The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

April 7, 2014

Phill Brooks, columnist: State Legislature failing in the art of compromise

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — These past few weeks, we’ve seen signs of how difficult it has become to pursue compromise in Missouri’s General Assembly.

The difficulties reflect the growing ideological and policy rigidity within the two parties that has emerged in the era of legislative term limits.

The first demonstration arose with the Senate Republicans’ plan for cuts in the state income tax.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Will Kraus, R-Jackson County, sought to work out a compromise with Gov. Jay Nixon crafting a bill that Nixon would sign. But when Kraus brought before the Senate the plan he had worked out with the governor’s office, it immediately was attacked by his GOP colleagues.

Nixon could not be trusted to keep his word, one said. The Senate should pass what it thinks is right and not ease the tax cuts simply for compromise, said others.

Kraus abandoned the provisions added in his compromise with Nixon.

The possibilities for a compromise became apparent when two of Nixon’s fellow Democrats expressed regret the compromise had to be abandoned and even left open the possibility they might have joined Republicans in voting for the compromise plan.

In the end, the measure did not get one Democratic vote and was sternly attacked by Nixon.

A few days later, another Republican came under attack from his colleagues for urging the door be left open for Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, was not arguing for immediate expansion. Instead, he was opposing an amendment that would require a statewide public vote before Medicaid health care coverage could be expanded.

The response to Silvey was blistering.

“It’s time for you to take the hard stand and say ‘no.’ You’re taking the pragmatic stand, the easy stand,” charged the amendment’s sponsor, Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County.

Later that day, a Democrat came under question from a fellow Democrat when she offered a compromise for her measure to reduce the role of special interest money in politics and government.

The original bill of Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, imposed limits on campaign contributions and also placed limits on lobbyist gifts.

Recognizing that stiff GOP opposition to campaign contribution limits would kill her bill, Nasheed came back with a substitute that dealt only with lobbyist restrictions. Nasheed argued that it was better to get something passed rather than nothing at all.

She then came under immediate questioning from a Democratic colleague for abandoning the campaign contribution issue strongly pushed by fellow Democrat Nixon.

It has struck me that these difficulties in finding compromise have become more frequent with legislative term limits.

It takes a while for a legislator to realize policy purity often leads to legislative failure. The legislative process makes it easy to kill an idea. That makes compromise with opponents more essential.

I am not arguing there is an inherent good to compromise, no matter the issue.

Before term limits, I saw some legislators get so obsessed with passing their bills that they would agree to almost anything to achieve legislative success. One of the arguments for term limits had been that longtime legislators got so involved with the process they lost sight of the interests and wishes of their constituents.

There was something to that argument.

I still vividly recall the confession of longtime Sen. Richard Webster, R-Carthage, that playing the legislative game was becoming a stronger motivation than the actual issues. It was one of the few times I heard the legislative wizard express a regret.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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