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ANALYSIS: Missouri lawmakers achieve partial success

Saturday, May 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 3:09 p.m. CDT, Saturday, May 15, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — High unemployment, low tax revenues and a poor public perception guaranteed a challenging session for Missouri lawmakers when they convened this year.

They pledged to clean up their act with new political ethics laws, balance the budget without raising taxes and encourage the creation of more jobs.

They achieved partial success.

When lawmakers adjourned Friday, they had passed a budget and an ethics bill. But the budget will need more cuts to be balanced, and the ethics bill was dismissed by some as insufficient. The jobs legislation never made it to the governor's desk.

Legislative leaders cited plenty of other accomplishments for 2010 — an autism insurance mandate, revamped drunken driving laws, new restrictions on abortion clinics and sexually oriented businesses and a funding change for Missouri's main college scholarship program.

"I think we ended up having a very successful legislative session," said Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Gov. Jay Nixon summed the session up with two words: "solid progress."

Yet despite the officially upbeat assessments, the 2010 session earned a ho-hum evaluation from many rank-and-file lawmakers.

"Issues come and go, but there just was not a whole lot of things that rose to the top," said Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, who with 25 legislative sessions is the state's longest-serving current lawmaker.

"This has been one of the weakest sessions we've ever had," added Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.

Chapppelle-Nadal won't be returning to the House next year. She's running for a Senate seat forced open by term limits. Scott won't be back either. He's term-limited out and has taken a job as president of the Kansas City College and Bible School.

In fact, nearly one-third of the members in each the House and Senate will be swept out of office by the second-largest wave of forced departures since term limits were approved by Missouri voters in the 1990s.

That short-timer status led some lawmakers to go all out to accomplish career goals. For example, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, succeeded after years of trying to pass new restrictions on the adult entertainment industry.

And Shields pushed hard in his quest for lawmakers to think about Missouri's long-range plans. For one perhaps unprecedented day, the Senate suspended its normal business to huddle in corporate-style brainstorming groups and pour over thousands of e-mailed suggestions from citizens about ways to improve government.

Shields called it "Rebooting Government."

In the end, many of the ideas advanced by the Senate got booted by the House, where members were concerned about the consequences of what some considered to be hasty change.

Rep. Tim Flook, who could have sought another term but opted not to, said the session was characterized by an odd mix of aggression and complacency.

"Some seniors are really frantic, and some have really gotten senioritis — (adopting an attitude of) 'I'm just going to make my votes here and accept that I can't get things passed,'" said Flook, R-Liberty.

Scott acknowledges that he fell more into that latter category than the former. Because of his new private-sector job which began in December, Scott said he filed fewer bills than ever before.

Bartle summed up the session with one word: "tense."

"I think there's been a great deal of tension between the House and Senate, maybe more than normal," said Bartle, who has served in the legislature for a dozen years.

That was particularly evident during the final week of the session.

The House quit on Monday after less than two hours of work. Then the Senate cut out early Tuesday so some members could play golf at the Lake of the Ozarks.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, issued a scathing news release listing more than a half-dozen measures that had been passed in the House but were languishing in the Senate while its members were swinging golf clubs.

Bartle suggested in retrospect that perhaps House members should have been invited along on the Senate's social engagements. The Senate functioned with some of its best bipartisanship in years, he said.

"It's a lot tougher to blast people if you have a relationship," Bartle said.

As it was, senators and representatives repeatedly mocked each other in their final days.

House Democrats and Republicans found common ground by chastising Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, for leaving a legacy by insisting upon a requirement that each lawmaker be supplied his or her own key to the Capitol dome. Crowell boasted on the session's final day that he had inserted the mandate — twice previously vetoed by governors — into 13 bills this year, a fair portion of which passed.

Senators, meanwhile, poked fun at House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, who with hyperbolic flourish had declared a politically loaded up ethics bill passed by the House to be the "most comprehensive and sweeping ethics reform bill in the universe."

Senators sarcastically countered with their own cosmic analogies — noting they would settle for the best bill in the galaxy, then proclaiming they had rescued the ethics bill from a black hole as they prepared to pass the final version.

Even Nixon joined in the mockery. He opened his post-session news conference by quipping: "I really expect this will be the best press conference in the universe."

 


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