Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL141.PRB - The Passing of a Legislative Era«MDNM»
When Missouri's Senate convenes in January, it will be missing a major part of its institutional memory.
Absent will be four people with decades of knowledge about the process and the history of policy disputes.
Two, Terry Spieler and Jim Howerton, were the Senate's top staffers. Both retired this December.
The importance of historical knowledge in preserving government stability is far more important for the legislature than for the other two branches of government.
Courts must follow precedents set out in published opinions. Governors are restrained by the courts and by laws that restrict interference with some agencies.
But Missouri's legislature has no published book of procedural rulings and courts are reluctant to tell lawmakers how to do their jobs.
As one House leader joked with me, legislative rules are just suggestions.
Even when there is a willingness to follow the rules, legislative term limits preclude members from understanding the decades of history behind interpretations of rules.
The result is a growing reliance on staff to maintain historical stability.
That certainly was the case with Terry Spieler, who had been the Senate secretary for 32 years -- longer than anyone in Missouri history.
That history earned her tremendous respect from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
Often, I've seen newer members and even presiding officers seeking Spieler's guidance during Senate sessions.
More than once, I've heard Senate leaders defer to the judgment of "Ms. Spieler."
If she objected to something in the Senate, it simply did not happen.
The secretary also assures that both bills and journals are letter perfect.
That journal and those bills become the legal record of what the Senate actually did.
So when the Senate adjourns after a late-night session, Spieler would spend hours going line-by-line over the draft of that day's journal that has to be approved before the next session of the Senate can proceed.
Her colleague, Jim Howerton, had been a member of the House before becoming Senate administrator a decade ago. He oversaw the Senate's support services and staff.
He's only the third Senate administrator in the chamber's history.
The first, Ron Kirchoff, became administrator in 1976 and held the position for one-quarter of a century.
As Kirchoff defined the new position, it became much more than just managing support services. As a Senate resolution after his death put it, he provided "protection of the Missouri Senate and its members."
That "protection" role gave Kirchoff and his successors a unique perspective.
"We should all be really thankful Ron didn't write a book," Missouri Southern University's student newspaper, The Chart, quoted Sen. Harold Caskey as saying after Kirchoff's death in 2004. "He knew so much, it could really be a tell all," said the Bates County Democrat.
It indicates Kirchoff's importance to senators that they named their private conference room after him -- a room where secrets are kept just like Kirchoff kept secrets.
Besides Spieler and Howerton, there are two other departures this year that I suspect the Senate will feel.
One is their former research director, David Valentine, who died this summer.
Valentine had left the Senate years earlier, but his influence continued as a faculty member at MU's Public Administration School.
He directed a training program for freshmen legislators, was a lead researcher on legislative term limits and served as a bedrock of knowledge about the background of Missouri public policy.
The other departure is the December retirement of MissouriNet's news director, Bob Priddy.
He had spent four decades covering Missouri's Senate, sitting in that chamber more hours than any reporter I can remember.
His memory is so phenomenal, that he became the undisputed historian of the state Capitol.
With that historical perspective, I have no doubt that Priddy's presence watching over the Senate had an impact.
When the 2015 legislative session begins, I'll be curious how things may change in the absence of Spieler, Howerton, Valentine and Priddy.
[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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