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Capitol Perspectives: Dead-on-Arrival Bills

Phill Brooks
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Photo: Getty Images,  Jordan McAlister

Photo: Getty Images, Jordan McAlister

Election Returns

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KMOX) - Every time as legislators prepare to take off for their spring break, I am surprised by the large number of bills filed so late in the session that there’s no real hope for passage.

Legislators sometimes are candid about the prospects of these dead-on-arrival bills.

“It’s my hope to do nothing with that bill,” Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, explained to his colleagues when he introduced the last bill on the last day that bills were allowed to be introduced in the Senate this year.

Senate rules impose an earlier deadline for bill introduction than the House, which allows bills to continue to be introduced until the final few weeks of the session.

Many of these last-minute bills are near duplicates of the same bills that got filed early enough to have a chance of passage. For example, there are more than 30 separate bills dealing with Medicaid and a dozen dealing with income tax cuts.

It might seem a minor issue if it were not for the cost to government that is triggered when a bill is filed.

Dozens of copies of the bills have to be printed. But printing is only a small part of the costs.

Most of these bills are written by legislative support staff. The more bills that get filed, the more staff time is required to draft the bills. Beyond that, once the bill is filed, legislative research staff have to write summaries as to what each bill does.

Term limits have made those staff-written summaries far more important for lawmakers.

In the days before term limits, legislators would have had enough experience to quickly understand the impact of a bill without an explanation from legislative staff.

Today, however, legislators are much more dependent upon staff to explain the bills they are debating and passing.

I actually heard a senator complain recently that the sponsor of a substitute for the tax-cut bill had not distributed a staff summary.

Compounding the problem is the restricted communication with legislators under the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon. Legislators do not have the level of access to agency experts that lawmakers enjoyed under past administrations.

That puts even more pressure on legislative staff to provide information on the variety of bills getting filed.

There is another cost from these throwaway bills that I suspect few legislators fully realize. It arises from the large number of government staffers who have to spend hours figuring out the financial impact.

For every bill, legislative staff are required to come up with a multi-year estimate of how much money a bill would generate or cost government. It’s called a fiscal note.

To get accurate numbers, the bills get farmed out to agencies throughout state government for input.

I’m fully aware of the thousands of hours government workers are spending on these estimates because that’s been one of the major time-consuming tasks for my wife for the last several years in her job with the Social Services Department.

I must confess I am not fully sure why legislators file these late and duplicate bills.

In some cases, I sense a legislator files multiple versions of the same issue in an apparent hope that maybe a minor wording change will give the late-filed bill a better chance.

In some cases, the late-filed bills are just dumps of the same bills legislators filed in prior years and never were able to get anywhere in the legislature.

In other cases, it’s as if they’re piling on, trying to take credit for a bill filed by another legislator that has a better chance of passage.

Sometimes, I suspect, it’s just a kind gesture to a lobbyist or local community interest pushing an idea.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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