Document: Missouri House Bills 2, 11, 16, 46, and 66View
What started Wednesday in the Missouri Senate as straightforward votes on crime bills passed last week by the House of Representatives became a many hours-long and at times heated discussion that included gun laws and 2020 politics.
Gov. Mike Parson originally called a special legislative session in July to address several topics on an anti-violent crime agenda:
- Eliminate and prohibit the requirement for St. Louis law enforcement officers to have to live in the city.
- Require courts to determine if a juvenile should be tried as an adult for certain weapons charges.
- Allow certain otherwise inadmissible statements by witnesses to be admissible in court under certain circumstances.
- Create a Pre-trial Witness Protection Fund.
- Criminalize knowingly encouraging, aiding or causing a child younger than 17 years old to engage in a weapons offense.
- Increase the penalty for a person who knowingly sells or delivers a firearm to a child.
Specific details of the related legislation have evolved over the course of the special session — which is now in its third calendar month, though lawmakers have not met every day since July 27.
The juvenile certification bill never got debate on the House floor last week.
A later addition by Parson to his special session agenda also was not debated on the House floor last week — a proposal to give the state's attorney general concurrent jurisdiction over some murder cases within the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's jurisdiction.
On Wednesday, the Senate began to approve the House bills or their House committee substitutes passed by the House last week.
House bills 66, 46 and 11 were approved by the Senate with wide margins or even unanimous consent — dealing with the witness protection fund, St. Louis residency requirement and endangering the welfare of a child.
When debate turned to HCS HB 2 — the witness testimony bill — state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, proposed an amendment that sought to resurrect Parson's call for concurrent jurisdiction over the St. Louis circuit attorney.
Onder said St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's office is "badly understaffed" and needed help in prosecuting homicides.
Onder's proposal initiated hours of debate and further amendments to his amendment — efforts largely led in the afternoon by state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis — over legality and whether his proposal for concurrent jurisdiction could be changed to perhaps be more agreeable with Democrats.
One of those proposed changes was to expand Onder's proposal for concurrent jurisdiction beyond St. Louis to one or more other cities in the state.
Onder resisted those proposals: "My amendment is targeted to where the problem is," and the attorney general's office would not have the resources for concurrent jurisdiction across the entire state.
Democrats argued the crux of the issue was Onder playing to his political base while jeopardizing the sovereignty of elected officials such as Gardner.
Democrats' attempts to amend Onder's amendment or question its legality failed by votes and rulings of the Senate's President Pro Tem Dave Schatz.
"This is about a young African American female who dared to challenge a Republican governor for the wrongdoing and bad behavior," Nasheed said, accusing Onder of wanting to get back at Gardner for charging former Gov. Eric Greitens.
A St. Louis grand jury charged Greitens with two separate crimes — of taking a photo of a woman without her permission while she was at least partly nude and of stealing email and donor lists from a charity he had helped found. Neither of those cases went to trial, and the stealing charge was dropped in exchange for Greitens' resignation in June 2018 in a deal worked out by Gardner and Greitens' attorneys.
Onder denied any political motivations for his concurrent jurisdiction proposal — also including Republican backlash to Gardner's decision to charge a St. Louis couple with unlawful use of weapon charges. The couple stood outside their home this summer with semi-automatic weapons as protesters marched by.
Onder and Republicans were also accused of contributing to the state's violent crime problem through lax gun regulations.
Nasheed said the proliferation of guns in cities is causing an increase in crime.
She added Gardner is not the source of St. Louis' problems: "It's lack of funding for quality education," and a lack of funding for job opportunities for the most vulnerable and impoverished. She said only dealing with those issues would really reduce crime.
Beyond all that, though, as state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, said: "I think what people need to remember is that there are much bigger principles at stake here beyond whether we approve or disapprove of one or more decisions made" by one of the state's prosecuting attorneys.
Sifton said those attorneys don't answer to the Missouri Senate, but the voters of their counties, and if Gardner's power could be overridden, so could any prosecuting attorney's.
After Parson's initial concurrent jurisdiction proposal, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys issued a statement against such proposals: "Holding true to the position we as an association have held for decades, the 115 independent, locally elected prosecuting attorneys of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys stand united against any proposal to vest any new original or concurrent jurisdiction with the attorney general."
MAPA's statement added: "The best control is local control. Vesting the attorney general with new original or concurrent jurisdiction erodes the ability of local voters to decide who will seek justice on their behalf should they be victimized by crime. Further, any attempt to vest the attorney general with jurisdiction to prosecute homicides without the request of the elected prosecuting attorney fundamentally changes our system of local, independent prosecution that has served the citizens of Missouri well since 1875."
Onder said Gardner had not reached out for help: "I believe she thinks she's doing a good job," but she needs the help "whether she admits it or not."
The stalemate in the Senate over Onder's amendment continued through at least 5 p.m. Wednesday. After action on HCS HB 2, the Senate also still had to debate and vote on HB 16.
The Senate had offered a committee substitute for that bill — on increasing the penalty for a person who knowingly sells or delivers a firearm to a child — to restore language that had been taken out of existing law by the House. The House's change would have removed a portion of law about it being a crime to recklessly sell or otherwise give a firearm to a child younger than 18 without the consent of the child's parent or guardian.