Capitol Perspectives: A dysfunctional Missouri Senate

May 29, 2023 5:45 am

Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, speaks at a news conference after the end of the 2023 legislative session with President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

The closing days of Missouri’s legislature were among the most dysfunctional I’ve covered in more than one half century.

Filibusters by Senate Republican conservatives blocked action on a number of issues.

Ironically, the issues killed included conservative issues to allow firearms on public transportation and to increase the vote percentage required for approval of a state constitutional amendment in the face of a proposed initiative to put an abortion-rights constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Although, to be fair, there were some Republican successes that include banning transgender medical procedures for minors, banning males from participating in school sports teams designated for females, the Republican governor’s proposal for a massive budget to widen Interstate 70 and a package of tax cuts.

The Senate conservative gridlock was the opposite of the vision I heard from the two Senate Republican leaders chosen by their caucus after the 2022 November elections.

They voiced hopes to bridge the GOP divisions that had gridlocked the Senate in the previous session.

Their statements reminded me of 2017 when Republican Sen. Bob Dixon and Democrat Sen. Kiki Curls rose during a Senate session to jointly sing “Kumbaya” in an effort to bring peace within the Senate that was as divided as this year.

Maybe if a few senators had risen to sing that song of peace during this year’s filibusters it might have brought stability to the Senate.

Although, Curls’ and Dixon’s singing did not bring peace in gridlocked Senate.

A major factor for this year’s legislative dysfunction involved how both the House and Senate loaded bills with amendments unrelated to the original single subject as required by the state Constitution.

It caused hours of lost time as legislators asked for explanations about what was in a measure upon which they were to vote.

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, spent hours in the closing days objecting to bloated bills he argued violated constitutional restrictions and sought detailed explanations of the contents.

Imagine a legislator getting a substitute for what had been a short bill but returned to the chamber with a pile of unrelated provisions expanding the bill to nearly 200 pages and having to vote on the measure just a few days before the session adjourns.

Maybe legislative leaders should have ruled out of order any amendment that violated the Missouri Constitution’s requirement that limits bills to the “original purpose” and restricts non-appropriation bills to “one subject.”

Maybe it would have helped if Gov. Mike Parson had publicly warned he would veto bills that covered unrelated subjects that went beyond the original purpose.

After all, in 2022, of the four non-budget bills he vetoed, Parson cited violation of the single-topic constitutional requirement for vetoing two of those bills.

One of the most profound vetoes citing the single-topic requirement of the state Constitution was in 2012.

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that he described had begun as a relatively “simple housekeeping measure…But in the final days of the session, discipline waned as amendment upon unrelated amendment was added, transforming the bill into a seventy-nine page hodgepodge of unrelated matters, and abandoning the constitutional guideposts for legislative transparency in the process.”

Nixon concluded his veto letter charging the bill had become “a sanctuary for orphaned ideas in search of safe transport to becoming law.”

That is almost a perfect description of so many bloated bills in the 2023 legislative session.

The best example this year was a simple bill of 18 pages covering just crimes involving ATM teller machines. But the legislature inflated the bill to 187 pages covering numerous topics unrelated to ATMs or even crime.

If you think I am exaggerating, check out this link that will give you links to the long staff description and to text of the bill now before the governor.

I fully understand Moon’s frustrations with the complexity of understanding what actually is contained in a bill covering a hodgepodge of subjects facing legislators in the final hours of a session.

Early in my career as a statehouse reporter, the late Sen. Clifford Jones, R-St. Louis County, urged me to always read the actual text of a bill and not rely on staff summaries or sponsor descriptions.

Following his advice I often found tremendous stories buried in bills.

But this year the size of these bills expanded by unrelated amendments in the hectic final days made it impossible for me to adhere to his advice.

I wonder if legislators before taking a final vote these bills experienced the same frustration as I did this session.

This commentary has been updated. 

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.