General Assembly report card: A good session for Columbia

Thursday, May 14, 2009 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:04 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 15, 2009

As the first session of Missouri’s 95th General Assembly wraps up, Columbia’s legislators seem pretty self-satisfied. They have reason to be. Mary Still, one of our rookies in the House though no newcomer to Jeff City, summed up: “Columbia has fared as well, if not better, than any other community in the state.”

Thursday’s Missourian added up the bacon Mary and her teammates are bringing home to the university. It’s a package of pork that would impress the old master, Kit Bond, himself. There’s $31 million for a new cancer center, another $6.5 million for the University Hospital and more.

Valerie Insinna’s article didn’t even mention the best news for both the university and the community. That is that the legislature signed onto the deal cut between Gov. Jay Nixon and the state’s institutions of higher learning to trade standstill budgets for standstill tuition. Of course, that promise was only kept — and the other goodies were made possible — thanks to the infusion of $4 billion in federal stimulus money.

The legislative back-patters pointed to the local delegation’s ability to work across party lines. Columbia’s three House members are all Democrats, but our freshman senator, Kurt Schaefer, is a Republican, as is Steve Hobbs, whose House district includes part of Boone County.

From 30 miles up river, it does look like the locals got more done in a Republican-dominated legislature than has been true in recent years. I attribute a good deal of that to the presence of our recidivist representative, Chris Kelly. True, some of his leaps across the party chasm have struck me as bizarre. See, for instance, his support of the scheme to replace the income tax with a higher sales tax.

But Phill Brooks, the dean of Capitol correspondents, told me Thursday that Chris’ inclination and ability to work with Republicans has been one of the most striking and least reported stories of the session. To take one example, his partnership with a Republican House colleague and with Kurt Schaefer in the Senate came closer than anybody would have predicted to winning approval of an $800 million bond issue for capital improvements around the state.

That good idea seems likely to die, the victim of a short-sighted Senate filibuster, when the legislature adjourns at 6 p.m. Friday. With it will die any hope this year of funds for a new museum for the State Historical Society. You’ll recall that the prospect of $20 million or so generated the misbegotten push for an eminent-domain-taking of property to build the museum. Only the scars remain from that tussle.

This session has also produced a head-spinning array of other strange and not-so-wonderful actions.

After midnight Thursday, the Senate first gutted and then passed one of those anti-abortion bills that seems likely to contribute nothing but a bit more aggravation to the lives of abortion seekers and providers. Democrats acquiesced, fearful of something worse.

The day before, the House passed and sent to the governor a bill that will permit the suicidally inclined to ride their motorcycles helmet-less. Unsurprisingly, the head of safety for MoDOT declared it “a huge step backward.”

Also this week, both houses approved a resolution calling on the U.S. Congress to expedite horse slaughtering. One representative responded to the gravity of the issue by bringing into the House chamber a toy stick horse.

And on Wednesday, the House refused to approve a moratorium on the death penalty, even as the Republican majority leader implored the governor to commute the death sentence of Dennis Skillicorn, who is scheduled to die next Wednesday.

That day too, the House quietly cut from an education bill Gov. Nixon’s proposal to provide four-year scholarships to high-achieving students in community colleges. Meanwhile, the existing scholarship fund that gives twice as much to students in private colleges as in public schools will remain unreformed.

A critic of the legislative process could argue, I suppose, that the black snake that sacrificed itself while short-circuiting electricity to both chambers on Tuesday was performing a public service.

I prefer, as always, to look on the positive side. This session could have been — and, with Friday to go, might yet be — a lot worse.


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


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