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ANALYSIS: Missouri lawmakers giving up some authority

Sunday, May 26, 2013 | 9:00 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers rolled back some of their own power this year, even after railing against Gov. Jay Nixon's administration for purchasing an airplane and changing the way people get their drivers' licenses without consulting them first.

The Republican-led legislature asserted legislative prerogative this year in condemning the Democratic governor's administration for requiring driving applicants' documents, such as birth certificates and concealed gun permits, to be scanned into a state computer system without notice or input from lawmakers. Republicans also cried foul when the Highway Patrol purchased a $5.6 million airplane without seeking explicit approval from budget-writers.

In response, lawmakers used their authority to check the administration this year, including budget cuts to the agency responsible for licensing and passing a bill that would require the Highway Patrol to seek approval for vehicle purchases more than $100,000.

But they didn't seem to mind ceding some of their authority on potentially politically thorny issues despite the calls for increased involvement in other policy areas.

One measure awaiting Nixon's signature would allow a board — whose members are appointed by the governor with Senate approval — to change the fee structure on permits for businesses to discharge wastewater into the state's rivers and streams. Another would let Missouri judges draw new boundaries for the state's trial court districts.

"I think giving greater flexibility shouldn't be a problem, and if there is a problem, we can always come back and address it," said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles.

The court bill would give judges the ability to draw new boundaries every 20 years as long as they don't add to or remove any of the current 45 districts. Coming up with a water permit fee structure would be left to the Clean Water Commission; those fees fund the Department of Natural Resources' water enforcement program. To change the fee structure, five members of the seven-person commission would need to approve it and the fees could not be more than $5,000. The measure would also extend the department's ability to collect the fees to September 2018, because they are set to expire this September.

Lawmakers would not be totally removed from the fee or boundary change process. If they aren't happy with the judges' map, they can pass their own as long as it also gets the governor's approval. They also could veto the Clean Water Commission's fee structure by adopting a resolution. And they could pass new laws changing these proposals altogether.

But deferring the responsibility of setting fees to a state agency may not have happened when lawmakers had more than 16 years to serve in the legislature.

"That would never have occurred under a pre-term limited General Assembly. Legislators wanted to control how much fees were," said David Valentine, a professor at the Institute of Public Policy at MU, about the water permits.

The same is true for the courts. Lawmakers wanted control over the size and number of judges in circuits because the judgeships were linked to their districts and it was a way to assert authority, Valentine said.

Republican leaders argue that judges are in a better position to draw their boundaries because they can evaluate factors, such as caseload, that are important for a boundary change. House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said judges are the experts in determining the districts where they work just as lawmakers are the experts regarding their legislative districts.

The state's judges haven't had the best track record when it comes to drawing districts for lawmakers. There was turmoil when a special panel of appellate judges handled the task of drawing new House and Senate districts after the 2010 census. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected the panel's Senate map as unconstitutional, which caused the process to restart from scratch — throwing lawmakers who were trying to file for the 2012 election into a state of flux.

Senators responded by pushing for a constitutional amendment that would have required the special panel to hold their meetings in public after many of judge's deliberations drawing the maps occurred in secret.

Although lawmakers chose to spread the power to set permit fees and draw judicial boundaries, there also can be a tendency for state agencies to claim additional authority.

"I think there is less confidence on the part of public officials that the General Assembly will recognize what can be done and what should be done," Valentine said. "If they can do something themselves they do so."


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