Missouri Has A Productive Legislative Session, With More to Come
As the clock ticked down in the last week of Missouri’s regular legislative session, there was growing concern about what would actually get done this year. From education reform to tax reform and everything in between, the expectation among veteran observers was that rather than a lot of bills passing alone on their merits, bills instead would be amended into a handful of mega bills—Christmas trees adorned with dozens of legislative ornaments.
Late session negotiation and consolidation is a hallmark of Missouri’s legislative culture, but in 2021, policymakers adopted this logrolling approach to a historic extent. The legislature regularly passes more than 100 bills each regular session, but according to Legiscan, it passed a total of only 24 bills this year—less than half of the 49 passed in last year’s pandemic-shortened session, and less than a third of the previous decade low of 89 in 2017.
To be sure, the number of bills “truly agreed to and finally passed” can conceal the full extent of the policy changes made in a given legislative year. But given the frequency of filibusters in the Missouri Senate, passing so few bills and waiting until so late in the session to do so is an enormous gamble. But this year, the gamble paid off.
Policymakers delivered a surprising number of strong victories for Missouri this year. We’ve talked about some of those already, including wins for education savings accounts, local checkbook transparency, occupational licensing reform, and deregulation. The session saw strong pushback against implementing Medicaid expansion in Missouri, and while the battle is likely headed to court, the bad policy and the legislative history of that initiative remain unchanged. Medicaid expansion was never going to be free, and supporters should have been straight with voters about that from the beginning. We’ll see what the courts do in the year ahead.
But I haven’t talked, at least on the blog, about several other successes from the session that I’ve supported in the past but maybe haven’t discussed recently. For one, the legislature finally passed an internet sales tax—and by “finally” I mostly mean that policymakers have been saying they’d do it for a long time. Fortunately, they also passed it in a revenue-neutral way, which I have long supported. As I wrote in 2018:
Researchers at the Show-Me Institute have long-supported low tax rates with a broad base, and sales taxes are less destructive to growth than income taxes. But as the sales tax base broadens, another tax should contract to ensure the government isn’t growing and treating taxpayers like a piggybank. In fact, the tax reform bill passed earlier this year originally included a provision that would have created an Internet sales tax in the state, but also simultaneously reduced state income taxes. That revenue-neutral approach is not just good governance—it is good policy that shifts the state’s reliance away from growth-destroying income taxes. [Emphasis mine]
Indeed, the sales-tax-increase-for-income-tax-decrease was the approach the legislature ultimately took. It also wasn’t the only tax-related change this year. The legislature also tightened the definition of blight and limited where tax-increment financing could be meted out. It passed a higher gas tax, which is an appropriate way to fund infrastructure investments— the gas tax in Missouri has been frozen since the 1990s and hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Time will tell whether there is a process foul under the Hancock Amendment in the way this tax was enacted.
And there was more. The legislature added some guard rails to the ability of local governments to impose draconian lockdown orders, which I came out against early in the pandemic. The legislature passed the Second Amendment Protection Act, which reaffirms that the federal government cannot commandeer state officials to do the federal government’s will—perhaps an academic point on the surface, but a substantive reform at its core. And while it didn’t pass, the legislature discussed barring Critical Race Theory in the classroom, a subject I haven’t talked about much here but is emerging as an important issue of not only curriculum but government transparency.
Those are just some of the highlights from the session, and there are many more items that we can, and will, talk about in the months ahead. There were items left undone, including comprehensive tax credit reform, deeper TIF reform, and making more of the COVID regulatory relief orders permanent, though there’s still time to do that. And of course, there will likely be three special sessions coming—one on elections, one on Medicaid provider taxes, and one on redistricting after the census releases its final decennial numbers. Mark your calendars for those.
More remains to be done, and hopefully more will be done. But to be fair, this was a pretty good start.