COLUMBIA — Missouri lawmakers have pre-filed more than 850 bills since Dec. 1 in preparation for the 2016 legislative session. But if recent history is any guide, very few will become law.
Of the 8,208 bills introduced in the General Assembly in the past five years, only 8.6 percent got the governor’s signature or enough votes to override a veto. Even those that do become law wind through committee hearings and pass several rounds of voting.
The final votes in the House and Senate and Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature receive lots of attention from the press and political observers.
But much of the legislative sausage is made through amendments and deletions in hearings and debates, and even the most pedestrian bill can’t be passed if leaders are unwilling to schedule a vote.
So, here's a refresher in case you want to follow the process when the session kicks off Wednesday but don’t count votes and woo committee chairmen five months out of the year.
We’ll use legislative records to follow a bill last session by Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, that started out as a proposal to stop Missouri cities from restricting the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, a measure environmental activists were pushing in Columbia. A Senate bill follows a similar path, but we'll be using House terms below.
A bill's journey begins when a representative writes and introduces it, an act the chief clerk adds to the House journal — a daily log of the chamber's work. The bill is printed, has its title read into the journal a second time and then gets referred to the appropriate standing committee.
Tax cuts go to Ways and Means. Trade and Tourism handled a bill last session that declared Oct. 16 "'Walt Disney — A Day to Dream' Day" in Missouri (That bill's sponsor, Rep. Tim Remole, represents a district including the Linn County town of Marceline where Disney spent four years of his childhood).
Shaul's bill went to Energy and the Environment Committee, headed by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark.
Convincing the committee
For any bill to move forward in committee, the chair must schedule a public hearing for members to ask questions about the measure and to hear testimony from experts, interested groups and anyone else who wants a say. The committee has other bills to address, and its members have their own priorities, so the bill’s author has to convince the chair that it’s worth spending time on.
Republicans control the House, so they head the committees, too. This stop is where many bills on the Democratic Party's wish list get off. Proposals like raising the state's minimum wage to $10.25 an hour and abolishing the death penalty never got hearings.
But Shaul’s bill got its hearing on Feb. 10, less than two weeks after it was introduced.
Shaul, who is also the state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, testified in favor of his bill alongside the Missouri Retailers Association and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They argued retailers should be able offer both plastic and paper bags and let customers choose between them.
Representatives of the Sierra Club and Missouri River Relief shot back, saying plastic bags clog stormwater sewers and harm wildlife, but the committee sided with Shaul and voted 11-2 on Feb. 24 to recommend the bill's approval with a few wording changes.
But with a minor change and another recommendation from the Select Committee on Utilities a week later, House leaders put it on the calendar for a third reading and a vote, which came on March 17.
When the entire House takes up a bill, it begins a process referred to as "perfection."
First, the House looks at any changes a committee has made to the bill and decides whether to keep them. Then any member of the House can amend the bill or put a full substitute of his or her own up for a vote. Once all ideas for changes are exhausted, everyone votes.
With two solid recommendations already under its belt, Shaul’s bill last year sailed through perfection without further changes and got support from 114 of the 152 representatives present on March 19 — plenty more than the simple majority it needed.
It would be a different story by April 29, when the full Senate took its run at the bill.
Republicans had full control of the General Assembly, but they couldn't prevent discussions about raising the minimum wage in St. Louis and Kansas City or about Columbia's "ban-the-box" ordinance that restricts employers from asking job applicants about criminal history.
Shaul’s bill had already come under fire from the likes of Columbia Second Ward City Councilman Michael Trapp, who told the Associated Press that the bill was one of a "plethora" of proposals aimed at eroding cities’ ability to govern themselves.
Trapp's criticism fell on deaf ears. When the plastic bag bill hit the Senate floor, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, even made some additions. The revamped bill proposed banishing "ban the box" ordinances and prohibiting cities from raising the minimum wage or employment benefits beyond state and federal requirements.
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, called for a point of order — that is, a ruling on whether Kehoe’s motion violated Senate rules — saying the substitute went beyond the scope of the original plastic bag bill. Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, the Senate’s president pro tem, would ultimately dismiss the complaint when the substitute came up for a vote on May 5, but Democrats didn’t give up.
Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, proposed an amendment removing all mentions of minimum wage. Then-Sen. Paul Levota, D-Independence, proposed an amendment raising the state’s minimum wage to $10 per hour, and Nasheed attempted to "ban the box” for public employers statewide.
Finally, Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, put up a new substitute focusing solely on plastic bags and the minimum wage. It passed on a lopsided party-line vote — and went back to the House.
Usually when each chamber passes a different version of a bill, a conference committee hashes out any discrepancies, then each chamber votes again. But with Republicans united behind the bill and time in the session running out, the House passed the Senate version and sent it to the governor’s desk.
One last obstacle
Nixon was not a fan of the new bill. In his veto letter, he excoriated legislators for what he called "a clear example of unwarranted government intrusion."
"With its passage of House Bill No. 722, the General Assembly is telling local voters that legislators in Jefferson City — not they — know best how to address the local issues that their local communities face," the governor wrote.
But the bill had passed both chambers with more than two-thirds of the vote, so when it came time for a veto session on Sept. 16, Shaul successfully moved to override.
He got 114 votes from the 160 then-filled seats in the House, well above the two-thirds majority he needed. The Senate cleared the threshold by a single vote, but it was enough to make Shaul’s effort, augmented by a far-reaching substitution, law.
Supervising editor is Daniela Sirtori-Cortina.