News Analysis: Media and letter writers say Missouri legislature ignores ‘will of the people’

The Missouri legislature’s determination in its 2021 session to undo the “will of the people” on Medicaid Expansion, a measure passed statewide in 2020 by Missouri voters, is nothing new. Over the years, Missouri’s legislature has rejected or watered down the “will of the people” on their votes for gun restrictions, collective bargaining, renewable energy, clean elections, campaign contribution limits and more.

What’s different in 2021 is that the state legislature has not only sought to quash a voter initiative, but also this time to undo a Constitutional Amendment that makes health care available to tens of thousands of Missourians. In addition, legislators have proposed bills that would essentially destroy the ballot initiative process. 

Missouri voters have not been totally rolled just yet by the so-called “super-majority” in the GOP-dominated legislature. A court fight has ensued on the legislature’s refusal to abide by the people’s vote on Medicaid expansion. Also, during the last two weeks of the 2021 session, activists for preserving plebiscite democracy lobbied in the statehouse and demonstrated outside with promises of much more visible resistance ahead.

Photo by Charles Edward Miller via Flickr

Missouri news media also have well-covered the legislature’s actions, whether it involves the specific issue of Medicaid expansion or the overarching issue of whether plebiscites in the state will be effectively destroyed. The editorial voices of the Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have been strident and uncompromising, but so have other news outlets across the state.

Readers have added their voices with especially strong letters to the editor, some suggesting the legislators had violated their oath of office.

Statewide Media Reaction

Statewide media response to the legislature’s failure to act on Medicaid expansion – and its willingness to thwart the initiative process in reaction to the will of the people – has been swift and harsh. However, many letters “from the people” have been even more interesting and compelling than the finely-crafted editorials.

Letter writers have suggested that in refusing to uphold a constitutional amendment passed by the people, the lawmakers have violated their own oath of office to uphold the Missouri Constitution. There should be consequences. Fred Tilinski of St. Peters wrote in a letter published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 4 that an oath violation amendment needs to be passed by the people.

Those lawmakers violating their legal duty under the oath amendment should receive “no pension or health insurance,” according to Tilinski. Past salary should be refunded to the state and “they shall be banned from any employment as a lobbyist.”

After a number of editorials defending democracy and the will of the people, the Post-Dispatch chose to write an editorial using the pocketbook issue on May 21. The St. Louis daily cautioned that the business community cannot help but notice the recklessness of state legislators in repeatedly denying democratic norms – and the will of the people. Businesses may decide to move elsewhere.

The Post-Dispatch editorial noted the comments of Centene Chief Executive Michael Neidorff, who is clearly frustrated with the legislature’s inept response to the people’s vote on Medicaid expansion: “As the (chief executive of the) largest provider of Medicaid in the United States and a Fortune 42 company, I have to ask myself: Why am I in this state? … This is a state that frowns on this business – what am I doing here?”

It might be expected that Missouri Republicans – whose mantra is that the business of their politics is a commitment to jobs, jobs, jobs and business – would stand up and take notice of major businesses poised to move out of the state because of their antics and undemocratic behavior.  Political scientist Ken Warren of Saint Louis University is not so sure the new breed of Missouri Republican can be expected to react in favor of jobs, business and rational thinking.

“Regarding Centene, I just am not sure the Republicans care, despite the business loss to Missouri,” Warren said. “Republicans probably feel that Centene is a liberal corporation that they would just as soon see leave Missouri anyway. Republicans today seem to not care about practical consequences.

“Republicans now seem to care only about promoting their own power or partisan advantage, although they may be miscalculating. Enough voters might care about their attacks on democracy and our democratic institutions,” added Warren. “Today’s Republicans are not the old, establishment Republicans of yesteryear who tended to act more rationally and more in a bipartisan manner. They are bold, arrogant, and insensitive to democracy.”

Right-wing think tanks weigh in

Lawmakers and right-wing think tanks have been presenting policy arguments against Medicaid expansion, as if the matter had not already been decided at the ballot box. The hired hands at the Rex Sinquefield-funded Show-Me Institute have weighed in as has the brain trust with Americans for Prosperity-Missouri and other lobbying groups. Jeremy Cady of Americans for Prosperity did the usual hit job on the measure as just some more Obamacare Affordable Care Act socialism that voters simply do not understand.

Cady declared that voters were hoodwinked by a “radical expansion” proposal that would displace billions of dollars needed to go to state priorities like education, public safety and transportation. He failed to point out that the legislature has never agonized too much about these supposed priorities that need funding. Cady also dragged out the usual cannards about fraud in government health care programs, arguments that were used a decade ago to block Missouri’s participation in the ACA for those without health insurance.

James Brasfield, an emeritus professor at Webster University with several published books on health care issues in America, said the arguments against the cost and viability of Medicaid expansion in states like Missouri ring hollow. He also said the legislature is derelict in protecting the health of state citizens and in upholding the will of the people.

“Not only do the feds pay for 90% of expansion costs, but to entice the remaining dozen holdout states to expand Medicaid, the feds will pay extra money for the entire Medicaid program for two years,” noted Brasfield. “Plus other late expansion states have found they save more than the cost to expand in other programs – such as drug treatment and mental health – than cost of expansion because clients now fully funded by the state will be paid for at 90%-plus by the feds.”

Brasfield said conservative rural legislators seem to think Medicaid is for urban residents and that it’s an urban Democrat program. However, he said it’s rural hospitals that are closing and rural residents who are suffering. He said rural politicians need to be more aware of the critical health needs in their rural counties.

“GOP legislative opposition to Medicaid expansion, despite the new constitutional amendment, is a demonstration of contempt for their own voters and constituents since a significant number of GOP voters supported Medicaid expansion,” said Brasfield. “Their own constituents will benefit. Rural hospitals and rural communities will benefit with jobs in those rural hospitals. They are often the best jobs in town. And in the next few years, enhanced federal funds will cover nearly all of the expansion costs if not more.

“For rural areas, failure to add Medicaid expansion may lead to closing of some rural hospitals as uncompensated care bills pile up,” added Brasfield. “There should be some type of backlash, but unfortunately many rural Missouri voters don’t seem to recognize their own interests on issues such as this.”

Longtime political science professor and political consultant Terry Jones of the University of Missouri-St. Louis agrees with Brasfield. When it comes to the politics of Medicaid expansion in Missouri, he said the intransigence of the state legislature will probably not exact any political costs for legislators.

“The overwhelming share of both Republican and Democratic state legislators are from safe districts,” said Jones, who remarked that partisan gerrymandering is responsible for much of that situation. “This all makes the party primaries the key elections in Missouri. For Republican legislators, well over two-thirds of GOP primary voters oppose Medicaid expansion. They are much more likely to reward – not punish – their legislators for opposing expansion.

Killing Missouri Plebiscites

Several bills were introduced in the Missouri legislature this session to effectively kill the “will of the people” voter initiatives in the state. Many GOP lawmakers have had enough of voters interfering with governance. And most Missouri lawmakers clearly view governance as all about passing bills to void federal gun restrictions, rather than passing bills to meet state health care needs.

Bills in the state designed to curtail, if not end, ballot initiatives would: shorten the time to gather signatures for these measures; require a two-thirds supermajority to pass ballot initiatives (instead of a simple majority); and, double the number of signatures required to get a proposal on the state ballot. Although the legislature did not have time to get to these bills this session, sponsors said there will be plenty of time to enact these restrictive measures in 2022. Nevertheless, GOP Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has called for a special session to take up the initiative bills as well as voter Photo ID bills.

“The use of the initiative process by progressive interests in Missouri, and other Republican-dominated states that have that option, has been a conscious strategy to get things done. This was all birthed in the mid-2010s,” said Jones. “It has been quite successful in Missouri with minimum wage, medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion …  

“It has taken a few years, but GOP forces in one-party states – those where the Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches – have now come to realize that it makes sense for them to use their powers to limit the use of ballot initiatives,” added Jones. “It is ultimately another form of voter suppression.”

The voter suppression of killing the initiative process has brought former legislators and advocacy groups to Jefferson City to oppose such bills. Among those groups are the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, Missouri League of Women Voters, Missouri NORML, Empower Missouri, Show Me Integrity and more. Bob Johnson, who served in both House and Senate between the 1970s and early 2000s, said the initiative process allows people to use their voices in the lawmaking process, especially now when so many laws passed are not pro-people.

“I served in the legislature under Governor John Ashcroft when he vetoed attempts to limit the ballot initiative process,” said Johnson, a Republican from the Kansas City area. “Big money special interests and lobbyists have taken over our political system, and now they want to severely limit the citizen initiative process because they know that it’s the only way for citizens to directly propose amendments that reduce their power and influence. This is a freedom issue – we must protect Missourians’ constitutional freedom to use the citizen initiative process.”

Warren, at Saint Louis University, said the legislature voiding the will of the people on Medicaid expansion is a vote against economic self-interest. He said he wonders how elected representatives in rural areas can sleep at night knowing that their vote not to fund Medicaid expansion will hurt most the people in their rural districts. He said killing the initiative process outright may be even more unconscionable.

“The voters of five other conservative states have voted for Medicaid expansion, but not one of those states has then refused to fund the program. Missouri is the only state that has refused to fund and implement Medicaid expansion, despite Missourians approving of Constitutional Amendment 2,” said Warren. “My opinion is that the courts should compel the Missouri legislature to fund the program and not reject the will of Missouri voters.

“This is the right and democratic thing to do. To reject the will of the people is to slap Missouri voters in the face, essentially saying that your vote does not count,” Warren stressed. “Missouri Republicans do not seem to care about democratic practices. Why should they? They have gotten away with this in the past and still manage to win reelection.”

Warren said the new Republican efforts to make it even harder for Missourians to approve ballot measures is inherently undemocratic as well. He said these moves show the utmost disrespect for Missouri voters. He said it will contribute to what electoral behavior scholars call “low political efficacy,” i.e., why vote because my vote does not matter.

In a column published in the Kansas City Star, St. Louis high school student and civic  activist Jonah Zack called the legislature’s acts undemocratic and called on Missourians to get involved.  Zack heads a group that helps voters find notaries. He wrote. “The fact is that many of the legislators and statewide officials who have been working to circumvent the will of the voters are doing things that their constituents don’t want them to. Their only protection is our ignorance. So, get to know these people.”

Don Corrigan is former editor-in-chief and co-publisher of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, South County Times and West End Word newspapers in St. Louis. He is a professor emeritus in the School of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis

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