On Aug. 28, 2007, agents of Lebanon businessman Robert Plaster filed a petition with the Stone County Commission to incorporate Plaster-owned property near Table Rock Lake as a village. Until that moment only a handful of people were aware that three months earlier the Missouri General Assembly had passed a law making it possible for a single landowner to declare his property as a village to avoid local land-use restrictions.
It is widely believed House Speaker (Rod) Jetton, R-Marble Hill, slipped the village law, of which other Missouri developers are attempting to take advantage, into a 352-page omnibus local government bill last spring. Jetton, who has received at least $5,100 in campaign contributions from Plaster even though he isn’t running for office, admits to advance knowledge of the provision but claims he isn’t responsible for it. So far, no one has fessed up.
That such a controversial provision could become state law with few legislators knowing about it points to a critical flaw in the legislative process: During the final days of the legislative session, majority party leaders force action on scores of bills without debate, critical review or even the opportunity for lawmakers to read the measures, some of which are hundreds of pages long.
This flawed process was significantly worse during the just-concluded 2008 legislative session. Of the 118 bills, excluding budget measures, that won final passage, 71 cleared the General Assembly on the last day. Put another way, 60 percent of the legislative output was produced during the final nine hours of the 18-week session. The final versions of many bills were dumped on legislators’ desks in the early morning hours of the last day long after most lawmakers had gone to bed.
Much of the session’s waning days were wasted as Jetton tied the legislature in knots attempting to block an ultimately successful repeal his 2007 village law. But even if it weren’t for the shenanigans over the village law repeal, there is no reason the legislature should have saved the bulk of its workload for the last minute.
Until the last day, this was a do-nothing session with many bills languishing on the House debate calendar for months before the final push. One such measure was the repeal of campaign contribution limits that 73.9 percent of Missouri voters first imposed in 1994. The Senate approved the bill on Feb. 21; it didn’t come up for House debate until 85 days later with just a couple hours left in the session. Allowing unlimited amounts of money to be pumped into election campaigns in defiance of an overwhelming voter mandate deserved more debate than the few minutes it received.
As the village law debacle revealed, rushed and sloppy lawmaking guarantees bad laws and unintended consequences. With the high number of bills jammed through the General Assembly at the end of the 2008 session, one shudders to think of how many “village laws” were unwittingly passed that will we find out about in the coming weeks.
Paul LeVota, D-Independence, is minority leader of the Missouri House of Representatives.