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GOP legislative leaders find themselves at odds -- with each other

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2009 - Republicans in the Missouri General Assembly saw themselves as a bulwark against Gov. Jay Nixon when the session began. But with roughly a month to go before lawmakers adjourn for the year, Republicans seem to be turning their aim away from the Democratic governor and instead targeting each other.

Some Senate Republicans are lobbing stinging attacks, questioning the ethics and motivations of their colleagues. Various factions seem miles apart on two of the biggest bills: 1) an economic development package and 2) a proposal to allow utility companies to recover financing costs for the construction of nuclear power plants from ratepayers.

SLOWDOWN IN THE SENATE

Friction among Republicans can be traced back to the structure of the legislative chambers.

Republicans in the House, for example, can essentially pass any bill with the support of a simple majority -- making it possible to push through major legislation very quickly. By contrast, the Missouri Senate is where major bills get slowed down. That's because individual senators can hold up legislation through a filibuster, talking continuously to stop a bill from coming up for a vote.

During this session, groups of lawmakers have opposed two high-profile bills: a package of economic development incentives and a bill that to repeal the state's Construction Work in Progress -- or CWIP -- law.

As proposed in the House, the economic development package would remove the cap on the Quality Jobs tax credit, which provides incentives to companies that pay certain wages and benefits. The package also includes tax incentives for those who invest in certain technology companies and incentives for conducting certain kinds of research.

The CWIP bill, meanwhile, was presented as a way for AmerenUE to build a new nuclear power plant in Callaway County. Proponents argue the move would produce thousands of jobs -- as well as electricity for the state. A broad coalition of opponents -- including consumer groups and big corporations -- is raising alarms about the impact on utility rates.

But both bills have stalled amid Republican opposition. Lawmakers have been unable to vote on either piece of legislation.

A group of conservative Republican senators -- including Sens. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, Brad Lager, R-Savannah, and Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit -- pounced on the economic development legislation, refusing to let it pass without major changes to how the state issues tax credits.

The animosity among Republican lawmakers has been noticeable, going beyond simple differences of opinion.

Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, for instance, accused "outside forces" of trying to sabotage the legislative session after the economic development package failed to pass after a marathon filibuster. And Sens. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Crowell of Cape Girardeau, accused each other of working at the behest of political consultants during testy debate on the CWIP legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, tried to discount the tension among Republicans.

"There's always tension," Engler said. "The first year I was here, we had to separate people in the backroom over a bill on tort reform. I remember that; that was tense. A year ago, we had to separate people in a caucus meeting that were upset over another major issue. And we haven't got to that point.

"Now, are some people tired of long sessions? Yeah. But no one's had any physical confrontations that I'm aware of. And I've seen several over the years of people at least people puffing up," Engler added. "That's never happened this year."

POLITICS OR PERSONAL ANTAGONISM?

In a speech earlier this month after senators failed to pass the bills, Griesheimer was widely quoted as saying the legislative session was "going down the tubes" and that that "outside forces" are trying to derail the legislative session.

"I don't know what's going on, all I can do is suppose and guess," Griesheimer said. "But at least from my standpoint if you agree over here in principle this is what you want and then over [on the Senate floor] you're continuing to not let it get to a vote, there's something wrong."

Crowell replied on the Senate floor that he would continue to oppose the CWIP legislation and the economic development package, adding: "My mom taught me that sticks and stone may break my bones, but words may never hurt me."

"Let me just speak for myself," Crowell added. "I believe there should be greater accountability and oversight as it relates to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. That's my core belief."

Some assumed the "outside forces" that Griesheimer was referring to former House Speaker Rod Jetton, a political consultant with ties to several state senators, including Crowell. But Griesheimer refused to say whether he was referencing Jetton when he made his "outside forces" comment

"Let's put it this way; I don't want to comment on that," Griesheimer said. "So, I don't get in trouble or you don't get in trouble or nobody else. I don't want to comment on it."

MORE THAN A TURF WAR?

One lawmaker was more willing to bring political consultants into the debate. Sen. Kurt Schaefer -- a Columbia Republican who played a major role in rewriting Sen. Delbert Scott's CWIP legislation -- accused Crowell of stalling the legislation on behalf of Jetton.

Crowell then accused Schaefer of being beholden to consultants Jeff Roe and David Barklage, two Republican consultants who have been at odds with Jetton for years.

There's longstanding animosity between Roe and Jetton. And their rift is seen as an easy way to sort out allegiances in Republican political circles. For instance, Sens. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, Robert Mayer, R-Dexter, and Crowell have used Jetton for consulting work. Roe has done consulting work for Lager, Bartle, Schaefer and Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

But the consultants themselves see the fights over CWIP and the economic development bill as more than a political turf war.

When asked to respond to Schaefer's charge, Jetton stated the charge was an example of losing one's temper in the heat of the moment.

"Typically when you can't articulate the merits of your bill, you tend to jump to other subjects," said Jetton in an interview. "And I think Sen. Schaefer was really working hard to try to protect consumers and draft a bill that would allow Ameren to move forward on this plant. He's got good motives.

"When they weren't saying what he thought they should say and they had a different opinion and they were arguing the merits that were a little bit different from him, instead of sticking to the merits and the facts, he just kind of lashed out in a personal way that was unfortunate," Jetton added, also noting that Schaefer apologized for some of his words during debate. "He's not the only one that's said something on the floor in the heat of the moment."

Roe said he sees the Senate fights as a "flare up of personalities."

"The Senate is a legislative, deliberative body -- one of the smallest Senates in the country," Roe said. "And because of that, the partisanship is somewhat removed and the politics many times gets removed -- somewhat to the frustration of consultants. The 'every man is an island' is true and the frustration that boils on issues that people take personal preference on can make it very heated and sometimes that boils over from other skirmishes for certain."

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, sees the intra-party squabbling as another byproduct of a term-limited legislature.

"These kind of inner party splits, although not uncommon, are probably more common now because it's harder for the leadership to keep individual members in line. It's because they don't have a stick any more," Connor said.

This is especially true, Connor said, in the Missouri Senate. Many members -- such as Crowell and Griesheimer -- are serving their last term before they have to depart. Without the promise of a committee chairmanship or a position in leadership, Connor said members tend to pursue their own agenda.

"Because of term limits, they have to stake out some ground on their own as an individual," Connor said. "And it's harder for the leadership to keep that in check."

HOPES FOR COMPROMISE

There is precedent of lawmakers breaking through seemingly intractable forces to pass legislation. In 2006, senators passed state regulations on eminent domain after long negotiations. Hard-fought negotiations also led to success in revamping the state's Medicaid system and laws aimed at illegal immigration.

Lager said slowing down the legislative process can actually be positive as it allows lawmakers to craft better legislation.

"Part of what drives this kind of thing is when you start going into more difficult times," Lager said. "When you're flush with money and you're off into spending sprees, you don't have philosophical debates. You just kind of buy everybody off.

"Now it's like, 'wait a minute, we don't have the money to do all this stuff. It's time to start prioritizing,'" Lager added.

And even though time is running out on this year's legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Engler said he is hopeful that similar compromises can occur.

"I don't think that compromise is impossible," Engler said. "I think that we can get some resolution -- especially on [the economic development] bill. I don't know about the CWIP. If we get the proper consumer protections, if we can get people to sit down, then it can go forward. If we don't, it won't."

Jetton said the dissension is being exaggerated.

"I don't know how many bills have been introduced this session -- probably hundreds -- and now we're getting all wrapped around the axle and saying everything's changed in the Senate because two bills are kind of getting hung up?" Jetton said. "Last time I checked, you know, that's not that big of a deal."

And others doubt the conflicts will keep the Republicans from passing other bills. Roe noted the relative ease in which the House and then the Senate passed their versions of the state's budget.

BUDGET FIGHT STILL LOOMS

An even larger philosophical battle could be brewing between the House and the Senate over the state's budget, especially with the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus cash.

For the most part, the House decided against spending any of Missouri's stimulus money in the operating budget; instead, it decided to draft a separate bill to set aside the money for capital improvements. The Senate, by contrast, was to spend more $930 million to plug various budgetary holes.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said he's frustrated with the Senate's going in a different philosophical direction than the House. He has often expressed fears about dealing with even larger budget deficits if the state's budget is built on "one-time" use of stimulus money.

"That begs the question: What happens next year?" Icet said.

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said the money was provided to places in the budget that can be cut in the future. Much of that money is going toward expenses and equipment, he said, not necessarily funding entitlement programs like Medicaid or the K-12 funding formula.

Whenever budget talks start, Icet predicts there will be a clash between differing philosophies when legislators sort out differences.

"I don't think anybody believes the economy is going to be any better -- if not worse -- next year," Icet said. "So how do we get there?"

Jason Rosenbaum, a former state government reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune, contributes to Missouri Lawyers Weekly and KBIA radio in Columbia. 

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

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