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Capitol Perspectives: A Sad Time in Missouri’s Legislature

Phill Brooks
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This year’s veto session was a sad time for me. It always is in even-numbered years.

That’s because it was the last time I’ll see some of the legislators I’ve covered for years.

For nearly one-quarter century, I’ve covered Democratic Sen. Tim Green. I’ve watched the St. Louis County electrician grow to become a leading budget expert in the legislature. In the House, he ended up chairing the Budget Committee. Yet, for all his power and seniority, Green remained humble.

Plain-speaking, blunt and with sharp political instincts, he has been a valuable source. His Senate seat is just across from my seat at the press table. So, he’d sometimes violate Senate rules by joking with me from his desk during Senate sessions.

Wednesday’s veto session may have been the last day I will see Tim Green. After 24 years in the legislature, term limits has forced him out of office.

I will miss him as I’ll miss Chuck Purgason. The rural southern Missouri Republican was one of the most unique characters I’ve covered in the legislature. Back when he started in the House, he made history by getting acceptance that his cowboy bolo tie met the House rules that require men to wear ties in the chamber.

Until Purgason, the only ties I had seen worn in the House or Senate were made of cloth — not cord.

Purgason is the guy who made national news when in the middle of his campaign for the U.S. Senate two years ago he bragged about abandoning his remarkably unusual wig. It was done, he wrote in his official announcement, as a demonstration of “transparency,” to assure voters that “nothing will be swept under the rug on my watch.” If I remember correctly, he confessed to me it was done at his wife’s urging. He was a fun source to cover.

Purgason was one of the purist fiscal conservatives I’ve covered, at times reminding me of Barry Goldwater. Back when Matt Blunt called on legislators to scale back Medicaid coverage, Purgason expressed frustration that Blunt blamed it on budget problems instead of bragging about cutting welfare.

Part of what makes these statehouse source relationships unique is the close proximity we have with lawmakers during a legislative session of grueling and, at times, intense hours. There’s almost no way a legislator easily can avoid the media.

We’re in the middle of the legislative process to a degree I never sensed during my brief time covering the U.S. Congress for National Public Radio. Unlike the U.S. House and Senate, here in Missouri we have access to the side areas of the chambers.

And unlike Congress, state legislators are not insulated by near armies of staff. So, we get to know some of these folks we cover in the legislature almost as well as family.

The departing Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, Senate Democratic Leader Victor Callahan, House Democratic Leader Mike Talboy and the already-departed House Speaker Steve Tilley, are good examples of what is different between Congress and Missouri’s General Assembly.

They bent over backward to help reporters — always accessible and honest. There were times when, frankly, I was surprised at just how candid they would get about legislative struggles and battles. I will miss them too.

They help demonstrate how term limits have adversely affected the reporting efforts of statehouse reporters.

It takes years to develop these kind of relationships. It takes time for a reporter to learn which politicians are consistently honest and which ones just try to manipulate us. Likewise, it also takes a news source time to develop trust in the integrity of a reporter. It takes time to gain confidence that the reporter really is someone who will keep his word when a promise is made for information to be off-the-record.

As Missouri continues to move into an era of short-term, temporary legislators, I fear those kind of relationships that I found so critical in covering this place for you will become less frequent.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention a positive effect of term limits. It has sent home legislators who have proven to be ineffective or more interested in politics or personal gain than public policy.

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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