An inside look at the Missouri legislative session | St. Louis Public Radio

An inside look at the Missouri legislative session

May 19, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Two different efforts to make an end-run around the powerful teachers union lobby met with vastly different fates.

On the one hand was the bill that would allow for alternative certification of teachers, making it easier for professionals to make teaching a second career.

The initiative informally known as "ABCTE" for the non-profit American Board of Certification of Teacher Excellence, that administers the training, was one of the first bills to pass.

There's an old lobbying maxim -- never be the first bill out of the gate -- because you attract too much attention. According to the old school lobbyists, it's better to blend into the herd in the final chaotic days.

But ABCTE lobbyist Kent Gaines seized his opening when he learned that his prime opponent in the Senate, where the measure could be talked to death, would be out of the country. Sen. Joan Bray (D-St. Louis County) reportedly was at her son's wedding when the bill was taken up for perfection in the Senate, depriving her of the chance to amend the bill.

This is in marked contrast to another school reform, which would have created a scholarship for autistic children in public schools to attend private schools. The scholarships would be from private funds, but there would be a tax credit given to the donors. Critics called it vouchers.

Looming behind the effort was retired businessman Rex Sinquefield who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to candidates sharing his agenda.

Despite all his effort, or perhaps because the attention his involvement attracted, the scholarship effort didn't make it out of either chamber, dying for the second year in a row, and actually getting fewer votes in the House this year.

Jump on a Moving Train

Some legislative efforts that would have never made it to first base if they were stand-alone bills were able to hitch a ride to Gov. Matt Blunt's desk. The Democratic minority often functions as helpless observers, but by tacking on amendments during floor debate, they can pass a piece of their agenda on someone else's bill.

Sen. Tim Green (D-north St. Louis County) is the master of this technique. Last year he placed his TIF reform bill into a huge economic development bill. Green keeps several amendments handily tucked inside his desk drawer waiting for the right bill. And the right time. Then like a magician he pulls the rabbit out of his desk.

This year he waited until debate on the illegal immigration bill had already worn on for hours. By the time he rose to explain his amendment the body was considerably more tired and wearily aware of the ticking clock. Green argued that his worker misclassification amendment had already been included in other bills. Despite the bill sponsors' pleading, Green's amendment, which would penalize employers for classifying workers as "contractors" instead of "employees" was included. For information about the bill, click here.

The key is to place the item on a bill that will make it to the governor's office. This year the train with the most steam was the immigration bill.

The Left-Right Coalition is Not of This World

At several junctures the opportunity for a left-right coalition appears, but it never happens. A left-right coalition is one where the far left and far right meet and join forces on an issue. For example, in their floor speeches on immigration, Sens. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis) and Delbert Scott (R-Lowry City) sounded remarkably similar in quoting from the Statute of Liberty and invoking the country's diverse roots.

It's a mind-bending, counter-intuitive alliance that could sink any legislation because it could filibuster the Senate from all sides. However, aside from a stray speech or vote, the coalition never takes hold.

The closest this session came to seeing such an alliance was when the Senate was considering $880 million in tax credits for Canadian aerospace firm, Bombardier. For information on the bill, click here. The measure was being pushed strongly by Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields (R-Kansas City). He was getting predictable grief from Democrats, but heads turned when conservative senators like Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau) and Matt Bartle (R-Lee's Summit) spoke against the deal. The fiscal conservatives didn't like the big price-tag while the liberals wanted to spend the money on other things like health care.

The unlikely coalition vanished when the deal was scaled back to $240 million. The Republicans jumped back into line, and the issue passed easily.

A Republican Revolt?

On Wednesday., two days before the end of session the Missouri House of Representatives broke from afternoon business and the Republicans immediately went into a party caucus. Holding a closed meeting with only party members  is a normal event to map out strategy.

But this caucus was not normal. It had been preceded by an angry debate on the floor concerning the so-called "village law." And the head of the caucus, Speaker Rod Jetton (R-Marble Hill), was not invited.

The village law came into being near the end of last session. In the middle of a sloppy sprint to finish bills, a provision was slipped into one of the widest-reaching bills. The "whodunnit" settled on Jetton, though no good fingerprints were found and legislative forensics were inconclusive. Efforts began immediately to repeal the law.

But Jetton, facing term limits without aspiring to higher office, had no incentive to revisit the issue. Depending on the day, he ignored, dismissed or thumbed his nose at calls for repeal.

Jetton retained power and popularity within his caucus. Having led the House Republican Campaign Committee for several cycles, he had helped most of the current members with their own elections.

Still the matter climbed to the level of crisis with two events: First, the Senate started filibustering House consent bills. In other words, Jetton's stubbornness began to have a negative impact on other members' legislative items. Second, at least one member who wished to speak against the village law wasn't recognized by the chair, an action seen as unfair.

In addition to Jetton, Rep. Shannon Cooper (R-Clinton), his right-hand man and chair of the Rules Committee, was similarly uninvited to this caucus.

Caucuses are not open to the press and, therefore, what unfolds inside is not public record. In this case, Republicans were more tight-lipped than usual. One Republican lobbyist observed, "This is the first time there's been a Republican caucus and I haven't been able to find out what happened inside within five minutes."

The best reconstruction includes these facts: A dozen or so Republicans threatened to "walk," that is physically leave the Capitol, depriving the Republicans of their working majority. In addition to the uproar over the village law, some felt that Jetton was sympathetic to the Senate run of his former chief of staff, Chris Benjamin, now a Democrat.

After everyone had vented, Rep. Ron Richard (R-Joplin) stepped forward and quelled the mutiny. He said that to oust the speaker during the final two days would be "stupid." As speaker-elect, Richard speaks with authority and with the power the dissent representatives would have to deal with next year.

Thus the rebellion was stopped at the gates. The Republican majority returned to the floor and immediately invoked a procedure known as the previous question on three successive bills. It was a show of force, and a show of unity to the Democrats who, awaiting the Republicans to return from caucus, were circulating rumors of a palace coup.

The Republicans finished the session with no more disturbances and moved legislation through the floor with remarkable speed and efficiency. However the near insurrection must have provided at least a whiff of caution that their current majority is not immune to the decaying party allegiance.

After the November elections when Democrats are expected to record gains in the House, the margin of their majority will shrink further. That means any small band of alienated members may threaten their entire agenda.

Dave Drebes runs MoScout, a private news service reporting on state politics. 

For another wrapup of the session, click here .