Pandemic, procedures and partisan politics: The 2021 legislative session, in photos

Senate Democrats had been talking for three hours. The filibuster, organized in response to Democrats' displeasure with Senate Republican leadership and allegations of a broken promise, had prevented any bills from being heard in the upper chamber on the last day of the session. Taking the reins, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, moved to adjourn. And like that, the Senate session ended early, while the House continued until the 6 p.m. deadline. 

The 2021 session of the Missouri General Assembly started with a COVID-19 outbreak. It saw some long-prioritized legislation passed while other bills fell to the wayside of procedure and a ticking clock, and it ended in partisan animosity, with the knowledge that lawmakers will be back in the fall for a special session. Throughout it all, lawmakers voted and grandstanded, lobbyists did what they could to influence legislation, while staffers and special guests were allowed entry to the floor by navy-clad doormen.

COVID-19 shadowed the session, influencing conversations about vaccine passports, the power of local health experts and the lack of funding for Medicaid expansion. Partisan lines were drawn around guns, as Republicans moved forward with legislation that would nullify federal gun laws. Education savings accounts, a long-prioritized part of Republicans' "school choice" agenda, made it to the governor's desk. Both parties came together to pass a sweeping, bipartisan police bill that included a partial ban on chokeholds. 

Gov. Mike Parson waves to members of the Missouri Senate before giving his State of the State address Jan. 27 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The annual speech is usually given in the House, but was moved to the Senate the day of. Highlights of the speech included education funding, healthcare and infrastructure.

People watch a projection of Gov. Mike Parson as his gives the State of the State address Jan. 27 in the rotunda of the Capitol in Jefferson City. During most sessions, the rotunda is abuzz with scheduled rallies and school groups, but it was noticeably empty for most of the session's first half.

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives await a roll call vote Monday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Representatives are in close quarters while on the floor and it was up to individual lawmakers whether to wear a mask as a precaution against COVID-19. The session began with a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the House to close the week of Jan. 18.

From left, Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, and Speaker Pro-Tempore John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, address members of the press during a press conference following the House’s passage of several bills pertaining to the state budget May 7 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The budget did not include funding for Medicaid expansion, which was approved by voters in 2020. During the conference, Vescovo rejected the idea that Republicans’ votes against Medicaid expansion were political. “I think for some of our members, it’s a fundamental issue that they disagreed with,” he said. “And that was the ability we gave them to vote the way they felt was necessary.”

A sign on a window into the Missouri House floor is pictured Feb. 1 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Due to COVID-19, committee hearing rooms contained fewer chairs to accommodate social distancing. Members of the press and the public who wished to watch the hearings but could not secure a seat inside had the ability to watch them livestreamed

Missouri Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, prepares to gavel the session into order Feb. 1 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. This was Vescovo’s first session as Speaker. One of his major priorities this year, improving financial support for foster and adoptive parents, has already been signed into law.

Senate security specialist Brian Quick, left, stands outside of the Senate lounge before the start of a hearing Feb. 1 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Inside, people who came to view or provide testimony at the hearing take their seats.

Capt. Mike Petlansky of the Missouri State Highway Patrol watches Gov. Mike Parson’s State of the State address through a window into the Senate chamber Jan. 27 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Petlansky said he and other members of the Missouri State Highway Patrol were in the building to provide extra security for the event.

Officials and others bow their heads in prayer Jan. 27 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, led the Missouri Senate in prayer before the governor’s State of the State address.

Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, stands on the House floor during the debate on an amendment he introduced April 21 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The amendment, House Amendment 2 to House Bill 1141, would have banned transgender children from playing on the scholastic sports team of their gender identity. The amendment was an example of a wave of anti-trans legislation introduced throughout the country. The bill did not pass.

Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, sits at her desk May 14 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Walsh serves on the House Budget and House Judiciary Committees, and was also appointed to the Conference Committee on Budget, which was responsible for reconciling differences between the House and Senate budget bills.

Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, center, confers with lawmakers and staffers following a vote Thursday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Serving as the Senate Majority Leader, Rowden has long prioritized "school choice" legislation, ranging from state-supported scholarships to charter school expansion. On May 6, the Senate gave approval to House Bill 349, which establishes the "Missouri Empowerment Scholarships Account Program," which allows families to apply for a state-supported scholarship to send their children to private school.

Carter Templeton, a second-year law student at MU, monitors the Senate budget hearing April 19 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Templeton works in the Veterans Clinic, an organization that represents disabled veterans in compensation claims. The clinic is currently funded by donors, but this year the House included funding for it in the budget. “I’m here, hoping the Senate keeps it in,” Templeton said.

Dr. Randall Williams answers a question during a hearing by the Committee on Health and Mental Health Policy on Feb. 3 at the Capitol. Williams resigned his position April 20. His four-year tenure as Missouri's health director was filled with controversy, with criticism ranging from the state's implementation of medical marijuana to its COVID-19 response and vaccine rollout. At the time of the Feb. 3 hearing on the vaccine rollout, Missouri ranked last in the nation.

An unmasked man hides his face from the camera April 19 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Masks were not required in the statehouse, and many visitors and members of the legislature chose to forgo the protective measure recommended by the CDC.

Miles, whose last name has been withheld at his parents’ request, waits to testify against Senate Bill 442 on March 10 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, would prohibit medical providers from providing gender-affirming care for trans children. Miles is 14 years old but knew his gender identity as a young child. For the past 18 months he has been active in opposing legislation that would limit the rights of kids like him. “Coming here, it's kind of one of the things for me where it's like, you kind of have to do it,” Miles said after testifying. “It just hits me afterwards of how difficult it is.”

A group of schoolchildren is led up to the Capitol’s whispering gallery Wednesday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. School group tours, uncommon at the start of the session due to COVID-19, resurged in the session’s latter half. The whispering gallery, a common stop for guided tours, is a room in which a whisper on one side of the room can be heard on the opposite end. The Missouri Capitol’s whispering gallery is one of three such rooms in different capitol buildings in the U.S.

The statue Ceres is seen through jane magnolia flowers on the grounds of the Missouri State Capitol on March 24 in Jefferson City. Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her statue has topped the Missouri Capitol since 1924. Jane magnolias are a hybrid species, developed by United States National Arboretum scientists William Kosar and Francis de Vos. Their work creating the hybrid species spanned from 1955 to 1965. Kosar and de Vos produced the jane magnolia, as well as seven other hybrid species, often called the Eight Little Girls due to the plants’ small statures.

From left, Ken Horgan, Maxine Horgan and Barbara Nyden yell at the Rally to Save Missouri Healthcare on April 27 outside the Capitol in Jefferson City. The rally, organized by a Democratic political committee and attended by House and Senate Democrats, was to encourage lawmakers to include funding for Medicaid expansion in the state budget. The budget passed without that funding. “Healthcare is a right for the people,” Nyden said, when asked why she attended the rally. “Healthcare is an obligation for the society.”

Lt. Governor Mike Kehoe, top and center, addresses a crowd rallying in favor of House Bill 527 and Senate Bill 508 on April 21 in the rotunda of the Capitol in Jefferson City. Both bills would modify provisions of eminent domain. While the rotunda was regularly quiet in the first half of the session, the number of events held there increased toward the latter half of the session.

A member of the Missouri State Highway Patrol overlooks the House chamber Feb. 24 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Late in the session, the legislature approved a bipartisan police bill that included a partial ban on chokeholds, created a felony for police officers who engage in sexual misconduct with people in their custody, raised salaries of sheriffs and removed the residency requirement for Kansas City police officers.

The door of former representative Rick Roeber, from Lee’s Summit, sits closed April 19 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Roeber was accused of physically and sexually abusing his children. The House Committee on Ethics released its report on Roeber that day, recommending Roeber be expelled from the House.

Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, presides over the Missouri House of Representatives on April 21 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The House voted that day to expel former representative Rick Roeber, from Lee’s Summit, after a House Ethics Committee investigation found claims that Roeber sexually abused his children to be credible. Roeber is only the second member to ever be expelled from the Missouri House.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, stands in the back of the House chamber May 7 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Merideth repeatedly brought up the lack of funding for Medicaid expansion in the state budget during the session. “Boy, it’s hard to feel good about this budget today,” Merideth said.

LEFT: Decorative guns are displayed in front of the speaker’s podium during a press conference by Senate Republican leadership and members of law enforcement Thursday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The press conference followed a vote in which the Senate passed a bill that would nulify federal gun laws. RIGHT: Lt. Governor Mike Kehoe addresses the press Thursday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Kehoe thanked members of law enforcement, who Republicans say they consulted on the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” and Republican lawmakers on behalf of himself and Gov. Mike Parson.

Lt. Governor Mike Kehoe, top right, sits during a Democratic filibuster Thursday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. It is the role of the Lt. Governor to oversee the Missouri Senate.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Couer, sits in the mostly-empty Senate chamber during the Senate session May 3 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The scheduled debate on a bipartisan bill that would allow Missourians to keep unemployment overpayments, instead of having to pay them back, was derailed by introduced language that would restrict future unemployment benefits. Schupp was watching two of her Democratic colleagues discuss the bill, buying time in the empty chamber while negotiations took place behind the scenes.

Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, answers questions during the Senate Democrats' post-session press conference Friday at the Capitol in Jefferson City. The end of the session was messy in the Senate, with Democrats filibustering for three hours over what Senate Democrats characterized as a broken promise from Republican leadership regarding the Federal Reimbursement Allowance. The filibuster resulted in the Senate session being ended early, meaning no bills went through the upper chamber on the legislature's final day.

.Cameron Gerber, a reporter for the Missouri Times, runs up the stairs into the designated press offices May 3 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. While his organization doesn’t have a dedicated office in the area, “I had chicken wings up there,” Gerber said

About This Project

This project was a compilation of a senate session's worth of photographs taken by Missourian statehouse photographer Tristen rouse. The project focused on a mix of important legislation and events, and stylistic photos which speak to the ambience of a state capitol during a tumultuous year. The session in photographs ran both digitally as a gallery, and as a double truck in the Sunday paper, which you can see below.

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