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GOP legislative leaders laud their session's achievements, while Nixon laments 'lost opportunities'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2010 - After approving the next state budget two weeks early, the state House and Senate got down to the key social issues that Missouri Republicans will love to campaign on this fall, and Democrats wish would go away.

Reflecting that focus, two of the hottest debates of the final weeks of this session focused on pornography and puppies.

Republicans led the passage of stiffer regulation of sex-oriented businesses, and were involved in an unsuccessful rural effort to derail a ballot measure to restrict the state's dog-breeding industry.

Two of the top session achievements cited by Republican House and Senate leaders also took a social tack:  passage of another bill aimed at discouraging abortions, and a ballot measure that will ask Missouri voters to oppose federal health-insurance mandates.

Topping off the social-issue focus was Friday's final flurry of votes in the House. A sizable segment  dealt with resolutions A) blasting the Democratic-controlled federal government for its debt, B) decrying congressional efforts to address climate change, and C) calling for the state to sue over the new federal health-care mandates.

But top Republicans in the state Capitol said it would be a mistake to characterize this session as one preoccupied with social issues. Early passage of the state budget -- virtually unheard of in Jefferson City -- is seen by leaders in both chambers as their top achievement this year.

"We did it without raising taxes, and I think we couldn't be prouder of that," said state House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, who is running later this year for the state Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, called the session "very successful" during tough budget times. "We began this session without the knowledge of how dire our budget situation would truly be," he said.

Besides the budget, both GOP leaders point to approval of:

  • a state ethics bill aimed at curbing some controversial political practices;
  • a measure mandating insurance coverage of treatment for autistic children up to age 18;
  • a bill equalizing the state's ACCESS scholarships so students at public and private universities receive the same amount ( students at more expensive private institutions had been getting larger awards);
  • bills stiffening penalties for drunken driving and outlawing a synthetic drug called K2 that mirrors of the effects of marijuana.

Overall, according to the House's official count, 1,321 bills were introduced this session in the House and 528 in the Senate. Only 106 passed both chambers.
Nixon lauds successes, laments failures

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, praised the passage of most of the Legislature's top items as well.

But while careful not to attack legislators or their actions, the phrase the governor used most often to characterize this session was "missed opportunity."

At his post-session press conference Friday, a subdued Nixon acknowledged his disappointment at the Legislature's failure to:

-- Approve an economic development bill that, during a last-ditch effort by the Senate on the last day, was to include $8 million to encourage Ford Motor Co. to retain its Claycomo plant in suburban Kansas City;

-- Restrict and retool the state's various tax credit programs, which now cost the state close to $600 million a year, an amount that the governor says is too costly;

-- Revamp the state's pension benefits for state employees, which Nixon says is growing at an unsustainable rate;

-- "Right-size" state government, in his view, by combining some state departments and agencies. Nixon did praise the Legislature for agreeing to put the state's Water Patrol under the jurisdiction of the Highway Patrol, which he says will save money.

-- Pass a stronger ethics bill that included campaign donation limits. The governor called the measure now headed to his desk "clearly a watered-down version" and didn't commit to signing it into law. He said his staff has to study all the provisions in the 109-page legislation.

Overall, "the General Assembly fell short on these important steps," Nixon said, an assessment shared by Democratic House leaders as well.

Regarding his sought-after economic development and job-creation measures, the governor said, "We won't have as sharp a tools as I would have hoped. I thought we were very, very close to getting it done."

Still, he declared that he had no plans to call a special session to address the economic issues, notably the Kansas City area's sought-after incentives for Ford. "My leanings are not to burden the taxpayers with additional costs," Nixon said. "I'm not considering that a valid option."

In fact, the governor emphasized that the budget crafted by the Legislature is likely too hefty -- despite $500 million in trims --because of legislators' failures to act on more of his cost-cutting proposals. Nixon said he expects to have to announce, however reluctantly, additional cuts before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

Referring to legislators and their 4 1/2 months in Jefferson City, he observed dryly: "They do what they do, and then they go home."

Term Limits Will Change the Face of Next Year's Legislature

But dozens won't be coming back, because of term limits -- a fact that could prompt a dramatic shift in Nixon's relationship with the Legislature next year.

The man expected to be the next House speaker -- state Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville -- signaled as much when he asserted during the House leaders' news conference that Nixon was to blame for the failure of an economic development bill to win approval.

The proposed package died late Friday when a deal broke down between the House and Senate. The House had the votes for the economic development measure, while the bill's opponents in the Senate agreed to budge only if the House passed the measure changing state pensions. The House sponsor of that bill balked.

Tilley asserted that involvement from Nixon and his staff might have made a difference. "The governor was missing in action," he complained.

Nixon denied that, although -- as a former state senator -- the governor has made no secret that he's more comfortable dealing with the Senate. Nixon said he and his staff were involved for days in behind-the-scenes talks with senators this week in a bid to win approval of the economic development package.

The governor's strain with the House hails back to last year's session, Nixon's first as governor, when some Republican leaders accused his staff of offering state jobs in exchange for votes. Nixon flatly denied that charge.

Still, the difference in the governor's relationship with the two chambers was made clear Friday when he wistfully lamented the departure of Senate GOP leader Shields and veteran Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.

Nixon, who has known Scott for decades, praised him as honest and direct. As for Shields, who met regularly with the governor, Nixon lauded him as "a tremendous person and a great legislator."

The governor also singled out one fellow Democrat -- state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City -- another legislative casualty of term limits. "She's a consistent voice in so many important areas," Nixon said.

Referring to all three senators, the governor added with feeling, "They'll be missed."

He didn't offer such kind words for anyone leaving the House.

(Some information for this article was provided by Roseann Moring, special to the Beacon.)

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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