Term limits not helping government work efficiently

Thursday, March 26, 2009 | 9:24 a.m. CDT

I guess it was too much to hope that the legislature would decide not to come back from spring break.

The Missourian headline on David Lieb’s Associated Press analysis of the session so far said it all: “Missouri lawmakers block governor’s agenda.” You don’t have to be a Democrat to wish that weren’t so. The agenda that’s being blocked was both modest and, I’d have thought, broadly appealing.

Wrong again. As David reported, the Senate hasn’t even found time to pass Republican-looking legislation expanding tax breaks for businesses that hire. That seems to have irritated leaders of the House, which passed a bill overwhelmingly, even more than it has the governor.  

The Senate has, however, found time to debate another thinly disguised attempt to interfere with the rights of women to seek abortions. Minority Democrats have managed, so far, to thwart that misguided effort, which the House has already approved and which Gov. Nixon would probably veto.

The Senate has also found time to address the plight of the state’s aging horses. The senatorial solution: Kill them here and make them into dog food. I confess I hadn’t realized that the absence of horse-slaughtering plants was among Missouri’s pressing problems. Now that the Senate has opened my eyes, though, I do see the employment opportunities. Maybe we could even export some of the choicer cuts to France.

It’s in the House of Representatives that the governor’s most important ideas have run into roadblocks. How the Republican majority can be so dead set against expanding health care for the poor, especially poor children, is beyond my understanding. Apparently, it has become a core conservative principle to deny insurance and force the poor to rely on the charity of the emergency room.

As House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, told David, “We still believe that’s an expansion of welfare – we’re not doing it.”

The “it” in this case was a compromise that strikes the ordinary citizen as an imaginative approach. Gov. Nixon got the state’s hospitals to agree to pay higher taxes and give up part of their government reimbursements in order to expand Medicaid, most of which is financed by the feds, to cover more of the poor. Missouri, as you know, is now among the stingiest states in setting income limits for Medicaid coverage.

I guess that’s “welfare,” all right, the social welfare a civilized nation expects from its government. What Rep. Richard and his colleagues don’t seem to realize is that this “expansion of welfare” not only wouldn’t raise taxes on individuals but would actually cut the cost of medical care by covering prevention and by reducing the load on expensive emergency rooms.

And then we come to higher education. Pretty much everybody agrees that the public interest requires more education for more of our young. So Gov. Nixon wants to expand a successful scholarship program to enable kids who make it through community colleges to continue in public universities tuition free. The House hasn’t even held a hearing on the bill.

The one semi-bright spot resulted from a rare bit of bi-partisan cooperation. It looks like Chris Kelly and Steve Hobbs will win the allocation of $10 million in federal stimulus money for a modest start toward the goal of educating more health professionals.

However, what we’re seeing overall in Jefferson City is ideology versus the public interest. Ideology is clearly winning.

That’s not just my impression. I’ve had conversations in the past few days with two experienced legislators. Both served in the General Assembly a decade or more ago. One is serving again. Both are Democrats of the thoughtful variety. They agreed that legislators on both sides of the aisle are more rigidly ideological these days, and they agreed on the main reason.

Term limits have forced out the experienced leaders who got to know colleagues across party lines and were more inclined to compromise. Ambitious partisans are pressured to act on ideology before their time expires. Lacking experience, followers fall more easily into line behind their party leaders. Those leaders, who also lack experience, are more likely to be fiercely partisan themselves.

If that analysis is correct, and it makes sense to me, this legislative session is making a strong case for leaving the limitation of terms to the voters. The arbitrary limits we’ve imposed aren’t serving us well.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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