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Oops! There are errors in our laws

Missouri’s special legislative session was called in part to fix several boo-boos.
Monday, August 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:40 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers have some mistakes to correct.

A Sept. 6 special legislative session has been called not only to enact new abortion restrictions but also to fix a variety of problems in recently passed laws.

The Missouri Constitution allows governors to convene special sessions “on extraordinary occasions” so long as they “state specifically each matter on which action is deemed necessary.”

No doubt, the great flood of 1993 qualified as one of those extraordinary events: Missouri’s major rivers reached heights expected only once every 500 years. Lawmakers were called into special session to approve some emergency state spending.

But the 2005 special session seems far less extraordinary.

Gov. Matt Blunt’s proclamation outlines 16 specific legislative issues to address, most of which can best be construed as legislatively created emergencies — mistakes or conflicting language in laws that, if left standing, could cause confusion for Missouri law officers, judges and residents or lead to some undesirable results.

For example:

n Lawmakers this year passed three bills holding people responsible for allowing parties where minors drink alcohol. Two of the bills contain penalties of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for anyone allowing minors to drink or possess alcohol. But the third bill carries softer penalties — up to six months in jail and a $500 fine — and applies only to the consumption, not the possession, of alcohol.

Blunt signed all three bills into law, raising the question of which version police, prosecutors and judges should follow.

n Legislators eager to crack down on drunken driving passed two bills setting up new penalties for repeat offenders or intoxicated motorists who kill others. But when defining the offenses to which the new law applies, legislators cited different criminal statutes in different versions of the bill.

Again, Blunt signed both bills into law, which could cause some confusion if law officers were to try to enforce them.

n A new crime of distributing prescription drugs at schools was created through two separate bills. One version applies to anyone younger than 21, effectively covering older high school seniors. The other bill applies only to those younger than 18, meaning most high school seniors would be exempt by the time they graduate.

Blunt prefers the 21-year-old threshold, but he signed both into law because the 18-year-old provision was part of a larger crime bill that he didn’t want to veto.

n Legislative staff drafting the final version of a much-hyped overhaul of Missouri’s workers’ compensation law failed to remove a few words and numbers from an earlier draft. The ironic result is that accidental job injuries may no longer be covered by the workers’ compensation system.

The legislative blunders and contradictions highlight some broader flaws about the way Missourians make laws.

Many issues get rolled into massive bills and inserted into several different pieces of legislation to try to ensure passage. As legislative deadlines approach, bills get redrafted numerous times and passed at an ever-quickening pace. Proofreading becomes more difficult, and some provisions end up passing more than once.

Faced with similar-but-conflicting versions, former Gov. Bob Holden sometimes vetoed one of the bills.

Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said some of this year’s problems weren’t caught until after the governor signed the bills. But even if they had been noticed earlier, Blunt likely would have signed the bills and asked lawmakers to fix them in a special session, he said.

The sign-and-fix-it approach puts Blunt in the odd position of encouraging people to ignore laws that take effect Aug. 28, instead counting on their being repealed or corrected a few weeks later.

But the alternative would be an even longer period of intentional lawbreaking until legislators return in January for their next regular session.

Blunt says he hopes the September session truly is extraordinary, adding that he sees no need for annual special sessions to correct laws. Each week in session costs taxpayers about $100,000.

Adds Blunt’s spokesman: “The extraordinary occurrence for this session is to save the lives of the unborn,” and the other issues were added only because there was consensus they could be quickly corrected.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons isn’t complaining about Blunt’s multifaceted special session. But he recalls the first of several special sessions in which he voted — the one in response to the 1993 flood.

“That seemed like a compelling reason to have a special session,” said Gibbons, R-

Kirkwood. “I want to make sure we are careful and limit ourselves. My hope is we would not get into the habit of having a special session every year.”


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