every day for the life my parents gave me, and I want every child in this state to have similar opportunities.
Both sides weigh in on election results
The inaugural day also saw Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft call for work to secure state elections by restoring photo ID requirements at the polls even though a large body of evidence shows they do little to address fraud.
He also called on lawmakers to make it harder to change the state constitution, a familiar cry from Republicans frustrated by progressives who have used initiative petitions to bypass the legislature and gain voter approval for Medicaid expansion and redistricting changes.
Democrats, for their part, focused most of their rhetoric on denouncing Republican efforts to overturn or delay certification of President Donald Trump’s defeat at the polls in November.
Many of them were furious when dozens of Missouri House Republicans, including Vescovo, backed a resolution demanding investigations into unsubstantiated claims of fraud in six swing states that went for Biden last month.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said Wednesday that such efforts “undermine the very foundation of every institution our government our nation is built upon.”
She singled out Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., the first senator to announce plans to formally object to Biden’s Electoral College Wednesday, as a uniquely distasteful case “shattering all democratic standards … democracy be damned.”
“At this time in our history, it is essential that we come together to at least agree that the results of an election must be respected,” she said.
Trump supporters storm the Capitol
Quade made those comments shortly before supporters of Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop Congress from formally accepting Democrat Joe Biden’s election as president.
She later denounced Trump supporters’ actions as a “violent coup” and called on Republicans to join her.
Senate Democrats, for their part, canceled a scheduled press conference, citing the “domestic terrorists storming the United States Capitol Building” as the reason.
“I am calling on all Republican office holders in Missouri to denounce this terrorism and the inflammatory rhetoric spewed from the President of the United States that has led to this moment,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, said in a statement.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, obliged.
“What we are seeing in the US Capitol is an act of domestic terrorism and definitionally un-American,” he tweeted. “These individuals should be arrested and thrown in prison for as long as the law will allow.”
He added, “I don’t care what the letter behind your name is or who you supported for president — this intentional push to divide people in the most extreme and vengeful way possible must end and it must end now.”
Vescovo and his top deputies later put out their own statement saying “the violence and destruction that occurred today in our nation’s capitol is unacceptable. Peaceful protests are an important part of free speech, but violence can never be tolerated.”
When reporters asked Gov. Mike Parson for his thoughts later, he said he had not been keeping up with the events because he had been working, but said anyone violating the law by being in the Capitol when they shouldn't should leave.
However, he said he did not blame Trump or his allies in Congress for the chaos.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com.