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'We can work it out' may be theme of upcoming legislative session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2011 - State legislators are promising more than just a busy agenda this coming legislative session, which opens Jan. 4. After the failure of this year's regular and special sessions to pass a major economic development bill, legislators are now talking about more cooperation across the two GOP-controlled chambers as well as reform of the legislature itself.

As is common in election years, lawmakers say they want to police themselves better -- as well as change the structure of state government.

State Rep. Jason Kander, a Democrat from Kansas City running for secretary of state, introduced wide-ranging "ethics" legislation. Among other things, the bill would bar lobbyists' gifts, reinstitute limits on campaign donations, ban lawmakers from serving as political consultants, apply the state's Sunshine Law to individual lawmakers and establish a two-year ban on lobbying after leaving office.

"Public service loses its true meaning when a system allows elected officials to serve themselves at the expense of the general public," Kander said in a statement. "Every time an elected official receives a six-figure campaign contribution or accepts a gift from lobbyists, special interests gain influence and everyday citizens lose some. Hard-working Missouri families need lawmakers to be looking out for their well-being now more than ever."

In response to the controversy over state legislative redistricting, state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, introduced legislation requiring all meetings of Senate or House redistricting commissions or judicial commissions to be public. The bill would also require the commissions to obey Missouri's laws concerning open meetings and open records.

"Changing the makeup of a legislative district can have a dramatic effect on how Missourians voice is represented in the Missouri Senate and House," Crowell said in a statement. "Judges should not be able to hide from citizens when making such important decisions."

State Sen. Lamping John Lamping, R-Ladue, would like to shorten the legislative session from 18 to 12 weeks and require the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a ticket. Lamping, who works as branch manager at a securities firm, said such a move resembles private sector restructuring.

"In the private sector, if you don't like the outcome and you don't like what's happening, you look at your process and change the process," Lamping said.

He said the current length of the legislative session provides ample opportunity for wasted time. Another aspect of that bill -- moving special sessions to June -- would prevent the legislature from making decisions after the fiscal year begins.

"The pace activity on the committee level, the pace of the activity from the floor level -- it's all built around this idea that we're going to be there for 19 weeks, including break," Lamping said. "That culture allows legislators to wait until they get to the Capitol in January to take their ideas to legislative forums, take their ideas to their caucus and try to drum up support."

"My vision on how this thing should work is we work harder between ... April and December," he added. "We'll work on legislation, we'll have public hearings, we'll coalesce behind ideas. And when we actually do pre-filing in December, the bills will almost be done. So when you get into session, you execute on the idea that you have and it's just a much faster pace."

He said the governor-lieutenant governor bill, which Crowell also sponsored, would resemble presidential elections in which a presidential nominee selects his vice presidential running mate.

"This is just simple," Lamping said. "I'm a voter. I vote for a Democratic governor. That's who I vote for. The guy dies. Why is a Republican governor in charge?"

He also said a ticket would give voters a better chance to ask candidates about their platform and ideas. He also said there could be some cost savings from combing the offices.

"Once they're in office, if I see the lieutenant governor, maybe I can get his attention and his time ... instead of the governor's time," Lamping said. "Because I know they're working in conjunction with each other. And I just think they would cover the state better, represent the state better."

A New Day?

With so much work to be done, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, and House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, say they've been communicating since the special session ended. Such talks may be necessary; this year, many pieces of legislation died because of differences of opinion between the House and Senate.

Mayer, though, is optimistic. He said he met with Tilley earlier in the month to discuss his chamber's agenda for the upcoming year.

"He expressed the wishes and the will that I did that we focus on some things we can get done and we agree on," Mayer said. "So, those are going to be our priorities early on. We tackled some pretty tough issues last year. It's not easy to pass a $360 million tax credit program for economic development -- such as Aerotropolis -- in [the second half of the session]."

Tilley said he, too, hopes that the Senate and House can have a better working relationship.

"I hope it's a new day," Tilley said. "Rob and I have tried to focus on areas where we agree and stay away from areas where we tend to disagree. ... I can't control how the Senate functions, even though I'd like to change some things. So that's what we've got to deal with."

State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said the legislature has a "responsibility" to have a productive session.

"You have a limited time -- especially in the era of term limits -- to work on things and to get things done," Schmitt said. "And people expect that. That's what you're elected to do. So I'm hopeful that we'll be able to move on some legislation, get some things done."

But at least one lawmaker, state Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, is not optimistic. McKenna -- whose father Bill McKenna was in the Missouri Senate -- said too much emphasis is placed on blocking legislature through fillibusters and not enough pursuit of compromise.

"I don't see a lot changing, quite honestly," McKenna said. "The players haven't really changed. If anything, there might be a little more animosity between people, between the House and the Senate, between individual members."

He doesn't predict any big change until after 2013, when elections and term limits change the complexion of the legislature.

"In today's Senate, it seems like there's a fillibuster every day," McKenna said. "And others have said that compromise seems to have become a dirty word. That's what's traditionally made the Senate the Senate -- the ability to compromise, to give and take."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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