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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL020.PRB - The Demise of the Special Session
When Missouri's Senate essentially called it quits for the special session without passing most of the major issues before lawmakers, the Senate's majority leader, Tom Dempsey, blamed part of the cause on legislative term limits.
"I think term limits had a lot to do with the state of how we've been operating with a number of senators retiring, and they're not really having a real long-term perspective in working with other members. And we have House members that are looking to move up and move onward," Dempsey said. "And I think all those things make it that much harder to pass substantive legislation."
The St. Charles Republican has a good point.
This was quite a different special session than any I've seen in my more than four decades at the statehouse.
Legislative leaders did not seem to know how to work around their differences. Leaders from the past have talked to me about how they would meet outside the session to bridge their gaps and just develop friendships.
I didn't sense that happening this time. There simply are not the personal relationships that had existed before term limits. The Senate's current president pro tem, Rob Mayer, has talked at length about that with me.
But it's not just term limits. The governor, Jay Nixon, played a very limited public role working with legislators. Except for one short meeting with Mayer, he was not seen in the legislative hallways during the special session.
As Columbia Daily Tribune reporter Rudi Keller observed at a news conference with Mayer, he had seen governors in past special sessions personally get involved to work out differences between the House and Senate.
In 1991, Gov. John Ashcroft spent hours from evening into the early morning hours meeting with legislative leaders in their offices to forge a compromise on a tax increase for higher education.
Former Gov. Warren Hearnes always got involved personally with legislators, and former Gov. Mel Carnahan brokered differences between the two chambers. Those two previously had been legislative leaders, so they had insight about what legislative leaders could and could not deliver.
That was a major part of the difficulties with this year's special session: Legislative leaders had signed on to an agreement that they could not get their members to deliver.
In the Senate, members objected to the $300 million in tax breaks for China hub warehouse developers without any guarantee of jobs or that a foreign air cargo company actually would come to St. Louis.
In the state House of Representatives, by an overwhelming vote, members rejected termination dates on developer tax credits that had been part of the original deal to win the Senate's support.
There were, of course, a number of other factors that contributed to the special session's inaction. Mayer complained about developers and other special interests that mounted pressure on the House to oppose developer tax credit cuts.
There was a divide among the majority party in the Senate that dominated the chamber in ways I had not seen since Democrats fractured over the income tax increase pushed by Hearnes. That ultimately led to the ouster of Earl Blackwell as the Senate's top leader.
Remember, less than a year ago, Republicans evenly split on their candidate for president pro tem. It took a random drawing to make a selection.
Leaders in both chambers also point to the failure of the Chinese firm Mamtek, which has left the city of Moberly potentially responsible for some $30 million in bond payments. That story broke just as the special session was starting and had a clear chilling effect on enthusiasm for another deal with a Chinese firm promoted by the same Department of Economic Development that had touted Mamtek.
Fiscal hawks in the Senate point to an emerging sentiment in their chamber that with an impending budget crisis facing the state, Missouri needs to be more careful about giving away tax revenue in the name of economic development.
Finally, I'm reminded of a lesson I was taught by legislators when I was a "cub" statehouse reporter -- that success is not always measured by bill passage, that sometimes defeat of a measure is a success. To those who reject the idea of giving tax breaks to selected companies in hopes of producing jobs, this session could be considered a success.
As always, let me know (at firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know, and be sure to include your full name in your email.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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