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May 15, 2023Jefferson City, Mo. |  By: AP

Missouri lawmakers fail to raise bar to amend constitution, easing path for abortion rights


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Chaos in Missouri’s Republican-led Senate on the final day of session Friday meant the failure of a longtime GOP priority to make it harder to amend the state’s constitution, which lawmakers predicted could ease the path to restoring abortion rights in the state.

Republicans have been trying to raise the bar to amend the Missouri Constitution for years, arguing that the current simple majority is too easy. Senators failed to approve a proposal Friday that would have raised that threshold to 57% if approved by voters.

Republican House Speaker Dean Plocher predicted Friday that if the threshold is not raised, an initiative petition to allow abortions will be approved by voters under the current standards.

“The Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return,” Plocher said.

Missouri outlawed most abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022.

Abortion-rights supporters are trying to put the issue to a public vote in 2024, although the petition is caught up in a legal challenge with the state’s attorney general.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden told reporters Friday that raising the threshold to amend the constitution will be a priority during the next legislative session, which begins in January 2024.

Democratic House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said the current Republican majority wants to make it harder to amend the constitution “because they know the citizens don’t like what they’re doing here.” She said if the current requirements for constitutional amendments stay in place, that will “absolutely” help the effort to allow abortions again.

“It’s an opportunity for us to get our rights back if the initiative goes to the ballot,” Quade said.

Democrats and some Republican former lawmakers have criticized the push to make it harder to amend the constitution as an attempt to take power away from voters, who in recent years have flouted the Republican-led legislature by enacting policies through ballot measures.

Republicans, for example, for many years ignored public calls to legalize medical and recreational marijuana use. Voters eventually sidestepped lawmakers and enshrined marijuana in the constitution, which also makes it much more difficult for legislators to immediately undo voter-approved policies.

Former Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden said the initiative petition process is meant to be a “check on” the legislature. He said the effort to make it more difficult “directly infringes upon the Constitutional freedoms of Missouri citizens.”

“It is not a conservative policy,” Bearden said in a statement.

Republicans passed several attention-grabbing priorities before Friday, including budgeting a whopping $2.8 billion to expand Interstate 70 to three lanes across the state.

Lawmakers also voted to ban minors from receiving puberty blockers, hormones and gender-affirming surgeries. If signed by Parson, which is expected, the bill also would affect some adults. Medicaid won’t cover any gender-affirming care in the state, and surgery will no longer be available to prisoners and inmates.

Another bill passed by lawmakers would ban transgender student-athletes from joining girls and women’s teams from kindergarten through college, both at public and private schools. Schools that allow transgender girls and women to play on such teams would lose state funding.

Both proposals would take effect Aug. 28 and expire in 2027.

Senators passed no legislation Friday as Republican Sen. Bill Eigel held up work in what he said was a last-ditch effort to pass legislation cutting personal property taxes.

In a Senate floor speech, Eigel called his decision to block all legislation from passing unless his personal property tax bill is approved his “Darth Vader moment” in reference to the famous fictional Star Wars character’s decision to join the forces of evil.

“There are moments for all of us on God’s earth where we will face our own Darth Vader moment,” Eigel said. “We will face that moment where individually, we must decide who we are.”

Sen. Nick Schroer, a Republican ally of Eigel’s, later blasted Vader’s theme song loud enough to be heard down the halls.

Republican Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin called Eigel’s stall tactic “political theater” that’s part of his 2024 gubernatorial aspirations.

“We’re not all running for governor,” O’Laughlin said.

Bills passed by the GOP-led House on Friday include a ban on phone use while driving, with exceptions for hands-free calls and emergencies. The law is set to take effect in 2025. Until then, violators will only be given a warning.

Lawmakers also succeeded in extending Medicaid health care benefits for new mothers from the current two months to a full year after birth.

Missouri voters will get a chance to weigh in on whether child care facilities should be exempt from property taxes under another measure passed Friday.

The proposed constitutional amendment would authorize tax-exemption laws applying to any property used for child care outside of a person’s own home. It will appear on the November 2024 ballot, unless the governor sets an earlier special election.

There was little debate on the measure among lawmakers. But the proposal’s ballot summary says the intent is to make child care more available, which it says will support families, the workforce and society as a whole.