The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


May 21, 2012

Phill Brooks, columnist: Stumbling blocks hinder Legislature

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — House Speaker Steve Tilley may have coined the best word for the 2012 legislative session. “Incremental” was how he described what the Legislature had accomplished on education.

Expansion of charter schools in underperforming districts cleared the Legislature, but not the more sweeping changes that some lawmakers had sought, including state support for private schools, eliminating teacher tenure and fixing the broken formula that allocates state funds to public schools.

Education was just one of many major policy issues that legislators and state leaders had cited at the start as priority issues that were unfulfilled. Other major issues that pretty much fell by the wayside included expanding the state’s clogged interstate highways, ethics legislation, economic development, tax modernization and criminal sentencing reduction.

While the legislative session might not have soared, there were some notable accomplishments. A budget got passed, despite one of the most bitter Senate debates I’ve observed.

Lawmakers also sent the governor, with little fanfare, a measure that affects more Missourians than most of the issues they debate — a bill to include cellphones and text messaging in the legal restrictions on telemarketers.

And, in a few of the major policy areas such as business liability for worker injuries, college credit transfers and criminal sentencing, there were smaller, incremental steps.

A number of factors frustrated legislative efforts. The most pervasive involved the deep divisions within the Republican legislative majority that had emerged during the fall special session when the House and Senate deadlocked over tax breaks to special interests, businesses and developers.

Beyond the House-Senate split was a division among Republicans in the Senate itself that erupted into name-calling during the Senate’s debate on the budget.

The Republican split struck me as a consequence of having a supermajority. I saw the same bitter split emerge among Democrats when they dominated the Legislature. At times, the internal fights among Democrats were far uglier than anything I saw among Republicans during this current session.

Tilley recounted conversations with legislative leaders from other states who told him “the larger the majority it is, sometimes on specific issues, the harder it is to accomplish.” Tilley said that when a political party’s majority is smaller, it tends to be more geographically similar and, thus, ideologically similar.

Complicating the problem for Republicans this year was the absence of an accepted titular leader for the party who could bring the warring factions together.

When Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder dropped his campaign for governor and Tilley dropped his campaign to replace Kinder as lieutenant governor, it left no obvious legislative peacemaker for Republicans. And Gov. Jay Nixon never really stepped forward to assert a personal and public influence to forge compromises among legislative factions.

Nixon’s most public effort was for lawmakers to repass the campaign finance disclosure and enforcement laws that the state Supreme Court had thrown out on a technicality. But then he over-reached by including a call for imposing limits on campaign contributions that had stiff opposition among GOP lawmakers.

After just one news conference on the issue, Nixon’s effort appeared abandoned for the rest of the session.

That’s a quite different role than for other governors I’ve seen who actively engaged themselves in the legislative process. Even when Democrats controlled the Legislature, Republican governors Kit Bond and John Ashcroft personally injected themselves into the legislative process and regularly were seen working with legislators.

A major factor in this year’s legislative session has been term limits, particularly with the Senate. As a couple of former Senate leaders have expressed to me, the Senate has lost the sense that it is a family that works together, above party and faction.

While term limits have been around for a while, it had a greater debilitating effect this year. Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer suggested it was because only in 2011 did the Senate completely lose its old guard of members who retained that spirit of the Senate being a family.

Finally, this was, after all, an election year. And as some of my press corps colleagues kept reminding me after I wrote a positive column about the possibilities at the start of the session, little usually gets done in an election year. Politics almost always seem to get in the way.

We sure saw that this session with the many hours spent on ideological and partisan issues over which the Legislature had little control — like federal health care.

Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism's State Government Reporting Program. He can be reached at

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