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ANALYSIS: Missouri lawmakers merge unrelated subjects

Sunday, May 30, 2010 | 6:24 p.m. CDT; updated 6:36 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 30, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — From childhood to the grave, nearly everything is covered in Missouri House Bill 1692, 1209, 1405, 1499, 1535 and 1811.

And no, that string of numbers is not the result of a computer malfunction.

Missouri lawmakers melded a diverse collection of ideas into a single, massive bill which they passed overwhelmingly in the final hours of their legislative session earlier this month.

The bill's title declares that it relates to real estate. But within its 116 pages there also are provisions on child support cases, death certificates, cemeteries, divorce records, gun laws, boat engines and funding for courtroom renovations.

The legislation probably is unconstitutional.

The Missouri Constitution specifically prohibits bills from containing more than one subject, which must be clearly expressed in the title.

The prohibition on multiple subjects has been enforced by Missouri courts dating to the 1800s. Violations have come to be known as Hammerschmidt problems, an acknowledgment of the Supreme Court's ruling on a challenge to a 1993 bill by Boone County resident Bob Hammerschmidt.

In that case, the court struck down a provision allowing Boone County to adopt a county constitution, concluding that it was unrelated to the bill's central subject of elections.

The unanimous opinion said the Missouri Constitution's ban on legislative "logrolling" is designed to assure that lawmakers and the general public are aware of the subjects contained in a bill.

But as Judge John Holstein noted in a concurring opinion, there has been "widespread violation" of the multiple-subjects prohibition by lawmakers. Not much has changed since Holstein wrote that in March 1994.

"Very seldom do you get a pure bill that doesn't have something else tacked on it," House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said.

"I've been doing this 20 years, and it's been happening my entire 20 years," added Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election this year.

Shields acknowledges that one of his bills — a much-publicized overhaul of Missouri's ethics laws — could be open to a constitutional challenge because of the way it was handled by lawmakers.

Like the wide-ranging bill bearing a "real estate" title, the ethics legislation was passed on the final day of the session after undergoing several top-to-bottom rewrites.

The final bill gives greater power to Missouri Ethics Commission to launch investigations, restricts the shuffling of money between political committees and requires quicker public reporting of some campaign contributions. It also creates new crimes related to bribery, obstruction of ethics investigations and lobbyists' failure to report their wining-and-dining expenses for state officials.

Another section of the bill would require that each lawmaker get his or her own key to the Capitol dome — an exclusive tourist destination otherwise off-limits to the public.

Senate Bill 844 — the ethics legislation — began as a simple bill allowing the Office of Administration to assist statewide officeholders in determining the best and lowest bid on contracts.

The bill's transformation could run afoul of a provision in the Missouri Constitution barring bills from being amended to change their original purpose — a section often considered by courts in conjunction with the prohibition on multiple subjects.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Nixon directed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to ignore what he said was an unconstitutional provision in a midyear budget bill changing the distribution of money to public schools.

Nixon, a former attorney general and state senator, is weighing potential constitutional issues as he decides whether to sign or veto the roughly 100 bills that were passed this year, said spokesman Sam Murphey.

"There is a real concern about the growing number of multi-subject bills, and it is important to respect established constitutional provisions throughout the legislative process," Murphey said.

One reason why large, multi-topic bills continue to get passed is precisely because they are so large. Although they may contain some sections that individual lawmakers oppose, they also contain some things appealing to most lawmakers.

The fact that a bill contains multiple subjects is no guarantee that it will be struck down. First, there must be some person or group with the motivation, money and legal standing to file a lawsuit challenging the legislation.

That's why it's possible that the real estate legislation — with its seemingly unrelated provisions on child support cases, gun laws and such — may become the law of the state.

"The question is, of any of those provisions, is there something in there that somebody wanted to challenge? There may not be," Shields said.


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