Legacy for GOP may be cultural

Bills that passed focus on what is morally acceptable, not how state funds should be spent.
Monday, May 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:34 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — After two years in power, Republican state lawmakers are leaving their mark on society — one that may subtly influence the way Missourians live for years to come.

The GOP’s greatest legacy likely does not lie in the incremental spending cuts or increases contained in the much ballyhooed state budgets of this year or last.

Nor does the legacy necessarily lie in the Republicans’ pro-business agenda, highlighted by repeated unsuccessful efforts to limit lawsuits as a way to lower the costs of conducting business in the state.

Rather, the Republican legacy may be a cultural one — and in the short-term, a litigious one.

Consider two much-publicized bills passed in 2003 by the legislature: one legalizing concealed guns, another requiring women to wait a day before getting abortions.

Then consider two other measures passed during the just-concluded 2004 legislative session: one asking voters to amend the state constitution with a gay marriage ban, another banning most sexually oriented billboards along Missouri’s highways.

All four strike at the heart of a cultural clash occurring in America, a fight not over the best way for government to spend the people’s money, but over the way we should be living our lives. In essence, what’s morally acceptable.

That fact was made clear during this year’s debate over the proposed constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, led the unsuccessful effort to derail the amendment. Opponents argued that a ban on gay marriage would seem just as wrong in the future as banning interracial marriage is regarded today.

“It’s a discrimination based on gender that is not necessary and takes this discussion to a new low in Missouri,” Bray said during Senate debate.

So sensitive were such allegations that sponsoring Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, felt compelled to defend the amendment as it came to a final vote on the session’s final day.

“It has nothing to do with discrimination. It has nothing to do with hatred,” Engler said. “This resolution that we’re going to pass deals with the heart of what makes the state great — the family unit.”

Political science professor Ken Warren of Saint Louis University says Missouri Republican lawmakers clearly have been more successful and consistent in their cultural agenda than their fiscal one, which he notes varies between spending cuts and increases depending on whether Republicans like the particular program being funded.

After about 50 years in the legislative minority, Republicans were eager to press an agenda both fiscally and socially conservative upon taking full power in January 2003.

What they may be learning, however, is “the cultural issues are easier to promote, because they do not cost any money,” Warren said, “and you’re able to remain more consistent on promoting cultural issues.”

Indeed, supporters of the sexy-billboard ban all but predicted a lawsuit even while passing the measure, and at least one adult video store owner already has threatened a lawsuit.

But at their core, the Republican cultural issues are as basic as a belief that some things are universally right and others universally wrong.

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