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Capitol Perspectives: How Governors Win over the Legislature

Phill Brooks
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Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Election Returns

As Missouri’s governor enters the holiday season before his second term, Jay Nixon might want to take a look at how past governors have won legislative support for major policy initiatives like his proposal for a major expansion of Medicaid.

So far, Missouri’s governor has suffered some major defeats for his top legislative policy initiatives.

Nixon’s first major policy proposal was to let electric utilities charge customers for some of the costs of building a nuclear power plant while the plant was being constructed.

The governor brought together a coalition of outside interests to win over legislative approval, but it didn’t work.

The idea ran into fatal opposition from a couple of senior senators. A last-night frantic effort by the governor’s aids to work out a compromise was too late and did not include key members of the Senate who killed Nixon’s idea.

For Nixon’s next major policy initiative, the governor began working directly with legislative leaders well ahead of the session. But the governor’s efforts still failed because Senate leaders could not get enough support from their own members for the China hub plan.

In getting major policy initiatives through a resistant legislature, Warren Hearnes was the most successful governor I’ve covered.

He would not have been misled by the assurances of legislative leaders. Hearnes had his own, personal contacts with rank and file legislators.

Hearnes had been a House majority leader in his earlier years and he clearly loved working with the House. He’d spend hours outside the House chamber holding court in Rep. Tom Walsh’s office negotiating and just plain talking to any lawmaker who wandered in.

Hearnes had another tool. Back then there was a lot more freedom to award jobs, state contracts and other perks like low-numbered license plates to supporters in order to win votes.

Hearnes’ successor ruled out awarding goodies to win votes. But, Kit Bond still enjoyed a tremendous success in his first term in pushing a package of consumer protection and ethics measures.

Like Hearnes, he developed close relationships with legislators.

In his second term, Bond had developed some strong personal friendships with Democratic senators. Weekly, they got together in a fourth floor senator’s office for long-night sessions. As best I could tell, these were not serious negotiating sessions on specific issues.

Instead, I got a sense that they were just relaxed sessions of folks who enjoyed getting together for drinks.

Like Hearnes, Bond developed real legislative friendships from these informal settings where the governor could be told the brutally unpleasant truth and hear from folks outside the legislative leadership.

From those sessions, some heartfelt loyalty developed among those Democrats for the young, Republican governor.

Mel Carnahan took a much different approach in dealing with the legislature, but he had an equally successful record.

It was during his administration that the state’s last major tax increase was passed to boost funding for education. He got through the state’s last major expansion of Medicaid to expand health care coverage for children of middle-income parents.

Like Hearnes, he had been a House majority leader. So, he understood the process. He had close relationships with many lawmakers, not just legislative leaders.

While Carnahan regularly visited the legislature’s third floor hallways, these were not prolonged visits like Hearnes. There were no evening drinking sessions with legislators like Bond. The Baptist governor did not consume alcohol.

The most significant difference I found in Carnahan’s approach for policy initiatives was his avoidance in dictating the details. Instead, he would leave it to the legislature to work out the specifics.

At times, he came across as mediator-in-chief when working out differences between the House and Senate. The two chambers were as deeply split then as Nixon faced with the China hub issue.

John Ashcroft played a similar role as a mediator in a House-Senate battle for a higher education tax increase. He spent nights going into the early morning hours in closed-door meetings in legislative offices forging a compromise.

Although Ashcroft did not enjoy the kind of personal legislative relationships of some prior governors, he proved to be a very effective mediator between a deeply divided House and Senate leadership. While clearing the legislature, the higher education tax proposal ultimately was rejected by Missouri voters.

This history would suggest that direct working relationships with lawmakers is essential for a governor to achieve major policy initiatives.

Interestingly, it does not seem legislative experience is necessary. Neither Bond nor Ashcroft had served in the legislature before moving to the governor’s office.

Nor does having your own party in control of the legislature seem necessary for success. Republican Bond faced an overwhelming Democratic majority in the legislature. So too did Ashcroft, who played such a key role as negotiator for the higher education bill.

What seems common in the approaches taken by these governors — two Republicans and two Democrats — was a willingness to spend a significant amount of time dealing personally with legislators during the process in less than formal sessions.

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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