Analysis: Gov. Nixon bucks special session trend

Sunday, November 15, 2009 | 4:07 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Unlike nearly all his immediate predecessors, Gov. Jay Nixon has not ordered the Missouri General Assembly to come back for a special session.

Among first-year chief executives over the last roughly 40 years, the patience to wait until next year has not been common. Until this year, only one governor since 1965 — Republican John Ashcroft — has not called a special session during his first year in office. Ashcroft took office in 1985 and didn't call a special session until 1989.

This summer, Nixon considered a special session to approve bonds for construction projects, but that did not materialize.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said last week that the governor's office would try to get lawmakers to support the idea when they return to the Capitol in January for their regular session.

"The governor has stated all along that it would take broad bipartisan consensus for the proposal to move forward," Cardetti said. "During the next legislative session we will work to determine if that consensus exists, but we do not plan to call a special session before then."

Missouri governors have had the authority to call the legislature into a special session since the 1812 territorial constitution, and it can be a potent tool. Because the governor must set the issues to be addressed in a special session, the chief executive has the power to limit the debate. But the governor cannot guarantee the outcome.

Political scientist George Connor said that makes special sessions a high-risk, high-reward proposition. They give governors a chance to claim credit for good outcomes, but governors also face the blame when nothing changes.

"It's a higher risk of late than it is a higher reward," said Connor, the chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University.

Democratic Gov. Bob Holden called lawmakers into special session three times during his four years in office. Eight months after taking office in 2001, Holden convinced the legislature to approve bills creating a prescription drug program for seniors and changing a price discrimination law for livestock sales.

But two years later, back-to-back special sessions called by Holden were unsuccessful in getting Republicans to eliminate four tax breaks to raise money for education.

Connor said the purpose for special sessions seems to have evolved with more emphasis on politics, finishing work that could not be completed during the regular session and fixing mistakes in the bills that do pass.

In 2005, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt called a special session after the legislature failed to approve bills restricting abortion. Blunt and Missouri Right to Life clashed over the legislation during the regular session, and the governor expressed concerns that it could have inhibited stem cell research.

Blunt's detailed special session call in 2005 instructed lawmakers what abortion provisions to include and told them specific provisions in other unrelated bills that needed to be changed.

But not every special session has been to shore up political support or fix errors.

In 1993, Gov. Mel Carnahan called a September special session to deal with the year's devastating floods. Carnahan, a Democrat, asked lawmakers to consider legislation to pay for the cleanup, approve bonds and consider a constitutional amendment that would allow Missouri's budget reserve funds to be tapped.

"Our main focus is to provide Missourians with the help they need to get through this crisis," Carnahan said in 1993. "The special session is an important part of the process."

In 1973, Gov. Kit Bond ordered lawmakers back to Jefferson City to respond to the national energy crisis, to reform state campaign laws and to complete a reorganization of the executive branch that was ordered by a 1972 constitutional amendment.

Bond, a Republican, said in his message to lawmakers that the issues were too important to wait, noting that the executive branch restructuring needed to be discussed because uncertainty was making it difficult to set the state budget. His full message took three pages to print in the Senate Journal that recorded the proceedings, which started Dec. 3, 1973.

Other governors have been less wordy in telling lawmakers to get to work.

Democratic Gov. Joe Teasdale used less than 200 words to tell lawmakers that they were supposed to spend money for capital improvements during a 1977 special session.

Nixon's decision to buck the trend illustrates the problems that he faces. Unlike other governors, Nixon's most urgent situation — a financial crisis that has prompted repeated budget cuts — is not necessarily fixed by calling lawmakers back to the Capitol. Plus, the GOP-led legislature is unlikely to automatically endorse Nixon's other ideas.

So for lawmakers, that means a little longer break before starting again in January.

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