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Capitol Perspectives: A Week can be an Eternity in Missouri’s Legislature

Phill Brooks
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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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Time has a different and varying meaning for those involved with the Missouri legislature.

Gov. Jay Nixon expressed that different sense of time when a reporter asked that with only weeks left in the legislative session, was there still enough time for lawmakers to pass his Medicaid expansion proposal.

“We’re not even at the half in the legislative session…we’ve got plenty of time,” Nixon responded, using one of his frequent sports analogies.

Although the legislature was well beyond the midpoint, Nixon was absolutely correct in what he was trying to convey.

There is far more than enough time for the Medicaid bill even though it is one of the legislature’s most complex and complicated issues and even though the measure had not cleared a single committee when Nixon was asked his question.

I realize that to outsiders the Missouri General Assembly seems to approach issues at a slow, laborious pace. Even to those of us who cover this process, the debates can seem endlessly — and, at times, pointlessly — long.

But the pace picks up considerably in the closing weeks of a legislative session. Controversies that consumed hours, if not days, of chamber time early in the session can be disposed of in a matter of minutes in the closing weeks.

Some of the reasons for the faster pace are understandable.

At the start of the session, legislators need weeks and months of hearings and discussions to better understand the bills before them.

But by the closing weeks of the session, the issues will be fully understood. So, there’s less need to have extended discussion later in the session. Not only do lawmakers understand the issues, they also understand which aspects have the votes to be included in a bill, and which do not.

The legislative process actually is designed to create what almost seems like an artificial panic in the final weeks of an annual session. In fact, each chamber will not take up the other chamber’s bills until the very end. Instead, they spend almost the entire session on their own bills before, in the final weeks, turning attention to what the other chamber has passed.

But there’s more to it than that.

In a way, putting off final work on a measure, creating the panic of an approaching deadline, actually helps get issues passed. As the session progresses to its conclusion, it forces members demanding changes to finally give in or to compromise.

At some point, there just will not be any time left for further arguments — you’ve either got to give up, or get blamed for killing the bill.

One factor I’ve noticed has been that a governor’s most effective period to influence the legislature often comes at the end of the session. That State of the State address that gets so much attention in January actually has little influence on what the legislature is doing in the spring.

Jay Nixon’s late personal entrance into the legislative process on Medicaid follows what I’ve seen over the decades as pretty successful timing by past governors.

I’m not sure I fully understand why. Maybe it’s that if a governor becomes personally involved too early in legislative negotiations, it can politicize the process — motivating opposition party members to block the administration’s efforts.

Often, I’ve seen a governor become the mediator when the House and Senate are gridlocked on an issue — even when the governor is from the opposite political party. Republican John Ashcroft, for example, played that role in helping the Democratic-controlled House and Senate reach agreement on an higher education tax increase.

There is, however, a danger to this brinkmanship of the legislative process. It can blow up.

Jay Nixon saw that happen with one of his key issues a few years ago — changing electric utility rate laws to facilitate a second nuclear power plant in Missouri.

A final compromise worked out with help by the governor’s staff came just hours before the automatic adjournment of the legislature. It was too late. The measured died in the Senate with some members objecting that they did not have enough time to even read the final version.

Sometimes, the frantic rush to put together a complicated bill can lead to inadvertent mistakes. That happened on the last day of the 1985 legislative session when lawmakers accidentally repealed the crime of rape in a massive bill restructuring the state’s criminal statutes.

“It was one of those victims of chaos,” the governor’s legislative director, Jo Frappier, was quoted by the news service UPI as saying at the time.

This year, Missouri lawmakers should remember that 1985 fiasco because they’re again considering another revision of the criminal code. And it’s a lot larger and more complicated than the bill in which the crime of rape accidentally was repealed.

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