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COLUMN: Legislative session earns above-average grade — barely

Thursday, May 20, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

There was a clear agenda of legislative challenges facing the second session of the 95th Missouri General Assembly back in January. While a great deal of time and attention was focused on budget reductions to meet declining revenues, overall the legislative session earned the equivalent of about a .270 batting average, a 7-7 record in the Big 12, either a B- or a C+ at midterm or another year without a pay raise.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s penchant for sports analogies and the goal captured in his phrase “moving forward,” is an appropriate way to evaluate the session. It feels a lot like halftime with a tied score on a rainy Saturday against a nonconference football opponent. Although some state legislators give the session a positive spin, they are spinning knowing that next year will be the train wreck they could have better prepared for this year. There is always next year, but the problems may be a little bigger and, because of legislative term limits, the starting lineup will not be as experienced as this year.

Below is a review of 2010 legislative action on 10 issues that I predicted back in January would be priorities.

1. The budget. As expected because of the state of the economy, the budget dominated the session. With cuts mainly focused on social and education programs, there was little legislative or public resistance. Budget cuts were embraced as either inevitable or a chance to reduce the size of state government. Legislative leaders acknowledge the final $23.11 billion budget is not truly balanced because it is based on unlikely economic assumptions and presumed savings. Either because they figure Nixon will bear the political costs of making budget cuts or because they wanted to preserve legislative harmony, the House and Senate Republicans avoided the tough budget decisions, punting them to the governor instead.

2. K-12 and higher education funding. Although Nixon hails holding state tuition constant with a 5 percent cut in higher education funding and equalizing Access Missouri scholarships for private and public college students as notable accomplishments, they affect a small number of Missourians and have practically as many losers as winners. Not making progress on fully funding the 2005 Foundation Formula or adopting significant long-term education reorganization are opportunities delayed. The K-12 cuts in transportation, Career Ladder and Parents as Teachers will have lasting consequences.

3. Health care. Two anticipated issues were adopted. First, insurance coverage for autism with reimbursement up to $40,000 per year until a child is 18 was adopted, endorsed by Nixon and legislative leaders. Second, the Health Reform Freedom referendum was placed on the August ballot. An effort was made at Medicaid cost containment but seems to have fallen short of its goal of saving $100 million.

4. Legislative and campaign finance reform. After both Republican legislative leaders and Nixon called for “ethics reform,” and with a strong campaign reform bill coming out of the House Special Committee, the end result is small potatoes. Even calling the final bill “Ethics Lite" is wishful thinking. Of all the “in the huddle” talking that goes on within legislative chambers, the public would be most surprised to hear legislators talk about the influence of money in state politics. The legislature, presumably the Senate, fumbled this one.

5. Economic development and employment. A proposed manufacturing jobs bill, primarily aimed at the Ford plant in Kansas City, was one of the two last-day casualties of legislative politics. The rapidly increasing volume of tax credits, some estimate to be $500 million to $600 million of $8 billion in state revenue, has survived and will live to face another legislature.

6. Children's issues. Missouri’s own invention, Parents as Teachers, was cut and only saved by radical reorganization that shifts costs onto local schools and participating parents. Kids don’t vote or lobby, and it shows.

7. Water quality and quantity. Efforts to require better local sewage treatment were not successful. This is an issue where public action will most likely come way too late.

8. Distracted driving. Prohibiting texting while driving and banning hand-held devices for all drivers both were not adopted. Nipping this growing, unsafe habit about five years ago seemed like a no-brainer, though, granted, there are enforcement problems. Opposition to banning is apparently widespread and effective. This might be the next issue that the federal government requires states to act on in order to continue to receive federal highway funds.

9. Judicial selection. With an initiative to repeal Missouri’s Nonpartisan Judicial Selection plan and to reduce judicial terms to eight years on the November ballot, the legislature did not deal with this issue.

10. Crime and prison costs. Some progress was made in that drunken driving laws were strengthened and DWI courts were authorized. Chief Justice William Ray Price’s “State of the Judiciary” speech on Feb. 3 proposing expanding drug courts was very warmly received by legislators and editorial writers around the state. For a month or so, it appeared that a plan to eventually close one state prison would be adopted. Concern about shifting the cost of short-term incarceration stalled that effort.

The effect of Price’s speech and Senate’s “Rebooting Government” workday on March 23 were unpredicted back in January. Together they had the impact of a halftime locker room talk resulting in new ideas and a renewed enthusiasm to address Missouri’s budget problems. Unfortunately, time ran out before new plays were fully drawn up.

Although the refrain around the Capitol the last day of the session was “it’s a beginning” on ethics, education cuts and the sagging budget, it might have just as easily been the blind optimism of “wait till next year.” The only problem is that 10 (of 34) starters in the Senate and more than 50 (of 163) starters in the House, including the co-captains, are graduating. There will, of course, be promising freshmen ready for next season — err, session — but most would benefit by being red-shirted. Meanwhile, the forces of the status quo have a rigorous off-season training program to tend to.

See you next year.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday during the legislative session.


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