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Capitol Perspectives: Joke Bills

Phill Brooks
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The dome shines brightly on the Missouri State Capitol as the sun begins to set in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

The dome shines brightly on the Missouri State Capitol as the sun begins to set in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Election Returns

The recent bill filed to make it a felony crime for a legislator to propose a firearms restriction measure has given me a trip down memory lane about seemingly frivolous bills.

It’s reminded me of the thousands of bills I’ve seen your legislators file with no apparent intention or hope to make them into law. Every year there seems to be a wave of futility, lost causes, wishful thinking, joke bills, self-promotion and worse.

Rep. Mike Leara, R-St. Louis County, acknowledged there was little chance for his bill. “I have no illusions about the bill making it through the legislative process, but I want to be clear that the Missouri House will stand in defense of the people’s Constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” Leara said in a short written statement.

There’s a long tradition of filing bills for symbolic purposes or to make a statement.

Just look at this year’s pile of bills seeking to declare Missouri independent of the federal government in areas like firearms, home schooling, health care, abortion, private property rights, foreign policy and even national security.

But making a statement of protest is not the only reason dead-end bills are filed.

Sometimes it’s done just to let a friendly lobbyist demonstrate to a client that the lobbyist actually can accomplish something for his pay, even if the bill never gets a committee hearing. There’s always next year.

But sponsoring a bill with no immediate plans to seek passage can backfire, as Bates County Sen. Harold Caskey discovered early in his career. Caskey had sponsored a bill to cut in half a special property tax for the blind pension fund and make the fund dependent upon legislative appropriations.

He never requested a hearing on the bill, but the committee chair decided to teach the new senator a lesson and scheduled a hearing anyway.

As a result, scores of blind Missourians converged on the Capitol to protest the legislation. It was particularly embarrassing for Caskey because he was the state’s only blind legislator.

Occasionally, there are far more serious aspects to these bogus bills. In 1984, one of these kind of bills led to the federal corruption conviction of Kansas City House Democrat Alex Fazzino.

He was charged with extorting $6,000 from the fireworks industry to stop legislation to bar the sale of fireworks in Missouri. The bill may not have started as a “rain maker.” Instead, the bill’s sponsor, St. Louis County Democrat Pat Hickey, said he had filed the 1982 bill simply because he did not like the industry’s lobbyist and wanted to cause trouble for him.

These non-legislative motivations for bills are not cost free. They trigger an array of legislative and administrative staff work putting together analyses and estimates on the potential costs to government — not to mention the cost of printing hundreds of copies of the bills.

Decades ago, legislative rules kept staff work on these dead-end bills to a minimum by waiting until a bill was near a House or Senate vote before preparing an estimate of costs to state revenues. And beyond that, these “fiscal note” staff estimates were done only for the obvious high-cost bills.

But now, staff from agencies across state government are called in to figure potential costs of almost every bill filed — regardless of the chances of passage, whether the bill makes rational sense or whether the bill’s sponsor even will try to move the bill.

I wonder if Missouri’s Corrections Department will be asked to estimate how much Leara’s bill would cost the state to imprison legislators for sponsoring bills.

Maybe, there could be a checkbox of “I’m really not serious about this” for a legislator to indicate that staff can skip working on his bill.

It’s not as easy as you might think to identify joke bills.

I learned that lesson early in my statehouse reporting career after I wrote a humorous story about a bill to declare the multiflora rose a noxious weed.

While I sympathized with the bill because I don’t like roses or any plant with thorns, I also realized that a lot of folks love roses for their flowers. And the term multiflora suggests the plant is especially flowery.

But after my story, a rural legislator educated me about how the multiflora rose was an invasive species that plagued farmers and that declaring it a noxious weed triggered efforts to include it in government eradication efforts.

Years later, I learned first hand the truth of that farmer’s explanation when my own backyard got invaded by the blasted plant. I discovered it really is an obnoxious weed.

Other examples are the numerous bills filed to declare some animal, insect, dance, exercise, rock or fossil an official Missouri thing.

On the surface, they may seem foolish. But sometimes, those efforts are the result of school class projects to learn how the legislative process works by proposing ideas for their lawmakers to consider.

And sometimes, the students succeed — as they did in 2005 getting the bullfrog declared the state’s official amphibian. Two years later, another class project led to declaring the crayfish as Missouri’s official invertebrate.

Students learning how government works — now, that’s not a joke.

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