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Capitol Perspectives: Governors Propose, Legislators Dispose

Phill Brooks
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Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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There’s an old Washington adage going back at least 100 years that “the President proposes, Congress disposes.” In states across the country, that adage has been translated into “governors propose, legislators dispose.”

That adage provides an interesting perspective for evaluating the progress as Missouri’s legislature goes on spring break at it’s half way point for the 2012 session.

The adage is based on a conclusion that the legislative process is not designed to initiate new policies. It reflects an idea attributed to our founding fathers that the actual purpose of the legislative branch is to slow down and refine initiatives proposed by the executive branch.

With only a few exceptions, that adage has proven true with Missouri’s General Assembly during my time covering this process. The big policy initiatives that became law started with the governor.

There have been a few exceptions, but they have tended to be single-topic issues that sometimes have been political wedge issues. Abortion restrictions stand out as the biggest exception to the adage that I’ve seen.

A variety of factors have been cited for this inability of the legislature to initiate policy.

Probably the greatest factor is that the legislature is not a monolithic institution controlled by one person. It’s a collection of political factions in which legislative leaders must make compromises to get into positions of power.

Even when the same party controls the House and Senate, agreement is not assured. We saw that last fall with the legislature’s grid lock during the special session. The House made tax breaks for business expansion its top priority. The Senate made its top priority scaling back special interest tax credits.

The right to filibuster in the Senate further frustrates the ability of the legislature to initiate and pass a strong package of significance without outside pressure from a governor.

One could argue that in the first two months of 2012, Missouri’s General Assembly has made a stunningly clear statement of policy initiative in one area.

It’s business, but not tax breaks for business that split the two legislative chambers last year. Rather what has emerged as the legislature’s top priority is a package of non-tax issues involving business.

Campaign finance restrictions, fixing the state’s education funding system, judicial calls for revisions in criminal sentencing, energy conservation including the nuclear power plant controversy and consumer protection issues are among the major issues before this year’s legislative session that have taken a back seat to restricting lawsuit awards against business.

Measures that have moved quickly through the legislature include restricting worker discrimination lawsuits against employers, restricting lawsuits against employers for occupational diseases and changing the method of calculating lawsuit awards that likely would lower damage awards when a business loses a liability lawsuit.

There are a couple of reasons why this business package has advanced so quickly.

First, Republicans hold a super majority in the legislature that makes it easier for them to get their way. And on the business issues they are advancing, there is little dispute among Republican members.

Secondly, it is a bit misleading to portray this as a legislative initiative. Rather, it comes from business organizations. In a fashion, that business coalition has played the role of governor, initiating the details of the legislative theme and holding the legislature’s feet to the fire to get something passed.

Finally, business is unified on these issues. To understand how important that is, take a look at what’s happening with the “right to work” issue to prohibit requiring union membership or union fees to get a job.

That issue does not have unified business support and, unlike the other business issues, “right to work” has stalled in the legislature despite backing from the Senate’s top GOP leader.

But as one of my colleagues has argued, the advancement of this business package may not represent an exception to the adage.

He argues that the business measures clearing the legislature are relatively minor, that they do not affect large numbers of Missourians. Rather, he describes these business measures more as tweaking existing law.

On the other hand, there has been limited legislative progress on one of the biggest problems facing the state — a broken school funding system and unaccredited schools in the state’s two largest metropolitan areas.

Without a clarion call of specific proposals from the governor, the legislature appears a bit stymied on what to do.

But the 2012 legislative novel is only half written. There will be two months left to finish the story when the legislature returns from spring break.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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