Missouri House debate on Prop B reveals deep rural-urban split | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri House debate on Prop B reveals deep rural-urban split

Mar 17, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2011 - The outcome of legislation weakening voter-approved regulations on dog breeding could come down to how members of the Missouri House define "the will of the people."

If lawmakers gravitate toward the local definition of democracy put forth by state Rep. Ed Schieffer, then House members could send state Sen. Mike Parson's legislation to Gov. Jay Nixon. Proposition B measure failed overwhelmingly in the Troy Democrat's district, prompting the three-term lawmaker to support Parson's measure.

"I will be voting for change," Schieffer said on the House floor Wednesday.

But if legislators embrace the view of state Rep. Steve Hodges view that the people's statewide vote should be respected, then House members could vote the bill down.

"I go back to what democracy is all about -- majority rule," said Hodges, R-East Prairie.

When Parson's bill arrives in the General Assembly's lower chamber, it may showcase splits in both parties. Suburban Republicans, for instance, may vote against the measure, while some rural Democrats may support it. Ultimately, it could be a rare opportunity to see a high-profile bill backed by a significant number of Republicans face trouble in the GOP-dominated House.

If it survives, Parson's bill also could be a big test for Gov. Jay Nixon on the cusp of his 2012 re-election campaign. The Democratic governor who rode to the office by winning surprising margins in rural and suburban areas could antagonize a sizable bloc of voters if he's presented with a decision.

The People's Will

Parson's bill would, among other things, remove Prop B's cap on owning breeding dogs set at 50, change the criminal punishments and loosen requirements for veterinarian care, exercise and limits on breeding cycles. It also allows the Department of Agriculture to raise license fees, which could lead to more rigorous enforcement.

Parson said on the Senate floor that the bill addresses the issue of enforcement by laying the groundwork for more inspectors to check on licensed and unlicensed breeders. And Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said "the spirit and the intent" of voters was respected.

In an interview with the Beacon, Schieffer said he's received plenty of criticism. But besides going with the vote of constituents, Schieffer said the proposition could put lawful breeders out of business.

"All of us want the really bad breeders to be put out of business; the ones that are abusing animals should definitely be put out of business," said Schieffer.

But Schieffer said Prop B proponents don't want to make any changes. And right after the Senate voted on Parson's bill, Missourians for the Protection of Dogs -- which helped pass the initiative last year -- issued a statement accusing senators of "eviscerating" the ballot initiative.

"The backers of SB113, authored by Sen. Mike Parson, characterized it as a 'fix,' but it was anything but that," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, on his blog. "Parson and his allies hollowed out Prop B, and they've set their sights on reverting back to the weak state law that allowed the puppy mill industry to flourish in Missouri."

But Schieffer said there are benefits to changing the existing law. "They want to keep it the way it is or else they think we're not going by the will of the people," he said. "I maintain if the people really totally understand everything, they shouldn't have a problem amending it to where we go after the bad guys."

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said last week voters had good intentions when passing Prop B. But he added it had unintended consequences.

"What the voters really did last November is that they were concerned about animal abuse, specifically about in the environment of raising and breeding puppies," Cox said. "They had good intentions. But what they did was they essentially adopted a bunch of [specific rules] that are not really scientifically based, they're not based on veterinarian standards or veterinarian care."

But Hodges said a matter of principle is at stake. He said that he was strongly against removing a voter-enacted inflationary escalator from the state's minimum wage law, adding he would be hypocritical if he voted to overturn parts of Prop B.

"Now that's something as a party the Democrat Caucus stood on as a foundation last week in debate," said Hodges, referring to the minimum wage bill. "And if I'm going to be consistent, I think I have to be the same way about Proposition B. The changes being proposed to Proposition B by Sen. Parson, who's a good friend of mine, I just can't support."

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said compromise was possible on the issue. But the measure before the legislature, he said, goes too far.

"From a public policy point of view, I hope that they do kill it," said Kelly, whose southern Boone County district voted narrowly against Proposition B. "But from a political point of view, from a Democratic (party) point of view ... you kind of have to hope that it passes, don't you?"

Geographic Split

Kelly said the dog breeding issue could be "very bad" for Republicans representing more suburban districts, which played a key role in pushing the initiative over the top. While the measure failed overwhelmingly in rural parts of the state, it racked up sizable margins in St. Louis city and county, St. Charles County and Jefferson County. The initiative also passed handily in the Kansas City metro area, and narrowly won in Springfield.

"It's really amazingly bad for west St. Louis County and St. Charles County and eastern Jackson County Republicans," Kelly said. "And it's not my job to figure out what's good or bad for them. But if I were putting together a Democratic strategy for next year and I looked at that, I would say 'ooo ... pass that.'"

The rural-urban split was on full display last week in the Missouri Senate. Parson's bill passed 20-14, with some lawmakers who typically vote with Republicans -- such as state Sens. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, and Jim Lembke, R-Lemay -- voting in opposition. It also drew a "no" vote from Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, whose district voted overwhelmingly to pass Prop B.

"I'm quite confident that my district read the bill, did the best to understand the bill and voted their will," Lamping said on the Senate floor.

But the vote total in the Senate didn't correspond with November's results. Four senators whose districts voted for the propositions -- Sens. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, and Bob Dixon, R-Springfield -- voted in favor of Parson's bill.

That outcome of the vote wasn't lost on Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, who said on the Senate floor that Parson's bill would have failed had all legislators voted the way their districts voted.

"If we actually voted with our constituents today, if we actually voted to uphold the way they voted, the majority of us in this chamber, our constituents said yes -- we want Proposition B," said Justus, D-Kansas City. "And I'm not one of those who think our constituents are too stupid to know what they're voting on."

House Preview

The Missouri House spent time on Tuesday debating the issue on the floor. Although lawmakers didn't vote, it was an opportunity for some lawmakers to express their dismay against Prop B.

For example, state Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, said Pacelle, his organization and anybody who works for him "are promoting an agenda or defending an agenda through the initiative petition process ... is what I could define as terrorism."

She continued, "I am asking my fellow legislators not to negotiate with this domestic terrorist and act now to correct the lies written within Proposition B by [the Human Society of the United States] by supporting passage of this bill."

The debate also provided opportunity for rural Democrats -- such as Schieffer and Rep. Paul Quinn, D-Monroe City -- to express support for changing the proposition, even though the vast majority of the Democratic caucus may vote to reject any alterations.

Lawmakers and observers have varying views of what will happen when Parson's bill comes to the floor. Pacelle, for example, wrote on his blog that he expects the House to pass the measure. But Schieffer isn't so sure.

"Right now, I don't think we've got enough votes," Schieffer said. "Unlike the Senate, I think the House is going to vote to keep Prop B intact. ... The will of the people in the suburban areas voted overwhelmingly to support Prop B."

Indeed, some Republicans from St. Louis County -- like Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood -- opposed changing the initiative. It's also drawn resistance from state Rep. Gary Fuhr, a freshman legislator from south St. Louis County who represents a district that overwhelmingly supported Proposition B.

"Proposition B coming out a citizen's initiative does leave areas of possible clarification and improvement to make sure the courts understand the intent," Fuhr said in a telephone interview with the Beacon. "However, the constituents, particularly in my district in south St. Louis County, were overwhelming in their Proposition B as it was written. And I'm in a position where I have to support their expressed desires here in Jefferson City."

Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst (right), R-Manchester, said he will also be voting against changes to Proposition B. Like Fuhr, he said the opinion of his St. Louis County constituents loomed large.

"I'm talking about constituents -- both Republican and Democrat -- calling and voicing their concern," Scharnhorst said, referring to the response from people about the issue. "I just don't feel like it's my place to attempt to override" the people.

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said the urban-rural split in last November's election could have much to do with proponents of Prop B running a strong media campaign. But he also said the divide could also stem from the differences in how the two regions view dogs.

"A suburban dweller sees a puppy as a pet and was sensitive to the campaign that portrayed pets as being abused," Connor said. "The ad campaign focused on the abuse of dogs. And people in urban and suburban Kansas City, St. Louis and to some extent ... Springfield are sensitive to the abuse of pets, because that's how they see dogs."

Although he said it may be difficult to get the measure passed, Scharnhorst predicted the House has enough votes to approve Proposition B changes. But Scharnhorst said that opponents of Proposition B missed an opportunity during the last election cycle.

"If the forces of the other side of this issue would have gotten out to the public that the veterinarian association was against Proposition B, this thing wouldn't even be discussed right now," Scharnhorst said. "But they waited so long, spent so little money -- like I said, they were doing it on the cheap. They claimed they didn't have the money. ... You and I know that if Farm Bureau wants something, they're going to get it."

"So I don't buy that argument: 'Oh, we didn't have as much money as they did, they had $4 million, we had $175,000.' That's malarkey," he added. "You guys just thought you didn't have to do that hard of work and now you're paying the price for it."

Nixon's -- And Tilley's -- Quandary

If Parson's bill makes it out of the House without any changes, it will go to Nixon to sign or veto. And Prop B proponents are already looking to the governor to be a bulwark against changing the initiative.

"We hope that Nixon will veto this ill-conceived legislation when it gets to his desk," Pacelle said in his blog post. "If he does not, we and our many partners in the effort to secure Prop B will be sure to do all within our power to put this issue back in front of voters at the earliest opportunity."

When asked about whether he would veto such legislation Wednesday in St. Louis, Nixon reiterated that he doesn't comment on whether he will endorse specific bills during legislative debate.

"That being said, I think any time the public passes something, the thumb on the side of the scale if it's equal goes to the side of the people's vote, whether it's on minimum wage or other things of that nature," Nixon said. "I think members of the legislature of both parties are working together to try to look at what can be done here."

Nixon also praised the work of the Department of Agriculture, which he said moved thousands of dogs to "better places."

"We've been robustly enforcing Missouri's law," Nixon said. "That being said, I think good minds of both parties are working on that. And we'll wait and see what happens."

Schieffer said Nixon doesn't want to have to act on this legislation, as it could harm him as he gears up for re-election. "He doesn't want to tick off either side," he said. "So it's a no-win situation for him."

Connor said almost any bill that gets to Nixon in the run-up to the 2012 election is going to be "damned if you do, damned if you don't."

"Unless you want to take this as an opportunity to educate people about the benefits and the detriments of the initiative and referendum process, I think this is not an opportunity for Gov. Nixon. This is something he has to be careful on," Connor said.

But Connor added that the issue wouldn't be a make-or-break issue in Nixon's quest for re-election. That's because the issue doesn't split across party lines completely, Connor said. That means there is a chance for the governor to get "political cover." He added Nixon could "potentially slide" on allowing Prop B changes to take effect.

"He could let this one slide and potentially lose support in St. Louis and Kansas City, but it's not a lot of support and it's not intense support," Connor said, adding for that Nixon could lose more support on the issue of control of the St. Louis Police Department. "If I was advising Gov. Nixon, all things being equal, I would say go ahead and sign [Parson's bill] because they might beat you up about it in Kansas City and St. Louis."

Another person whose 2012 prospects could be affected by the vote is House Speaker Steve Tilley. The Perryville Republican is mulling a run for lieutenant governor, and Connor said he could be harmed if the House passes Parson's legislation.

"This puts Tilley in an awkward position with his own party in the House today," Connor said. "But it also puts him in an awkward position should he want to do something statewide."

For his part, Tilley said last Thursday that legislators in both chambers had "improved" the proposition.

"I think the Senate passed it with a pretty decent vote," Tilley said last week. "[House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka] and I have talked about it and I think we're just going to move the Senate bill. So as soon as I get it, I'll have them refer it to a committee and start working on it."

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