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NEWS ANALYSIS: For Missouri lawmakers, some success in compromise

Sunday, May 20, 2012 | 4:08 p.m. CDT; updated 3:25 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 21, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Politics is sometimes referred to as "the art of compromise." If that's so, then there was plenty of politics during Missouri's 2012 legislative session.

On education issues, pro-business proposals and matters affecting the courts, lawmakers struck compromises this year with the theory that passing something — even if it's a sliver of the original goal — is better than nothing.

"That's how the process should work," said House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville. "There's differing opinions in this building and strong feelings on both sides, and I think at the end of the day if you can find compromise or middle ground to get it done — but not sacrifice your principles to get there — I think that makes sense."

The middle-ground approach runs contrary to the public's perception of government, especially Washington, where fiery rhetoric and a stand-your-ground approach has contributed to Congress' perpetually low public approval ratings.

Missouri's Capitol sees its fair share of partisanship and political maneuvering, but the art of compromise lives. Take, for example, the November ballot, which will ask voters to decide whether to grant the governor greater powers in Missouri's process of screening and appointing people to state appellate courts.

Some conservative groups and Republican lawmakers had pushed for years to abolish or dramatically overhaul Missouri's judicial selection method. Currently, a panel composed of three gubernatorial appointees, a judge and three attorneys chosen by members of the Missouri Bar submit a list of three finalists to the governor to fill vacancies on appellate courts. The governor then appoints one of those three to the bench, and the appointee subsequently stands for periodic retention elections.

Some past proposals had sought to replace that plan with the election of judges in partisan campaigns. Other proposals had sought to require Senate confirmation for judicial appointees. The Missouri Bar had fought to defend the status quo.

The compromise measure that ultimately passed the Legislature this year merely gives the governor four choices instead of three. It also adjusts the nominating commission, adding another gubernatorial appointee and making the judicial member of the panel a non-voting participant.

Republican lawmakers also settled for a compromise in their effort to overhaul workplace laws.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a measure passed early in the session that would have made it harder for employees to win workplace discrimination lawsuits. He also vetoed a bill that would have provided businesses additional protection from legal costs by bringing occupational diseases under the workers' compensation system and barring employees from suing co-workers for accidental injuries covered by workers' compensation.

After compromise failed on the workplace discrimination and occupational disease provisions, lawmakers settled for something instead of nothing. In the final week of the session, they sent Nixon a bill dealing only with co-employee lawsuits — a position they anticipate the governor can sign.

Similarly, lawmakers sent the governor a bill granting more entities the ability to run charter schools while also imposing more oversight responsibilities on the schools' sponsors. The bill itself is a compromise between those wanting to greatly expand charter schools and those who fear the consequences for traditional public schools.

But the charter school legislation's passage gave Republican legislative leaders — who had pushed a broader education agenda — something to cite as all the other education initiatives died, including efforts to pare back teacher tenure rules, overhaul the school funding formula and allow the state to more quickly intervene in unaccredited schools.

On the session's final day Friday, some Senate Democrats agreed not to block a bill that would allow employers to refuse to provide health insurance for birth control. The goodwill gesture was part of a compromise with GOP leaders, who agreed not to move forward on a more expansive bill allowing health care providers to refuse to carry out certain procedures on moral grounds.

"Was it a huge victory? No it was not," said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City. But "everybody got something they liked, and everybody got something they didn't like."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, who was at the center of many of the compromises, described the 2012 session as particularly tough. He cited tensions among senators upset over recent redistricting decisions and additional strains between legislative newcomers and veterans being forced out by term limits.

"When you move the ball down the field incrementally, I take that as success," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles.

David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @DavidALieb.


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