JEFFERSON CITY — Two servings of lame duck proved to be a recipe for individualism and internal dissension this year in the Missouri House.
First, Gov. Matt Blunt announced just one week after his State of State address that he would not seek re-election this year. The Republican governor’s new lame-duck status relieved the Republican-led legislature of the normal election-year pressure to enact his agenda.
Then, term-limited House Speaker Rod Jetton served up a second helping of lame-duck. He indicated early on that there were very few bills he cared about passing. By the final week of the session, just five his fellow 90 House Republicans stood by Jetton on the issue that he perhaps cared most passionately about.
As the 2008 legislative session concluded Friday, Blunt, Jetton and other Republicans declared it success — an assertion always put forth by whoever controls the Capitol. Democrats panned their accomplishments — a complaint always voiced by the minority.
Blunt and Republican legislative leaders repeatedly praised the passage of a pair of bills restricting property taxes and illegal immigrants.
But their self-congratulatory statements contained a glaring omission. They made no mention, unless asked by the media, about the failure of Blunt’s biggest initiative — the Insure Missouri plan to provide government-subsidized health insurance to as many as 200,000 lower-income Missourians.
Blunt outlined the program in September. When he delivered his State of the State speech on Jan. 15, Blunt talked as if the program were sure thing. He said more than 54,000 people would gain “affordable, high quality care” under the program beginning in February. By July, Blunt said, an additional 56,000 Missourians would get government helping buying their own health insurance under his budget plan for Insure Missouri.
But Blunt’s plan ran into a buzz saw in the House. He had to cancel the proposed startup, primarily because of opposition from some Republicans. Jetton declared Insure Missouri all but dead with three weeks still left in the session. Lawmakers then eliminated the program from next year’s budget.
When Blunt shockingly announced Jan. 22 that he would not seek re-election, Jetton called him a “lame-duck governor” and noted that lawmakers might feel freer to act as they choose.
As it turned out, Republican House members felt freer to not only ignore Blunt’s biggest initiative but also the desires of Jetton.
Not able to run for the House anymore and not seeking higher office, Jetton carried little sway as he watched his proposal for boosting teacher salaries get revised, bogged down and shelved on the House floor.
Near the end of the session, just five Republicans voted with Jetton in what amounted to a bipartisan 144-6 rebuke.
At issue was a direct challenge to an action Jetton had supported in the 2007 legislative session, when a provision quietly passed making it easier for landowners to incorporate as villages and thus avoid local planning and zoning rules.
When that law took effect Aug. 28, one of Jetton’s political supporters quickly tried to turn his land near Table Rock Lake into a village, angering some neighbors and county commissioners. Some state lawmakers complained they had been duped.
Jetton fought efforts to repeal the law, but just five Republicans voted with him. Afterward, Republicans held an emotional closed-door meeting — without Jetton — in which they vented their frustrations.
Minority-party Democrats observed the dissension from a distance.
Put bluntly: “We lacked leadership in our state government,” said House Minority Leader Paul LeVota.
But the lame-duck session seemed to have a different effect in the Senate, which was more deliberative and collegial.
To pass the priorities of Blunt and the Republican Party, GOP senators in recent years had employed a historically seldom-used procedure to shut off Democratic filibusters and force votes on bills. This year, several Republicans made a pact with several Democrats to avoid partisan power plays.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, who is term-limited from the Senate but running for attorney general, said Blunt’s decision not to seek re-election “changed the dynamics significantly and eliminated the partisan aspect that we expected to have.”
That aspect had been the gubernatorial campaign between Blunt and Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who have sparred repeatedly over the past four years.
“Taking the governor’s election out of the Senate chamber allowed us to deal with issues and policy without worrying about creating a winner or loser between the Republicans or Democrats on the governor’s race,” Gibbons said.