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Dirty End to Legislative Session

Dirty End to Legislative Session
The 2015 regular legislative session for the Missouri General Assembly ends today at 6 p.m. Yet, with about 175 legislative items still up for a vote, neither the state House or state Senate met longer than an hour yesterday. Both houses found themselves in a state of self-inflicted dysfunction. It makes for a pathetic end to a fairly lousy session.

The House found itself upended on Wednesday as the Kansas City Star broke news that the Speaker of the House, Republican Representative John Diehl, had been sexting with a college freshman interning at the state Capitol. The married defender of "family values" (who the state Southern Baptist newspaper, The Pathwaypraised for "political courage" and "leadership" in fighting same-sex marriage) admitted to the sexting. He initially attempted to ride out the scandal, but after various closed-door meetings yesterday he announced he would resign as Speaker and as a member. 

So the House started its business this morning by electing a new Speaker to preside over the last day of the session. This limping toward the finish line sadly serves as a fitting metaphor for the legislation passed this week. 

A Kansas City Star editorial noted the scandal added to the legislature's "most disgraceful week." The editorial pointed to the Senate basically shutting down this week after Republican leaders used a rare procedural move to stop a filibuster by Democrats and some Republicans and therefore force a vote on anti-union "right to work" legislation (that's destined to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon). The editorial also pointed to the refusal of legislators to listen to "faith leaders, medical workers and ordinary people" urging expansion of Medicaid eligibility. 

"In a show of arrogance, House leaders ordered the doors to the chamber's side galleries locked for a time on Wednesday, apparently concerned that Medicaid supporters in the hallway would disrupt the legislative process," the editorial concluded. "Unfortunately, their own speaker had already managed to do that. Lawmakers are listening to the wrong people, and the Republican House leader has been texting with the wrong person." 

In addition to the problematic anti-union legislation and the refusal to act (for yet another year) on Medicaid expansion, the House also voted this week to drastically cut unemployment benefits. Missouri already ranks behind the national standard so legislators decided to act ... by making it worse. Rather than 20 weeks of assistance, Missourian may now only get 13 weeks (while the national standard is 26 weeks). Nixon earlier vetoed the bill, but the House overrode it on Tuesday. The Senate's virtual shutdown this week (as Democrats stall and filibuster everything to protest the parliamentary maneuver used to pass "right to work") means that body may not vote on overriding until a special session (likely in September). Hopefully they will fail in that effort.

All of this legislation adds up to what a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial condemned by writing, "Legislature carves up middle class, serves it on platter to the rich." Too many state legislators seem unconcerned about the working poor and others struggling to make it. The Old Testament prophets had a lot of things to say about rulers who make laws that hurt the poor and downtrodden - and none of it was very nice.

At the start of this legislative session in January, a new effort started to bring together faith leaders, union leaders, and state legislators (from both parties) for a monthly time of dialogue and reports (and good breakfast). I made it to three of the five gatherings. Called the "Faith Labor Alliance," it's an informal group coming together to talk about important issues. Along with a few dozen others, I heard reflections on faith and politics, as well as information about current legislative proposals and debates. 

Those I heard presentations from at the breakfast gatherings included: Democratic State Representative Bob Burns, Democratic State Senator Gina Walsh, Republican State Representative (and Southern Baptist pastor) John McCaherty, as well as economic faith reflections by those in Catholic, United Church of Christ, and Baptist congregations. I enjoyed hearing the various perspectives and learning about critical issues. Above all, I appreciated the fact that people from various backgrounds are coming together to get to know each other and to dialogue. Although the group will break for the summer, I look forward to future gatherings. 

Faith leaders must show up at the table and listen to union leaders, legislators, and others. And faith leaders must offer their voices on critical issues impacting the "least of these" in our communities.

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