EDITORIAL MUG: Phill Brooks

Missouri’s legislature enters its final days of the 2022 legislative session facing an unusually large pile of partisan and ideological divisive issues.

In an election year, it is not unusual that some legislators seek to highlight issues that will inspire their partys’ loyalists to vote.

This year’s partisan issues include requiring a photo ID to vote along with other voting restrictions, limiting the duration of unemployment compensation benefits and at the top of the list  is a Republican-sponsored $1 billion dollar tax credit thanks to federal economic recovery funds that Democrats argue could be used to improve state services.

What is striking about the dominating partisan issues this year is the large number of Republican conservative ideological proposals.

They include restricting abortion, restricting Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood, expanding rights to carry concealed weapons, giving the legislature power to block voter-approved Medicaid expansion, making it tougher for initiative petition constitutional amendments, imposing restrictions on public school courses and restricting gender reassignment for minors.

Then of course, there are the proposals to ban government and businesses from imposing COVID-19 vaccination requirements and allowing an employee to sue an employer for adverse effects from a required vaccination.

There’s even a measure to restrict medical licensing boards from taking disciplinary action against health-care providers who prescribe or administer the anti-malaria drug Donald Trump promoted as treatment for COVID-19.

Many of these issues are what political observers describe as “wedge issues” that are designed to drive a wedge among voters with issues, that for some, are more important than any other issue.

But many of these ideological issues do not represent traditional major GOP issues. As a result, some of these issues have split Republicans, effectively being an internal party wedge.

The most obvious are Republican proposals to restrict businesses from requiring vaccinations of their employees and to let an employee sue an employer for any adverse consequence from a required vaccination.

Some of the strongest opposition in committee hearings to some of these proposals came from representatives of business organizations that many Republicans count on for support.

Another obvious wedge issue for Republicans involves interference with an historically strong GOP principle of local control over public schools.

The public school issues include prohibiting “critical race theory” teaching, restricting discussion of public policy issues and blocking a male student who transitioned to a female from participating in a female-only public school athletic team.

The potential for the transgender issue to divide the GOP was demonstrated when the House debated the issue. It prompted an amendment by Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-St. Louis County, to ban public school discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

That amendment split House Republicans with 20 voting for the amendment and 76 against.

Another divisive issue for Republicans is the motor fuel tax increase passed in 2021.

Expanded funding for maintaining and expanding state highways traditionally has been a Republican issue, in part because of business support to facilitate delivery of their products and supplies.

The Senate’s top Republican leader, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, sponsored the tax increase and Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it into law.

But the 2021 tax measure deeply split Republicans. It won a razor thin majority of House GOP members and required Democrat votes to pass the Senate.

This year an amendment for repeal barely won approval from House Republicans (50-41), but the amendment failed because of Democratic opposition and a large number of members simply not voting on the repeal amendment.

But anything is possible in the legislature’s hectic closing days when legislators frantically try to add their stalled proposals onto completely unrelated bills.

The potential of internal party divisions over these type of wedge issues was not a surprise.

Some legislators seeking higher office are facing challenges in their party primaries just a few months after the session adjourns.

The closing days of a legislative session offers a platform for candidates to brand themselves for primary voters.

Blocking a legislative leadership priority or pushing an ideological wedge issue in the final days is a sure way to get news coverage and voter attention.

Just remember how Senate GOP conservative caucus members stalled action on congressional redistricting past the deadline for candidate filing.

It all portends a fascinating conclusion for Missouri’s 2022 regular legislative session.

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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