Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL209.PRB - Gridlock
I begin coverage of the 2016 Missouri legislative session wondering if a personal friendship can overcome the historic gridlock between Missouri's House and Senate.
That gridlock has frustrated legislative efforts on so many issues over the years.
The House-Senate divide transcends party. It does not matter which party controls the legislature.
When Democrats controlled the legislature, the chamber divide involved a clear ideological split among Democrats.
The House tended to be controlled by metropolitan liberals. But the Senate was dominated by fiercely conservative rural Democrats who were ideologically closer to Republicans than with their fellow Democrats from urban areas.
That cross-party bridge was highlighted by the few times that the Senate's opening-day news conference was a joint news conference of Republican and Democratic leaders.
But this year, the personal relationship between two top legislative leaders might make a difference. It's the relationship between House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Popular Bluff, and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
The difference that relationship might make was demonstrated on the first day of this year's session when the House speaker walked over with his leadership to the Senate side of the building to hold a joint news conference with Senate leaders.
I don't recall seeing something like that before.
Such a joint House-Senate news conference was described as "historic" by one legislative leader and "symbolic" by another.
"It's symbolic for the House leadership group to be down here. But I think it's important symbolism and that is we intend to have a better working relationship with the House and Senate than we've ever had before," Richardson said.
The two top chamber leaders talked about their collaboration on dealing with one of the major issues of the session -- controlling the influence of special interest money in the governmental and political process.
They have a coordinated plan to address that issue that reflects a cross-chamber level of collaboration I've rarely seen in this place.
Those two men will face enormous outside pressures.
But Richard suggested his personal relationship with the House speaker will make a difference.
"A lot of times the hallway chatter -- the bureaucrats, the lobbyists -- try to pull the two sides apart to try to leverage their priorities or their issues. We're not going to allow that to happen. We know each other pretty well." Richard said.
Maybe this new spirit of cross-chamber collaboration will make a difference.
But I've been chided in the past by my statehouse press corps colleagues for being too optimistic at the start of a legislative session -- particularly in an election year.
In those years, there's more temptation to pander to single-issue voters -- those who will vote for a candidate based only on the candidate's position on a single issue like abortion, guns or taxes.
They're called "wedge issues" that drive a wedge in voters to support a particular candidate regardless of the views or voting record on any other issue.
Another factor, in both election and non-election years, has been the growing influence of extremely well-financed special interests that will target a legislator for voting against a special interest issue.
We saw that in 2013 when 15 Republicans voted to sustain the governor's veto of a major income tax cut that was backed by wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield.
Because of their votes, several were targeted with funds flowing into the campaigns of their primary opponents.
That retaliation effort had less effect than expected, but it sent a message.
That will be a component of one of the underlying stories of the 2016 legislative session.
Can a personal friendship between two legislators overcome the historic, nearly institutional divide of Missouri's General Assembly? And, can it overcome the tremendous influence of outside forces?
[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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