JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's Republican-led Legislature registered its discontent with President Barack Obama's health care policies Friday during an otherwise uneventful final day of a legislative session in which lawmakers settled for the doable instead of the ideal on their education and business priorities.
Legislators sent the governor a bill stating that employers can refuse to provide health insurance for birth control — a measure meant as a slap against an Obama administration policy requiring insurers to cover contraception at no additional cost to women working at certain religious-affiliated institutions.
A separate measure also passed Friday will ask Missouri voters later this year whether to restrict the creation of a health insurance exchange, another Obama initiative.
The session ended at 6 p.m. Friday without passage of several education and pro-business proposals touted by Republican leaders when they began work in January. But legislative leaders, as is typical, still declared the session a success, noting that, in an election year, they were able to reach compromises that led to the passage of a $24 billion budget, an expansion of authority for charter schools and a tweak of the state's workers' compensation system, among other things.
"For the Missouri House, it was promises made and promises kept. We're very happy with our success," said House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon noted many of his budget priorities prevailed but expressed disappointment that lawmakers failed to expand incentives for businesses that supply parts to automobile manufacturers.
When the session began, some Republican legislative leaders outlined an aggressive education agenda to overhaul the state's school funding formula, expand charter schools, pare back teacher tenure protections, authorize tax breaks so children in failing schools could attend private schools, and eliminate a two-year waiting period before the state could intervene in unaccredited schools such as the Kansas City School District. The charter school bill was the only item to pass.
The Legislature's pro-business agenda also was left partly unfulfilled. Lawmakers sent the governor a bill prohibiting employees from suing co-workers for injuries covered by the workers' compensation cases. But Nixon vetoed other workers' compensation changes, as well as a Republican-backed bill that would have made it harder for employees to win workplace discrimination cases. Divisions between the House and Senate again scuttled bills to create new incentives for businesses or scale back the state's existing tax credits.
By Friday, several major bills either already had passed or been effectively declared dead. That led to any easygoing mood underscored by a series of legislative pranks. In the Senate, food mysteriously appeared on the desk of an unsuspecting senator, a flagrant violation of chamber rules. In the House, one lawmaker arrived to discover his desk wrapped in tin foil, while another lawmaker attempted to dangle objects from an upper gallery over the head of the person presiding over the chamber. Some House members threw paper wads at each other before reveling in an end-of-session tradition of tossing suddenly useless bills and amendments into the air when the final gavel fell.
Although some Democrats opposed the measures, debate on the pair of politically charged health care proposals remained relatively calm. The contraception legislation passed the Senate 28-6 and the House 105-33.
The bill states that no employer or health plan provider can be compelled to provide coverage — or be penalized for refusing to cover — abortion, contraception or sterilization if those items run contrary to their religious or moral convictions. The bill also gives the state attorney general grounds to sue other governmental officials or entities that infringe on the rights granted in the legislation.
"This bill is about religious freedom and moral convictions," said Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo. "This is about sending a message to the federal government that we don't like things rammed down our throat."
The legislation is a response to a policy by Obama's administration that initially sought to require religious nonprofits serving the public to cover birth control through employee health plans. After a backlash, Obama modified that policy earlier this year to require insurers, not the religious employers, to bear the responsibility of covering contraception.
Nixon declined to say whether he supports the Missouri measure, adding that he backs both a woman's access to contraception and the right of people to practice their religious beliefs.
"We already have a strong religious exemption on the books, but we'll review this carefully," Nixon said.
Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, said the legislation was "attacking women's reproductive choices."
"This is wrong and I dare you to go home and talk to your daughters ... and say, 'Look, what we're going to say is that your employers' religious beliefs matter more than your own,'" Newman told colleagues.
Under a separate bill passed Friday, voters would get the final say on whether to enact a state law prohibiting the governor from establishing a state health insurance exchange. The federal health care law signed by Obama requires states to create such online markets by 2014 or have the federal government run one for them. The Missouri measure would allow a state-created insurance exchange only if specifically authorized by a state law or a subsequent vote of the people.
Both health care measures are part of a continuing effort by the Missouri Legislature to stand up to Obama's health care policies. In 2010, lawmakers referred a measure to the statewide ballot prohibiting the government from requiring people to have health insurance, a challenge to a federal provision that most people must have insurance by 2014 or face penalties. Voters approved the measure by 71 percent.