There has been a prevailing sentiment expressed in the aftermath of the legislature's special session that it was a failure because it failed to pass the governor's package of tax cuts for business expansion.
One legislative leader attributed the "failure" partially to term limits. Reporters have questioned whether the "failure" was a consequence of unlimited campaign contributions.
Passage of bills, regardless of content, regularly is seen as a measure of legislative success by lawmakers themselves. At the end of every session, legislative staff circulate the numerical count of bills they were able to pass.
That is, however, a very different perspective from what I used to hear from some conservative lawmakers back when I was a beginning statehouse reporter. They felt that the fewer bills passed during a legislative session the better.
Many bills, they argued, expand or create new programs that will cost taxpayer money and grow the size of state government. From a conservative standpoint, it might be viewed as a success to see those bills fail. Besides that, a major portion of bills before the legislature are pushed by special interests that might not reflect the interests of the general public.
The governor's business tax-break package could be placed in the context that failure to pass is not necessarily a legislative failure.
For example, by an overwhelming margin, the House rejected termination dates for two of the state's biggest tax credit programs for developers. House members argued passionately that tax credits for low-income housing development and restoration of historic buildings are major tools for community development.
For these lawmakers, rejection of the governor's proposal to impose sunsets on those tax credit programs was a major success.
The heart of the bill was $300 million in tax breaks for developers of warehouses and other facilities to attract a Chinese airline to establish a cargo transportation hub in St. Louis. Those tax breaks for development of the infrastructure were declared by the St. Louis mayor as essential for attracting a Chinese airline.
But both Missouri's House and Senate took that provision out of the bill. There was strong opposition to giving tax breaks to businesses without guarantees that new jobs would be created.
Despite these votes to remove key parts of the governor's plan, the perception of legislative failure persists because the bill itself died from legislative inaction rather than an actual vote of rejection.
But that's the normal course for killing most bills. In the Missouri General Assembly, few bills actually are defeated. Instead, most of the bills introduced in a legislative session die from inaction by getting bottled up in committee or just running out of time.
There are a lot of pressures in the legislature to avoid voting against a bill. It'll upset the special interests supporting the bill, including those from whom legislators might expect campaign contributions in the future. Rejecting a bill might upset the bill's sponsor. Voting to reject a colleague's bill might make that lawmaker less eager to support another bill in return.
An anti-drug bill pushed by former Gov. John Ashcroft is a perfect example. His proposal would have stripped all state-issued licenses from a person convicted of illegal drug use - sporting licenses, driving licenses and professional licenses.
Ashcroft's idea had strong opposition from legislators who, privately, expressed concern it would make it much more difficult for a drug offender to get job after leaving prison if he or she could not get a professional license in a field such as cosmetology or barbering.
But they did not want to take a public vote. Some Republicans wanted to avoid taking a public stand against a key issue of their governor. Other lawmakers feared casting a vote against the bill would allow political opponents to portray them in the future as being soft on crime.
So, for three years in a row, Ashcroft's drug bill enjoyed nothing but positive votes in the legislature -- only for the bill to die in conference as House and Senate negotiators were unable to work out an agreement that could clear both chambers.
I do not know if Ashcroft ever realized that it was all staged. At times, he even would praise legislators for getting ever-so-close to passing his bill.
I am not suggesting a similar ploy was being used with the China hub. I sensed no secret conspiracy at the start of the session to kill the bill.
But in Missouri's Senate, there is a group of fiscal conservatives who saw the difficulties the China hub bill encountered as a success for a broader policy they are pursuing.
They argue against the approach of picking winners and losers for business tax breaks. They argue that economic development efforts should be across the board, available for almost any Missouri business that can demonstrate that the tax break actually led to creation of a new job with a decent wage and benefits.
From their perspective, this special session and the inaction on the China hub bill might be seen as at least a partial success.
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