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Capitol Perspectives: A dysfunctional legislative session

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Capitol Perspectives: A dysfunctional legislative session

May 16, 2022 | 6:45 am ET
By Phill Brooks
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Capitol Perspectives: A dysfunctional legislative session
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051322-1759 Members of the Missouri House celebrate the end of this year’s legislative session with the traditional paper toss on May 13, 2022 (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

The 2022 regular session of the Missouri General Assembly was the most dysfunctional I can remember in more than 50 years covering the statehouse.

Endless Senate filibusters stalled action for weeks on major issues for Missourians — contributing to the second lowest percentage of bills passed in an annual session in more than one-third of a century.

The only lower success rate was the 2020 session that was impacted by COVID-19.

Besides continuing filibusters, this year’s legislative dysfunction involved inaction by legislative leaders, lack of discipline by fellow legislators and limited legislative efforts by state officials.

The weeks of filibusters were conducted by a group of Senate conservatives to stall Senate action unless they got their way on congressional redistricting.

Delaying votes on bills in a process where time is critical caused other legislators to cram completely unrelated provisions onto the few bills that had better prospects to move forward in the legislature.

It’s not unusual for legislators and lobbyists to attach their issues onto viable bills when their proposals are stalled. Getting an amendment attached to a bill, even if it fails, provides campaign bragging rights for a legislator seeking election and for a lobbyist pushing the issue for a client.

But this year that approach prompted even more hours of debate over bills bloated with completely unrelated amendments.

One example is a bill that began as a simple issue dealing with county financial statements that became crammed with amendments covering COVID-19 order restrictions, voting changes and sales tax exemptions for diapers, guns and ammunition.

It prompted a critical time-consuming debate as did on a bill that started with a single issue to legalize syringe exchanges.

It got bloated with a host of unrelated amendments that included home care licensing, speech pathologist licensing, visiting rights at medical facilities, foster children and organ transplants.

These amendments reflected a lack of legislative discipline to comply with the constitutional requirement to restrict a bill to the original single subject of the bill.

The most frequent legislator objecting to violations of that constitutional requirement was one of the same senators whose continuing filibusters stalled Senate action that helped create the pressure to bloat bills — Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove.

Yet, Moon also proposed changes to unrelated bills.

In fact, the conservative caucus filibusters that stalled the process derailed some of the major issues of conservatives themselves.

Another contribution to the legislative dysfunction lies with legislative leaders.

In prior years, the presiding officer often upheld a point of order that a proposed chamber amendment violated the constitutional single-subject restriction.

But this year, a ruling to move an unconstitutional amendment into the legislative sewer was rare.

In the Senate leadership’s defense, the deep divide ideological among Senate Republicans limited their ability to stop filibusters by forging compromises to settle differences, as had been done so often in prior years.

But, the Republican Senate leadership probably undercut their ability to facilitate compromises by excluding several conservative members from a GOP caucus held before the start of the session.

One could argue the special interests that lobbyists represent share a responsibility for the legislative dysfunction because many of the unconstitutional amendments that clogged the process would benefit special interests.

Legislators and their staff realize there has been a growing problem in the General Assembly. In the last few years, I’ve heard staffers express frustration about the hostile, negative atmosphere that has emerged in the statehouse.

I worry that frustration could lead to the departure of some staff whose years of experience can bring perspective and understanding to the process.

One term-limited legislator privately told me he was looking forward to leaving the legislature because of how the atmosphere had changed.

In an emotional statement on the legislature’s closing day, term-limited Rep. Bill Kidd, R-Buckner, advised his colleagues “things need to change, but for the better.”

However, the departure of experienced legislators who understand how profoundly dysfunctional this session became does not make me very optimistic that meaningful change will happen.

Contributing to this legislative dysfunction was the absence of a clear public legislative agenda by state leaders.

Missing were frequent statewide public forums by the governor, other state-elected officials and legislative leaders on issues of major importance to Missourians regardless of ideology or party.

In years past, statehouse leaders held extended news conferences with detailed fact sheets that generated statewide news attention which helped focus statewide public attention and pressure.

If you doubt my observation, think whether you can remember a consistent public focus on a specific statewide issue for the 2022 legislative session enunciated by state and legislative leaders that got major state attention.