Governor considers MOHELA shortcut

Special legislative session would limit policy’s scope, opposition.
Monday, January 1, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers will convene Wednesday for their annual session. But this year, there is a new uncertainty: Will they convene once, or twice?

In what would be an uncommon move, Gov. Matt Blunt is considering calling legislators into a special session to run at the same time as the regular legislative session.

The agenda for the special session would include legislation allowing student loan agency profits to be used for college construction projects, something that otherwise would be considered during the regular session.

So why do it?

First, a bit of background.

Special sessions typically are called by governors so lawmakers can deal quickly with a pressing issue.

The Missouri Constitution describes it like this: “On extraordinary occasions he (the governor) may convene the General Assembly by proclamation, wherein he shall state specifically each matter on which action is deemed necessary.”

The basic assumption is that lawmakers are not already in session.

In Blunt’s scenario, legislators already would be at the Capitol, so they could act just as quickly on his legislation whether convened in a regular or special session.

But in a special session, it is the governor who specifically states what legislators can consider. By contrast, in a regular session, lawmakers can propose anything they want.

So by calling a special session, Blunt could set a narrow debate agenda, providing grounds for fellow Republican legislative leaders to rule out of order certain controversial amendments construed as going beyond the scope of Blunt’s proclamation.

Under Blunt’s plan, the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority would provide $350 million from its student loan profits to the state, most of which would be used for buildings at public universities and colleges. In return, the state would pledge 10 years of continued tax-exempt bonding allocations that MOHELA could use to underwrite additional loans.

An agreement between Blunt’s administration and MOHELA makes the deal contingent upon the 2007 Legislature also approving the plan and shielding from conflict-of-interest claims any MOHELA board member affiliated with a college, university or the state Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

So consider this hypothetical example:

  • Blunt calls a special session and limits its scope to a resolution ratifying the plan, plus a bill providing liability protection.
  • If opponents of the plan try to change the distribution of the money among universities, add another purpose or insert restrictions on that money, a narrow interpretation of Blunt’s proclamation could be used to declare those attempts out of order.
  • Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer confirmed Friday that the governor is “certainly looking at that issue” of setting a narrow special session agenda. But “the main reason the governor is considering this option is it would deliver the benefits of his plan more quickly,” Chrismer said.

    According to the Missouri Constitution, bills become law 90 days after the adjournment of a legislative session, unless they contain an emergency clause setting an earlier effective date that is approved by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

    If a governor cannot get enough support for an emergency clause during the regular session that ends May 30, then he’s left with an effective date of Aug. 28.

    But the constitution limits special sessions to 60 days. If Blunt were to call a special session in January, that means his legislation would take effect no later than early June, allowing campus building projects to get started almost three months earlier.

    But can a governor legally call a special session during a regular legislative session?

    Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, an opponent both of Blunt’s MOHELA policy and strategy, believes it’s never been done in Missouri’s 186 years of statehood.

    He calls it “an attempt to stifle debate on an important public policy issue.”

    But Blunt’s office notes that Republican Gov. Kit Bond called a special session beginning Dec. 3, 1973, to reorganize government, overhaul campaign finance laws and consider lower vehicle speed limits. That special session continued until Feb. 1, 1974, overlapping for three weeks with the next regular legislative session that started Jan. 9, 1974.

    “One can argue the merits, but there is precedent for a special and regular session occurring at the same time,” said Ken McClure, Blunt’s former chief of staff who also worked in state government from the 1970s through the 1990s.

    A concurrent special and regular session also was considered by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan when the Legislature failed to pass a health department budget by its deadline during the 1997 regular session.

    Carnahan considered calling a special budget session to run during the final week of the regular session but instead called it to start immediately after the regular session ended.

    Nixon said he advised Carnahan against the concurrent sessions.

    “We concluded at that time that the safest legal mechanism for this would be to call an extraordinary session when the Legislature was not in session,” Nixon said.

    Carnahan’s legal counsel, Joe Bednar, also recalls considering the issue.

    “I think we felt it was just cleaner” not to overlap the special and regular sessions, Bednar said.

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