Spend any time in Missouri's stately Capitol building and you're likely to find yourself on the third floor at some point, killing time between hearings or a House or Senate session, perusing the framed photos of former legislators on the wall.
The photos honor men and women sent to Jefferson City from their homes in St. Louis and Kansas City, Ava and Auxvasse, Bolivar and Bunceton, Chesterfield and Columbia to do the people's business.
For a time, they were special, king-makers walking marble halls, wined and dined by lobbyists looking out for their clients.
Now they're pictures on the wall.
The reality of legislative politics is this: Even the most seasoned lawmaker who stands before the photos and thinks real hard would have a difficult time identifying the accomplishments of most of the legislators whose pictures are on the wall, except for those who went on to higher office and made names as a governor or a member of Congress.
There's not much fame in being a state legislator. And that's too bad, because more than any other level of government, state legislatures deal with matters that affect citizens every day: taxes, roads, licenses for professionals from doctors to barbers, law enforcement, courts. The list goes on.
Lobbyists for special interests know this and pay close attention. But the average citizen is hard-pressed to name his current state representative or senator, much less the low-grade heroes on the wall.
This year, an election year, too many of Missouri legislators will be focused on getting out of the legislature, moving on up. On Wednesday, what is known officially as the second regular session of the 96th General Assembly convenes in the Missouri Capitol.
Many of the 163 House members and 34 Senators are running for re-election or for higher office. Several lawmakers will be facing off against members of their own party in primaries.
What that means for citizens of the state is that expectations for lasting accomplishments in the coming legislative session should be low — very low.
The so-called "Blueprint for Missouri," the agenda of the Republicans who lead the House with an overwhelming majority, is underwhelming to say the least. Were the actual goal to build a better state, it would be a blueprint for collapse.
But building a better state is not the goal. Indeed, the anti-worker, anti-public-school, anti-government agenda is intended to help those Republican lawmakers produce campaign advertisements that tout so-called conservative credentials.
So lawmakers will waste time debating and passing resolutions criticizing the federal government. When much of the nation's growth depends on immigrants, they'll debate making English the state's official language. They'll decry abortions, then do nothing to actually reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancies. They'll talk of being pro-business, then ignore actual business leaders who say what they need is a stronger workforce and better education system.
Very little will get done toward making the state a better place to live, work and do business.
The special interests already have figured this out. By most recent count, the Missouri secretary of state has approved 39 different initiative petitions for circulation. They won't all make the ballot in November, but it's a clear sign that plenty of powerful people have given up on the Missouri legislature's ability to deal with big ideas.
The sad reality is that the legislature has left much important, complicated work on the table in recent years, the sort of work that if done right makes a difference in people's lives, but that doesn't necessarily lead to a punchy re-election advertisement.
Here are just a few of those ideas lawmakers should be debating without regard to political party:
- The Turner Fix: Literally tens of thousands of schoolchildren in St. Louis and, soon, Kansas City have the right under Missouri law to flee their unaccredited school districts and attend school in a district in the same or an adjacent county. The issue is tied up in courts with school districts protecting their own tax base while lawmakers argue over various reform issues, such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers, that do very little to solve this very big problem.
- Second Injury Fund: More than 150 Missouri workers are owed more than $15 million because of injuries suffered at their workplaces. But because the state's Second Injury Fund is broke, the payments aren't being made. Tens of thousands more cases are backlogged. Lawmakers have punted on a real solution for several years. Eventually taxpayers will get the bill, which keeps growing.
- Transportation: Just four years ago, roads and bridges were hugely popular. Indeed, you don't get much in the way of economic development without good infrastructure. Republican leaders in the House and Senate had competing tax hike proposals to raise between $4 billion and $7 billion to fix them. Now the "no new taxes" mantra has made it nearly impossible to raise taxes in a state that already has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation.
- Ethics reform: When it comes to the interactions between Missouri lawmakers and those who seek to influence their votes, nearly anything goes. The state has the laxest government ethics rules in the country. There are simple solutions to limit such influence-peddling, but each of them would require lawmakers to summon the sort of political courage that seems lacking in Jefferson City these days.
Some of these ideas will be discussed in the legislature this year, but none of them can be fixed with a snappy sound bite. If past is prologue, the election-year debates quickly will turn into partisan sniping rather than bipartisan problem-solving.
Missourians deserve better.
They deserve a system in which the legislature can serve as a forum for debating and acting on big ideas; where practical solutions are forged between diverse political and regional interests; where elected officials worry more about the people they serve than what they might be able to say about their opponent in the next election.
As lawmakers reconvene this week, we hope they take time to look at the photos on the third-floor wall. Stare closely, as though looking at a mirror, and ask one simple question:
How do I want to be remembered?
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.