Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL157.PRB - Improving the legislature«MDNM»
Legislative plans to use part of a $75 million bond issue to expand their statehouse space has led me to think about less expensive ways to improve the legislative process.
What follows are ideas I've heard floating around the Capitol for decades along with a couple of my own.
Reconsider Term Limits: The life-time limit on how long a lawmaker can serve has had a devastating impact on the legislative process.
The constant turnover has crippled the legislature's ability to undertake long-term planning.
It's also undercut the depth of legislative knowledge to craft solutions to complicated state problems and to develop outside sources of trust.
Some argue term limits has helped bring fresh ideas into the legislature.
But there have been so many unexpected consequences that maybe it is time to let Missouri voters reconsider the idea.
Cut the Size of the House: At 163 members, Missouri has one of the largest legislative chambers in the country.
About four decades ago, the national organization of state legislatures recommended cutting the size to about 100 members.
Currently, there are so many lawmakers wanting to have influence that House rules must give legislative leaders tremendous powers to shut off debate and restrict the flood of bills.
Shrinking the House could cut Capitol remodeling costs involving legislative offices that are inaccessible for the disabled. Those offices simply could be eliminated.
On the other side, opponents of reducing the House size argue that a small district with a small number of constituents enhances the public's access to legislators.
Expand Legislative Training: More than a few times, I've heard beginning legislators express frustrations at not knowing the history on subjects like school funding, highways and health care.
Broader subjects include constitutional history, race relations, government financing, administrative rule making and consensus-building skills.
The University of Missouri once had a "Legislative Academy" for new legislators to address legislative training needs. Maybe it's time to reconsider a more intensive training opportunity for incoming legislators.
Limit the Number of Bills: In any given year, more than 1,500 bills are introduced.
Most go nowhere. In some years, just five percent of the bills get passed. Most die from being cast aside without a vote.
It's an open legislative secret that some bills are sponsored just to please a lobbyist, special interest, constituent or voters with no intention of seeking passage.
Missouri's Constitution already sets a deadline for legislators to introduce non-emergency bills.
Maybe there should be an even earlier deadline or a limit on how many bills a lawmaker can sponsor in a year.
Give Committees More Time: Several years ago, the House leadership prevented committees from approving bills for the first month of the session.
The objective was to give committee chairs more time to figure out priorities and more time for committees to put together bills that were accurately worded and effective.
It seemed to me that approach worked well.
Expand Interim Committees: Legislative committees once undertook extensive work during the summer and fall preparing bills on major state issues for the upcoming session.
Besides helping lawmakers learn about an issue, it also provided more time to forge compromises before the frantic pace of a legislative session.
In an era of term limits, it strikes me that there's a far greater need for legislators to spend more time learning about the issues upon which they will be legislating.
Cut Committee Numbers: There is a lot of pressure within the legislature to create a large number of committees to allow as many members of the party in power as possible to be chairs.
In the Senate, for example, there are enough committees that every Republican is a chair or vice-chair.
Restricting committee assignments would provide a greater opportunity for a legislator to develop expertise in a specific area in the few years of legislative service allowed by term limits.
Keep Bills Alive Between Sessions: Currently, a bill has only a one-year life span. If the idea does not clear the legislature in an annual session of only about 70 days, it's got to start over from the very start in the next year.
But there's nothing that prevents a bill from staying alive for the entire two-year session of a General Assembly.
Under that approach, bills that cleared one chamber this year could be taken up in the second chamber next year.
That's how it works in Congress and I found that it allowed a more deliberative pace that avoided the annual mad dash of Missouri's legislature.
[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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