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Columbia legislators sound off on the session

May 20, 2003
By: Megan McCloskey
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -Columbia lawmakers, all of whom are Democrats, found themselves playing new roles in this year's Republican controlled legislature.

Columbia representatives Vicki Riback Wilson and Chuck Graham were in the minority party for the first time in their seven years as members of the House.

As the control of the House changed hands, so did the leadership positions. Both Wilson and Graham had to turn over the reign of their committees to Republicans. Chairs of committees control the fate of legislation.

Graham used to be chairman of the Education committee, and Wilson headed up the Mental Health Appropriations Committee.

Without a chairmanship and the majority, both said they found it more difficult to pass legislation.

"It makes things less predictable," Wilson said. "You have to work harder to make your voice heard."

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, who was Senate Minority Floor Leader, said this was the first bad session he has experienced in his 21 years.

"Within any political environment there is a narrow margin of good that can be achieved," Jacob said. "But this year there was a broad margin for bad."

Jacob said he felt a huge load on his shoulders as minority leader to stop as much bad legislation as possible.

All of the Columbia legislators said education in the state took a giant leap backward this session.

"There was a complete lack of commitment to fund education," Graham said. "We didn't have to see the cuts we did."

There were revenue enhancement options, such as removing gambling loss limits, that weren't taken up at the beginning of the session, Graham said.

The local lawmakers said the legislature had a short-term mentality.

"There was an over-relience on one time monies," Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, a freshman, said.

Harris also said he was disappointed in the ways the House did business.

"We haven't been as analytical as we should be," Harris said.

Both he and Wilson said there was a lack of respect for the rules this session.

"I don't agree with shutting off debate," Harris said.

Despite being a rookie, Harris took a leadership position in terms of debate on the floor.

"I spent a lot of time grilling sponsers of bills," Harris said. "Because there is so little senority it is incumbant on everyone to question issues comprehensively."

Harris sponsored two bills, but neither of them made it out of committee. One bill dealt with voting on school bond issues, and the other would have given tax credits to corporations for research expenses.

Both bills had productive hearings, and he will take them up again next year, Harris said.

Wilson said there was a dangerous trend this session towards a concentration of power that will have the effect of distancing the people from the political process.

"A wide range of Missourians should be heard," she said. "But many of those voices have been silenced."

However, all of the Columbia legislators said they made good progress with the nursing home reform bill.

"We incrementally improved things," Jacob said.