JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's Republican legislative leaders vowed to push back against big government as they started the 2015 session Wednesday with their largest numbers of Republicans ever, a significant shift in power for a place once known as a swing state.
The state served as a reliable bellwether for most of a century, correctly in line with presidential races for decades until Missouri voters chose Republican John McCain in 2008. Time has only made the Missouri Legislature redder.
House Republicans outnumbered Democrats 117-45 during swearing-in ceremonies Wednesday, and the party also has a veto-proof majority in the Senate, with 25 Republicans and nine Democrats.
The GOP's control of the Legislature "is a continuation of work started in the early 2000s, when our predecessors fought and won control of the House for the first time in decades," said John Diehl, who was elected unanimously to serve as the new House speaker.
Although Republicans have their largest combined number of seats, their Senate total was slightly higher a few years ago and they had a slightly larger percentage of Republicans in the House in the 1920s, when there were fewer House seats.
Republicans plan to use their numbers to tackle such topics as changes to ethics laws, curbing municipal fines and overhauling a state law allowing students to transfer from failing schools — issues Democrats similarly outlined as important. But Republicans also pledged to resist the policies of President Barack Obama's administration.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said GOP lawmakers intend to "push back against the federal government," particularly against the health care law and regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We don't believe the state's role is to blindly follow the federal government," said Dempsey, of St. Charles.
Diehl said he wants to keep state government small to "avoid repeating mistakes that we've seen play out at the federal level," such as what he said was overregulation of the economy.
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel of St. Louis said Democratic lawmakers, along with Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, will be pushing for Medicaid expansion and legislation to target "institutionalized injustice."
At least 200 demonstrators gathered in the Capitol Rotunda before the session started in support of expanding access to Medicaid and what they called "criminal justice reform." Dozens later disrupted the start of the Senate session with chants of "Hands up, don't shoot," ''No justice, no peace" and "Black lives matter" — several of the rallying cries of demonstrators after a white Ferguson police officer fatally shot black 18-year-old Michael Brown in August.
GOP leaders in the House and Senate have said repeatedly that expanding Medicaid is a non-starter, and Diehl said House Republicans don't have a "Ferguson agenda."
Dempsey pledged Wednesday to pursue "municipal court reform," targeting cities — particularly in north St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located — that reap a sizable portion of their revenues from traffic fines and court costs.
That, at least, aligns with one Democratic goal. Protesters have said relatively minor violations can spiral into arrests and jail time for members of low-income communities.
But compromise isn't necessary for the GOP to pass legislation.
And while Dempsey has indicated he's willing to negotiate with Nixon on some issues, it's unclear where the Democratic governor stands with Diehl.
Nixon said earlier Wednesday that he's been making progress with negotiations with Dempsey on a contested student transfer bill. Nixon vetoed similar legislation last year, citing concerns with requiring failing public schools to pay for students to transfer to private schools.
Diehl said he hasn't spoken with Nixon about the issue, although he's interested in discussing potential solutions.
Both parties have said this session will bring changes to ethics laws, but there's disagreement between them on how to best tackle that.
Many bills filed by Democrats include caps on the amount donors can give to candidates and committees. Most Republican bills would restrict or ban lobbyist gifts and increase reporting requirements for campaign donations.
"We hope the majority will listen to some of our priorities," Hummel said.