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Capitol Perspectives: A Session of Limited Expectations

Phill Brooks
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Jefferson City, MO
Election Returns

If you listen to the statehouse pundits, lobbyists and even some legislators you would not hold out much hope for the 2012 legislative session.

The cards certainly seem stacked against the 2nd Regular Session of the 96th General Assembly.

There are so many reasons one can cite for a legislative session of little accomplishment.

It’s a presidential election year. And, historically, that’s not been a year for state lawmakers to pass major policy initiatives.

Rather, election year politics tend to frustrate policy initiative. And sometimes, politics becomes the dominating objective for the session. Think back to 2004 when the Republican-controlled legislature put a gay-marriage ban on the ballot in hopes of bringing more conservatives to the polls.

Compounding this year’s legislative session are the wounds from the summer’s special session that led to deep splits between House and Senate Republican leaders.

Although their top leaders have made public statements about mending fences, the two chambers remain deeply divided over scaling back tax breaks for developers. That split contributed to the legislature’s failure to pass the governor’s economic development package of tax breaks for business and developers.

Now, with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder dropping out of the race for governor, Republicans do not have an obvious standard bearer to bring those various factions the party together. On the Democratic side, Gov. Jay Nixon, facing legislative critics from his own party, has not played a major role as an active legislative leader.

Top legislative leaders may have a diminished role as well because the General Assembly’s two top leaders are lame ducks. Term limits make this the final year for the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem.

It’s been my experience that when a lawmaker involuntarily is forced out of office by term limits, there’s a noticeable drop in drive and initiative in the final year. I’ve sensed almost a degree of depression from some legislators who are being forced out of office after spending so much time and effort developing expertise in complicated state issues.

I still recall vividly the near tears I saw on the faces of a few legislative lions who were in the first wave of those forced out office after decades of legislative service.

Over hanging this session will be a budget crisis of near historic proportions. There will not be any funds to implement new policy initiatives. Instead, identifying where to cut the state’s budget could open some deep splits. That’s a real possibility with education where lawmakers will face tough choices on picking winners and losers in reallocating state funds to local schools.

Despite all of these negative factors, I’m not ready to write off this year’s legislative session.

Election year politics sometimes can be an incentive for lawmakers to get something done. I think of 2000. In that year, your state legislature adopted the “No-Call Law” that gives you the right to stop phone-call interruptions from telemarketers. It was one of the most significant consumer-impact issues passed in some time.

An extensive package of law enforcement provisions to deal with illegal foreigners was passed in 2008. It was the same year that a broad business-tax break package for economic development cleared the legislature.

And, sometimes, term limits can empower a legislator to rise above political concerns. That was one of arguments made by supporters of term limits when the idea was on the ballot.

This year will be a perfect test of that promise. Neither House Speaker Steve Tilley nor Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer are seeking election to anything (at least, they’ve not announced anything). So, there’s an opportunity for statesmanship.

And the budget crisis might provide the vehicle.

My government budgeting teacher back in graduate school would argue that a budget shortfall can provide policy makers with the opportunity to make change. When there’s no disagreement that cuts have to be made, he would argue, it can open the door to more productive discussions about restructuring and refocusing priorities.

This legislative session will have to do something about education funding. The legal formula for dividing state funds among the state’s school districts requires a level of funding that will not be available. The formula effectively is broken.

Revising that formula will open up several other major education policy issues including school vouchers to let parents use state funds for sending their children to alternatives to public education, expanding non-traditional charter schools and, finally, addressing the loss of accreditation by the school districts in Missouri’s two largest cities.

The legislature’s two top leaders, it’s House speaker and Senate president pro tem, have made the state’s education problems a “must-pass” issue. If the legislature is able to address either one of those educational issues, with all the political baggage that has blocked action in the past, it could be a major breakthrough — whether an achievement or not may depend, of course, on your thoughts about school choice and alternatives to public education.

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