Elijah Haahr and Rob Vescovo

House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, and Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, did not wear protective masks during a House floor debate while the COVID-19 pandemic spread in Missouri.

“I have never seen anything like it.”

That is state Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) talking about the legislative session that just ended in Jefferson City. That is really saying something, given that she has served in the state Legislature since 2007. She is now, finally, finished in the capitol, term-limited as a state senator after serving as a state representative from 20017-2013.

It’s not only that she finished this session wearing a protective mask during a pandemic, though there is that. Working alongside out-state Republicans has challenged the mental health of black state legislators since state Rep. Walthall M. Moore Sr. became the first black elected to the Missouri Legislature in 1921. It might be useful perspective to consider that there was legal slavery in Missouri for 145 years, from 1720-1865, though blacks have been voting – in the super-minority – to enact state laws for less than 100 years.

This legislative session, however, the health risks were not only to one’s mental health.

“Most of the Republicans did not believe if you had on a mask it would protect you or protect others,” Nasheed said. “To be in a building with people who were not protecting themselves or others, I would not be surprised if individuals get sick with COVID-19 as a result of being in that building. They put a lot of lives in jeopardy.”

The Republican leadership rightly claimed that they needed to pass a state budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, and they did accomplish that – though with so many uncertainties about state revenue, given the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic, that no one believes this budget will be final. But they did a lot of other dangerous work besides – and almost none of the work expected of public servants in the midst of a pandemic.

“During a pandemic, we should have been making sure our healthcare workers have protective equipment, that Missourians who are unemployed are receiving benefits, that we are providing resources to help our citizens,” said state Rep. Steven Roberts (D-St. Louis), one of several Democrats vying for the seat Nasheed is vacating. “Instead, they just kept ramming through Republican priorities that hurt the everyday people we are all elected to serve.”

Roberts mentioned Senate Bill 591, which hurts all Missourians at the expense of the corporate interests served by the Republican Party. “It raises the burden of proof for seeking punitive damages for bad merchandising practices,” Roberts said. “To do that in the midst of a pandemic – to raise the bar so high it could be more cost-effective, say, to keep making a faulty part because you know you’re less likely to pay damages – when the point is to deter a bad actor from doing something horrible.”

In other equal-opportunity damage to public wellbeing, the Republican leadership failed yet again to pass a statewide prescription drug monitoring program, leaving Missouri the only state in the nation without this common-sense safeguard against drug abuse. “The Senate’s Conservative Caucus thinks it infringes on people’s liberty,” Nasheed said.

Yet they did pass House Bill 1896, which makes anyone caught with even a trace amount of fentanyl – a synthetic opioid pain reliever, precisely the sort of drug whose legal sales the state should be monitoring – liable for prosecution as a drug trafficker.

“Your average drug user is not a chemist and does not know what they are buying, but now we have this enhancement for a trace amount of fentanyl where we will treat like a trafficker someone who could be an addict and have a problem,” Roberts said. “So, we’ll have these harsh sentences, but we’re still the only state in the nation that can’t identify when someone is pill shopping or a doctor is over-prescribing any of these drugs.”

As bad as all Missourians have it, thanks to this legislative session, Nasheed and Roberts both see the black community suffering disparate impact from the rushed enactment of Republican priorities. Both focused on Senate Bill 600, one of several mammoth omnibus bills put before legislators with scarcely any time to even read their many provisions.

“The legislative impact on the quality of life for African Americans for Senate Bill 600 is to turn back all of the criminal justice reforms we have achieved,” Nasheed said. “We fought as Democrats, but the Republicans are in the supermajority and kept doing PQ” – that is, calling for the previous question, a parliamentarian ploy to cut off debate on a bill.

Roberts said that SB 600 adds new criminal enhancements “with the effect that people in our community will stay in prison longer than they should.”

One provision takes judicial discretion away from judges to order that time for multiple convictions be served concurrently versus consecutively on certain dangerous felonies; when serving sentences concurrently, your maximum time is the longest sentence imposed, rather than all of the time sentenced added together. Another provision adds a new offense of vehicle hijacking, “which is unnecessary,” Roberts said, “because prosecutors already have the tools to charge these crimes.” Another provision makes use of a toy gun or replica in the commission of a crime just as incriminating as the use of a gun. Another adds a street gang sentencing enhancement that, Roberts said, “could be used against a group of kids hanging out together when one of them does something you shouldn’t do.”

It’s the tough-but-stupid on crime strategy that has failed for half of a century.

“We need diversion programs and programs that deal with the underlying issues,” Roberts said. “Instead, we get these bad bills carried by reps who don’t live in the city yet want to legislate what we do.”

Senate Bill 600 was sponsored by state Senator David Sater who represents District 29 at the far southwestern corner of the state. He is a native of Barry County, which is 94% white and less than 1% black, according to the U.S. Census.

One thing Sater and his Republican colleagues who represent almost zero black people were prevented from doing was making an unprecedented legislative power grab at the expense of St. Louis’ first elected black chief prosecutor, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner. Senate Bill 889 would have given the state attorney general power to prosecute cases in certain jurisdictions that boil down to the City of St. Louis if the elected prosecutor declines to prosecute.

“We got that Kim Gardner language out,” Nasheed said. “The powers that be are looking to go after her, but we got it out. [State Senator] Karla May and I protected her.”

How do Republicans continue to get away with this legislative malpractice? Enough people believe that gerrymandering of legislative districts plays a key role that they got passed a constitutional amendment, known as Clean Missouri, that puts in place a more non-partisan process for redistricting the state following a Census. It passed on the November 2018 ballot with 62% statewide voter support. That did not stop the Republican super-majority in the Legislature from passing a resolution that will send the measure back to the voters. State Sen. Dan Hegeman’s resolution eliminates the non-partisan demographer and has bipartisan commissions or appellate judges drawing House and Senate maps. 

Hegeman represents the 12th Senate District in the state’s northwestern corner. He is a farmer from Andrew County. According to the U.S. Census, Andrew County is 96.4% white and 1.1% black. Like the state’s criminal justice policy, the strategy for dividing the state into legislative districts is being led by a white man who represents and was elected by almost zero black people.

“This is an effort to undo what voters overwhelmingly support,” Roberts said.

However, at least one Republican thinks this new measure – which the Democrats call “Dirty Missouri” – will fail by as wide of a margin as Clean Missouri passed. The Columbia Tribune reported that state Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, said he thought the plan would “go down in flames if it makes it to the ballot.” The Clean Missouri campaign is organizing to defeat it, and a group of citizens aligned with the campaign has filed a lawsuit claiming its ballot language is deceptive. If it makes it to the ballot, Gov. Mike Parson will decide when to schedule the vote. 

By the way, Parson is a former cow rancher and sheriff of Polk County. According to the U.S. Census, Polk County is 95.7% white and 1% black.

“I’m glad this session is over,” Nasheed said. “I don’t even know how these people think of all these other things, with what is happening in our state right now. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

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