'Sleeper cell' Republicans band together in Missouri Senate

Sunday, May 17, 2009 | 12:01 p.m. CDT; updated 3:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 18, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — They're called the "Republican Sleeper Cell."

Although not well known, this group of six conservative state senators became one of the strongest forces in the closing days of the legislative session.

In the Jefferson City political world, some former and current lawmakers have given this group of conservative lawmakers its name. They say these senators lurk in the background and pop up only to defeat certain legislation. Although not an official organization, these six state lawmakers found their voice this session, and said now is not the time to add to state government.

The group is composed of Sens. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, and Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County.

"Within the Republican party, we now have a distinct group of very financially conservative legislators who are willing to take a stand against runaway government growth, and you saw that this year," Ridgeway said. "Several members of our group are very knowledgeable in certain areas, and they've just simply been able to outmaneuver."

And this group of senators said enough is enough — enough of state tax credits, enough of increased taxes and expanding the state budget while the economy declines.

Many spending bills were approved by the House but stalled in the Senate for months.

The group delayed several pieces of legislation through a tactic known as a filibuster. This move can be used to take up time while lawmakers make deals outside the chamber or when senators want to delay a vote on a bill they do not agree with. It can last for hours and commonly leads to the bill being put aside and considered again later.

Collectively, the group filibustered a bill to allow utility companies to pass on to consumers the cost of building a new nuclear plant, a bond measure that would have raised money for building maintenance on college campuses and a bill to provide tax credits to businesses that create new jobs.

The group says what is unusual this year is that the fiscally conservative senators have banded together. They held consistent meetings and were firm on many issues including regulating tax credits.

Their actions led to a $140 million cap on the tax credits provided for historic preservation.

Ridgeway said the stand taken by fiscal conservatives this session has been building for years.

"Two senators can certainly slow something down, three senators can virtually stop it, four, you can completely filibuster it, and there's at least six of us," she said. "As a general rule, we started going with our personal beliefs, and we realized we'd grown in number, and there's obviously strength in numbers here in the Missouri Senate."

Ridgeway said she was more vocal this year because the economy is contracting, but the state budget keeps expanding.

"There's this huge disconnect between what's going on with real people who are paying real bills and the taxpayers and what's going on down here in government," Ridgeway said. "This is precisely the time that we needed to be holding the line on expenditures so that we don't grow government at a time when the economy is getting smaller."

The state operating budget has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, from $8.6 billion in 1991 to $23 billion for 2010.

"We have a defined amount of time in order to get work done, and one of the things I am not content to do is watch that continual trend of growth, growth, growth, more, more, more, in government," she said. "We have to get our financial house in order, or else Missouri is going to be in as worse condition  as other states that have spent themselves into a near financial oblivion."

No one should be surprised that more senators became vocal this year, said Bartle. He said there is a growing awareness within the legislature that Missouri needs to restructure how it spends money.

"We've all kind of been saying this for a while, but it came to a head because we've been able to hold up legislation relating to tax credits," Bartle said. "That's why it seems like we're more vocal. We've really all been saying the same thing now for quite some time. 'Sleeper cell' would imply that we haven't been vocal, and they don't know we're coming, which is completely inaccurate. They know every bill we will have a problem with before we even say a word about it."

The 'sleeper cell' senators said they want the state to be more cautious with how it spends Missourians' tax dollars.

"We're broke, and going further in debt when you're broke is not a good idea," Crowell said. "How we craft a budget in 2012 is going to be largely impacted on how we spend today. Budgets are built upon prior years' actions, so if we lost our fiscal sanity and control this year, it would exponentially increase the problems we already know we're going to face in 2012."

Sen. Chuck Purgason said legislators have lost touch with the values of the citizens they represent.

"I think a lot of us share the same concerns, but I think that some of us get caught up in things that go on inside this building and they forget about the silent majority of people out there who sent us up here," Purgason said. "I think a few more of us are starting to remember who the actual people are that pay the bills, and that's the silent majority back home working and trying to make a living."

Party leaders say having a group of senators willing to speak out against spending bills, even when they go against their own party, is just a part of the legislative process.

"The reality is this is a group of legislators who feel very strongly about reining in tax credits, and that's probably an appropriate discussion," said Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Majority Floor Leader Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said the fiscally conservative coalition members are contributing to the discussion.

"Some people say it causes problems and others say it brings sense to the process, rather than just approving things because it sounds good, and then we're fiscally in trouble like we were under (Gov. Bob) Holden a few years ago," Engler said. "We don't want to go back to that spot. I think a lot of the legislation has fiscal costs, so they've looked a lot closer at it."

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