Missouri’s Senate may be on the verge of an historic change.
And if so, it likely can be attributed to one of the softest-spoken legislative leaders I’ve covered in all my decades watching over the Missouri General Assembly.
It is easy to underestimate Ron Richard. The Joplin Republican Senator is a man of few words. He rarely speaks or debates in the chamber. And when he does speak, it’s almost always in a calm, soft voice.
Despite that unassuming style, Richard enjoys a tremendous loyalty among his colleagues who have made him one of the most influential legislative leaders in recent years.
After serving two years as speaker of the Missouri House, Richard moved to the Senate. And now, after just two years in the Senate, his Republican colleagues have elected him to be the majority floor leader.
It’s the fastest rise to leadership in the two chambers that I’ve ever seen. And a large factor involves the genuine friendships that Richard has developed with his colleagues. It’s hard not to like Ron Richard.
But it’s more than just words. Ten of the eleven Republicans elected to the Senate this year got, in total, more than $90,000 in contributions from Richard’s campaign committee.
At the same time as Richard’s election as the majority floor leader, Senate Republicans also are beginning a process similar to the House of using closed-door caucuses to develop a more unified, cohesive party approach to state issues.
And just before their caucus, the Republican House Speaker’s office announced he had been invited to the caucus to “discuss the common ground between the two chambers.”
These are two chambers that in the past two years have devolved into name calling against each other.
I think Richard is a player in this change.
A year or so ago, Richard’s successor as House speaker, Steve Tilley, advised me to keep an eye on Richard. Tilley predicted Richard’s rapid rise to power in the Senate and the corresponding adoption of House tactics to ensure greater legislative efficiency and party unity.
Tilley gave credit to term limits that led to the recent large influx of House members into the Senate. When the 2013 legislative session convenes, nearly one-half of the Senate Republicans had been members of the House when Ron Richard was speaker.
In the House, things get done quickly. Filibusters do not stop votes. Weekly closed door caucuses assure party unity. If there’s a difference among Republican members, it’s resolved in private. Extended debate on the House floor easily can be ended by a simple, quick vote.
What a difference to the Senate of recent years where Republicans filibustered their own party members’ bills and openly attacked their leadership.
It’s far too early to determine if a single November closed-door caucus to develop a Senate Republican agenda is the beginning of a new approach in the Senate.
But the foundation has been laid for fundamental change in Missouri’s Senate to address the frustration House members have voiced about the internal disputes among Senate Republicans stalling legislative action on major issues.
Now, however, a lot of former Republican House members are senators and in a position to make changes in the Senate — and more than a few can thank Richard for contributions to their campaigns.
If there is a policy consequence from what I am sensing, I think it will be a possible end to the House-Senate gridlock over tax breaks for business expansion and developers.
Richard is one of the legislature’s leading advocates for economic development and preserving tax credits. As speaker in 2010, he vowed that no cut in tax credits would reach the governor’s desk that year.
At the same time he takes on leadership in the Senate, several of the leading Senate critics of expanded business tax breaks have been term limited out of office.
I should note that a couple of my colleagues have reported a quite different factor in Richard’s selection — that it was a reaction against ties Richard’s opponent has with Tilley, who has become a registered lobbyist.
Maybe they’re right. But I have a sense that Richard’s rise to a Senate leader signals the potential for some major changes coming from your Missouri General Assembly.
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