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Missouri Special Session Reveals GOP Rifts

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri’s largest Republican legislative majority in generations began its rein almost a year ago with a tie vote on who should be captain of the Senate.

So perhaps it was fitting that the Senate effectively closed out a special legislative session this past week on a tie vote unable to agree on whether to repeal Missouri’s presidential primary, after being unable to agree on when it should be held.

Thus is the state of the Republican Party at the Missouri Capitol.

Despite having more than enough members in the House and Senate to pass anything the party desires, Republicans were unable to pass much of anything during a special legislative session that began Sept. 6 and is now nearing its end.

They failed to pass a business incentive bill at the heart of the special session, even though GOP House and Senate leaders traveled the state this summer proclaiming they had an agreement to spur job creation. They failed to pass property tax relief for businesses hit by the Joplin tornado. They failed to pass a bill granting St. Louis greater control over its police force. They failed to pass an amnesty
period intended to spur overdue taxpayers to finally pay up. And they failed to adjust Missouri’s presidential primary, despite pleadings to do so from state and national Republican Party leaders.

“Don’t ever tell the public that we do good work over here, because this is bizarre,” Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, declared in frustration after the Senate deadlocked on what to do about the presidential primary. “I don’t know what we’re trying to prove, but we’re not getting it done.”

For Engler, the frustration is double, because he had been in line to become the Senate president pro tem until an intraparty revolt among conservatives led Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, to challenge
Engler for the top spot last fall. They tied repeatedly in a series of votes taken in a closed-door caucus two days after the Republicans’ resounding victories in the Nov. 2, 2010, elections. Eventually, Mayer won by a casting of lots.

Flash forward to July, when Mayer joined House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, on a cross-state tour touting a deal on an economic development bill and urging Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to call lawmakers into special session to pass it. The Republican leaders were so confident that they even suggested they were prepared to call themselves into special session if Nixon would not do so.

The governor obliged. But it quickly became apparent there was no consensus among Republicans. The Senate pared back the proposed tax credits targeting exports at the St. Louis airport and added a
consolidation of existing tax credits backed by Nixon. The House balked at that and eventually passed its own, substantially different bill that also broke the terms of the mid-summer agreement. The Senate said no to the House version. Then after declaring irreconcilable differences, Mayer said this past week that there was no need to even try to negotiate with the House anymore.

Then the accusations intensified. Tilley said he had been lied to by Mayer. And Mayer accused House leaders of doing the bidding of a few developers by refusing to allow expiration dates to be placed on tax credits for the construction of low-income housing and the renovation of historic buildings.

As they departed the Capitol, the one thing that Republican lawmakers could agree upon is that they were frustrated by their failures.

Republicans hold a 26-8 majority over Democrats in the Senate and a 105-54 majority in the House with four vacancies. It’s their largest Senate majority since at least the Civil War era and their largest proportion of House seats since 1929.

“When you’re in historic majorities, you’re expecting that you’re going to get done what you want to get done,” said freshman Rep. Thomas Long, R-Battlefield. He later added: “You don’t expect to be tied up within your own party.”

The disillusionment is just as strong for veteran lawmakers as it is for newcomers.

“We can’t play on the same playground, can we?” said Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-Manchester, now in his sixth year at the Capitol. “I am frustrated. I am probably going to squander a major part of my career here not able to pass the kind of legislation we should be passing.”

Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith acknowledges Republicans bear some blame for the Capitol gridlock, but he says the Democratic governor also could have exerted more leadership during the Legislature’s regular session this spring, averting the need for a special session. Smith calls Nixon “basically a spectator governor.”

In some regards, the Republicans’ current divisions are a result of their electoral successes. When majorities grow large, it is natural for factions to develop within them.

Doyle Childers, a lobbyist who served for 22 years as a Republican lawmaker before being forced out by term limits, recalls that the roles were reversed when he arrived as a House freshman in 1983. Democrats then held a 110-53 majority over Republicans and at times were divided among themselves.

“When you have a large majority, you have a lot of different components of it,” with people coming from rural, suburban and urban areas, Childers said. “So you have a lot of different ideas, a lot of different concepts, and all of that tends to create controversy in a group.”

Perhaps if the Republican majorities were smaller they might be more unified and effective at passing legislation. But that would certainly make for an odd political twist a party seeking to lose a few elections in order to better advance its agenda.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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