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Capitol Perspectives: Sloppy Legislation

Phill Brooks
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Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo: Getty Images,  Jordan McAlister

Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri. Photo: Getty Images, Jordan McAlister

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Sloppy wording was one of the defining elements in the legislature’s recent veto session, as well as a growing problem that is starting to get legislative attention.

Some legislative supporters concede that mistakes in the wording of the two biggest vetoed bills cost them the chance to override one if not both measures — giving Gov. Jay Nixon nationally reported victories.

Both the Senate’s president pro tem and it’s GOP leader cited the unintended consequences in the gun-rights bill as the reason for their votes to sustain the governor’s veto.

If either one of those two had voted to override, the vetoed bill would be law today.

But Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, and Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said their votes were prompted by law enforcement warnings that the bill would prohibit collaboration with federal agencies in going after criminals who used firearms.

They also cited complaints from the news media that the bill would make it a crime to report the name of a person who owned a firearm, such as Gov. Jay Nixon.

The tax-cut bill also had unintended consequences, such as repeal of the sales tax exemption for prescription drugs and a retroactive provision for tax cuts that the administration warned would blow a $1 billion hole in this year’s budget.

None of those consequences were discussed during the legislative session. I’m pretty sure they were not intended by the sponsors.

Some legislative staff put the blame for these unintended consequences solidly on term limits.

There is an obvious connection. Fewer years in the legislature leads to less experience in learning how to construct legal language that is both constitutional as well as able to garner support from the General Assembly and the governor.

That provision in the gun bill that would have made it a crime to publish Nixon’s name provides a perfect example of how lawmakers of the past would have handled the issue differently.

The cause for that provision is fully understandable — the decision of a New York suburban newspaper to identify the name and address of every gun-permit owner in the paper’s area.

But I’m certain that the experienced legislative eagles I covered prior to term limits would have found a more constitutional and politically acceptable means to address that concern.

I’m pretty sure those lawmakers of the past quickly would have realized the concern could have been addressed by expanding the right to file a privacy-invasion lawsuit to specifically include naming a firearms owner.

There’s a long and solid legal foundation for privacy invasion lawsuits that includes exceptions for legitimate news stories and news figures.

There’s another, less obvious consequence of term limits. With legislators having only a few years to get an issue of interest passed, there is a much greater push for the General Assembly to pass something, no matter how badly worded.

We heard that from some of the legislative supporters of the gun and tax bills who argued that any problems could be fixed by next year’s legislative session.

That’s an attitude that would have been foreign to lawmakers in the era before term limits — particularly in the Senate where members prided themselves on having a slow, deliberative process that fixed mistakes before sending something to the governor.

Term limits, however, does not completely explain the missteps that emerged from the 2013 legislative session.

One factor could be the degree to which the governor, his staff and his agencies are disengaged from the legislative process. The current administration is less involved in working with lawmakers in writing legislation than any governor I’ve covered.

That disengagement denies lawmakers the assistance of a vast army of administration lawyers and experts. It also frustrates lawmakers who seek to gain a better understanding of governmental issues.

I’ve heard one of Nixon’s allies explain his disengagement as a recognition that he can have little impact since the opposition party controls the General Assembly.

But that did not inhibit Republican governors Kit Bond and John Ashcroft when Democrats controlled the legislature.

There are, however, a couple signs of hope for our Missouri General Assembly.

Just hours after the veto session adjourned, Richard told me that one of his goals next year will be to have the Senate do a better job assuring that what it passes does not contain the kind of mistakes we saw this year.

And, this year there’s been more activity by interim committees during the summer and fall to prepare bills for the winter legislative session when the vast quantity of bills and the frantic pace hinder thoughtful consideration.

We can only hope.

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