Harris rejects bid for House speaker

Citing the need to cooperate with
the GOP, the Columbia Democrat declines a first-day challenge.
Thursday, January 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:36 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Better cooperation between Democrats and Republicans was the overture of the Missouri General Assembly’s first day Wednesday as newly elected Speaker Rob Jetton (R-Marble Hill) brought the 93rd House session to order.

Gov.-elect Matt Blunt presided until the legislature unanimously elected Jetton, who is in his third term, as leader of the 163-member House of Representatives.

Columbia Rep. Jeff Harris, the House minority leader, was nominated by the Democrats to run against Jetton for speaker, but Harris declined, saying he trusted Jetton and wanted to begin the “process of cooperation.” With 97 Republicans in the House, Jetton needed only 83 votes to gain a majority.

“We need to ensure that this government remains for the people and by the people and not for special interests,” Harris said as he declined the nomination for speaker from his party. Jetton “will, I believe, be the person who will help lead us to make Missouri better this session.”

In his opening remarks, Jetton reminded lawmakers that he has worked in both the minority and majority parties in the four years he’s been a representative. Partisan bickering, he warned, can bring the legislature to a halt. He went on to propose new House rules to limit personal attacks and the amount of time spent on floor debates in an effort to even the playing field for the two parties.

“I have seen too much partisan bickering and not enough working together on issues affecting Missouri’s citizens,” Jetton said.

He also outlined what he saw as the state’s top priorities. Echoing what Blunt had said to legislators the day before, Jetton said he wants lawmakers to craft a new formula for funding Missouri’s public school systems.

Columbia’s freshman Rep. Ed Robb, a Republican, said he agreed that a new education formula is the highest priority. He said he was the only legislator to offer specific proposals for achieving that goal in a meeting with Blunt and education leaders on Tuesday.

“I don’t see changing the education funding formula as being a difficulty. It is just something that needs to get done,” Robb said. “It is figuring out how we will change it that will be difficult.”

Although positions for the House committees will not be decided until next week, Robb said he expected to be assigned to work on the budget because of his similar experience as a budget analyst with the Michigan legislature before coming to MU to teach economics.

Judy Baker, Columbia’s freshman Democrat, said she saw Wednesday’s opening session as a sign that the new leadership wants both sides to work together. Baker, who waved to her family in the mezzanine from the House floor after being sworn in, said she also supports changing the education funding formula. Although she said she looked forward to working with Republicans, she still worries that some legislators might allow party lines to get in the way again.

“If they start voting as a bloc, then we can only hope that they will do the right thing,” Baker said.

The Senate also convened at noon on Wednesday, electing Sen. Michael Gibbons (R-Kirkwood) as president pro tem. Outgoing Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, a Democrat, presided.

After a mandated reading of the state’s Bill of Rights both chambers also adopted the necessary resolutions to begin work. . Although many lawmakers said they will wait for Blunt’s State of the State speech on Jan. 26, Robb said he expected some legislation dealing with workers’ compensation and tort reform to be passed and signed by the governor as early as next week.

“Some of these bills have already been filed,” he said. “With the governor’s support I am sure these will be fast-tracked right through.”

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