The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 7, 2013

Phill Brooks, columnist: Egg bill an example of legislative tactics

By Phill Brooks
Special to The Globe

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — It started as a simple, seemingly humorous bill in the Senate to expand the legal definition of an egg.

Of course, chickens make the eggs you eat for breakfast. But other types of birds, I have learned, produce eggs that people consume. Missouri has a number of provisions dealing with food products, thus the bill to expand the legal definition of an egg.

That would seem a simple issue for the Legislature.

But in the closing days of the Missouri legislative session, simple things can become complicated. Trust your lawmakers to mess even with the simple task of defining an egg.

First, the Senate added an amendment dealing with water and sewage districts. How does that relate to agriculture? a member asked. The reply: Farms use water.

So the amendment got passed.

If sewage regulation can be added to what started as an egg bill, why not taxes and higher education? So an amendment was adopted that would allow the creation of taxing districts for University of Missouri Extension activities. Extension offices, you see, serve rural areas and agriculture. And eggs, of course, come from farms.

The egg bill highlights the tactic of cramming provisions into a bill that’s moving through to final passage during the closing days of a session. Usually, the provisions have been approved by one or both chambers in other bills that later stalled in the process. These “Christmas tree ornament” amendments usually are identical versions of those provisions.

But not always. Sometimes there are subtle wording differences that can have substantial consequences. And sometimes the amendment contains new language that represents a last-minute attempt at a compromise.

When there are only days left in the session, lawmakers are under growing pressure to accept an amendment on a sponsor’s word that it’s OK.

A lobbyist friend of mine complained that this frantic rush to jam unrelated issues into bills leaves too little time to read all the amendments and figure out all the ramifications. If it creates a problem for an experienced lobbyist, think how much more difficult it must be for freshman legislators and their staffs.

It also can lead to legislative disasters.

One year, the Legislature accidentally repealed the crime of rape. In another year, deregulation of midwifery sneaked through via obscure language added to a huge bill that few, if any, had time to read.

There’s also the danger that going too far afield can jeopardize the entire bill.

A couple of court decisions have ruled that the Legislature cannot amend a bill beyond its original title. You wonder how the courts would rule about sewage and taxes being thrown into a bill with an original title that described it as just “relating to eggs.”

Eggs, by the way, have a notorious history in Missouri’s Senate.

Back in 1974, the state egg producers association put a hard-boiled egg on each senator’s chamber desk as a gift.

When the Senate came back into session, a couple of members could not resist an egg toss. Sen. Ed Linehan, who started the antics, missed the return pitch. The egg smashed against the Senate’s stone wall.

Even worse, the two engaged in these antics with reporters present, leading to a hilarious story.

I don’t remember this part, but the local paper reported that Linehan, angry about the story, walked to the Senate press table and smashed down an egg to show his displeasure.

As for this year, don’t fret about eating an unregulated duck egg. On the same day the Senate was messing with eggs, the House passed and sent the governor a simple bill that just expanded the definition of an egg.

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 Warren Hearnes.