Priority bills languish amid GOP gridlock

2011-05-15T00:20:00Z 2012-12-18T17:28:58Z Priority bills languish amid GOP gridlockBY VIRGINIA YOUNG > 573-635-6178

JEFFERSON CITY • With 10 days left before adjournment, the Republican-led Missouri Legislature scored a coup, overturning a gubernatorial veto to pass a congressional redistricting map.

But instead of setting the tone for a barnstorming end to the session, the redistricting vote actually represented a high-water mark for Republicans, who were unable to pass priority bills despite wide majorities in both the House and Senate.

When they adjourned Friday, they left on the cutting room floor what many legislators considered the keystone issue: overhauling the state's economic development programs and adding hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives for a foreign air freight hub in St. Louis.

Nearly all education bills died because of internecine battles over school choice. And several priorities identified by legislative leaders — such as making Missouri a "right to work" state, replacing the state income tax with a higher sales tax and abolishing teacher tenure — were nonstarters.

The gridlock reflects a reality of politics in the state Capitol: Republicans are hampered by divisions that even partisan bonds cannot overcome. Many of the key issues broke along geographic or ideological lines.

After 50 years of Democratic rule, the Senate came under GOP control 2001 and the House in 2003. The Republican numbers swelled even more this year, giving them a 26-8 majority in the Senate and 106-57 in the House.

Some Republicans say there's more friction in the GOP caucus simply because it has grown so large.

Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, compared the challenges to being in a large family, where deciding where to go to dinner on Saturday night spurs debates.

"Yes, it is more difficult," he said. "On the other hand, I think it's made us a better party because we've got a lot more people to listen to."


The Senate spent a lot of time listening to four Republicans vent about federal spending.

The four — Jim Lembke of Lemay, Brian Nieves of Washington, Will Kraus of Lee's Summit and Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph — wanted to send a message to Washington.

First they tried to derail extended unemployment benefits. They sat down when GOP leaders promised to scale back state-funded benefits and try to cut $250 million from stimulus projects.

But that deal fell apart when GOP colleagues realized most of the money was already committed.

"Quite frankly, we were fighting against our own caucus," Lembke said Friday. "An overwhelming majority of the caucus wanted to have those dollars available. The big spenders won, but I think it was worth making a stand."

Moderate and conservative Senate Republicans also split over the so-called right-to-work bill, which would have barred contracts that require union fees as a condition of employment. They shelved the bill after a brief debate when it was clear the caucus was deeply split on the issue.

Oddly, that climate also fostered more bipartisanship, said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.

"When you've got a supermajority that's fractured, they need to reach out to the minority," Justus said. She saw more give-and-take behind the scenes on amendments affecting business and labor issues, for instance.


Some Republicans say the Tea Party movement's emergence has hardened the conservative side of the party and led to more reliance on national agendas, such as "model" legislation shaking up public education.

"There's a national movement to do some of this, but I don't know that it fits Missouri that well," said Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, a 38-year veteran educator.

Thomson quietly led the resistance in the House Education Committee to some of the leadership's bills, such as proposals to end tenure and institute a merit pay system for public school teachers.

"I don't think we need to poke teachers in the eye," Thomson said.

There was a price to killing the leadership's bills: other education bills died, too, including a bill reworking the formula that divvies up aid to public schools.

Because of the way the formula is being phased in, Thomson says, "there's going to be a tremendous shift of money and it could be a catastrophe" for many school districts if the formula isn't changed by next year.

Another casualty of the rift over school choice was a bill sought by suburban school districts to counteract a recent Missouri Supreme Court decision that could trigger transfers of thousands of students from failing St. Louis Public Schools to St. Louis County districts.

House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Chairman Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, refused to advance that change, known as the "Turner fix," unless it included more school choice options, such as virtual charter schools.

Throughout the education battles, instead of considering the merits of each bill, 'some people said, 'I'm not going to vote for this unless you move on this,'" Thomson said.


Working together as a party was easier when the House was more evenly split, some members noted wryly.

When Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, came to the House, the GOP Caucus had 92 members and "generally we had to stick together," he recalls.

Now, since only 82 votes are needed to pass a bill in the House and the GOP has 106, "that's 24 people who can take a walk," he said.

Term limits — which cap service in each chamber at eight years — affect the dynamics.

This year, more than half of the Republican Caucus was made up of freshmen. They have just begun to develop expertise on issues and build relationships that produce compromises.

"They're a pretty independent bunch," said Rep. Barney Fisher, R-Richards. "Sometimes that means they're not on the team. I think I'd prefer 89 or 90 who hang together than 106 where you don't know where 15 or 20 of them are from day to day."

Fisher counts himself in the "party of the practical" rather than an ideologue. He sponsored the bill extending the federally funded unemployment benefits.

Of the four senators who stalled it, Fisher said: "They have a point, but we live in a practical world. Their philosophy doesn't put food on the table."


The legislative session showed that a majority — even a big majority — may not be as strong as it appears.

Even on dog breeding, where some suburban legislators joined rural colleagues to rewrite Proposition B, Republicans can claim only a partial victory because it was Jay Nixon, the Democratic governor, who mapped out the strategy.

"They had the potential to do more on right to work," said George Connor, director of the political science department at Missouri State University. "They had the potential to do more on their agenda."

Still, Connor said Republicans' signature accomplishment — redistricting — may have been their most important job.

To reflect the state's census results, the map eliminates a St. Louis-area district held by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan. Republicans then wooed four Democrats to vote with them to override Nixon's veto.

If they had faltered, the map would have been drawn by the courts.

"I think they realized it would be political malpractice," said veteran Republican consultant John Hancock.

But battling over redistricting took its toll.

"From that point on, the (Senate's) relationship with the House worsened," said Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

That tension, in turn, led to the inability to negotiate a compromise between the two chambers on the massive economic development bill that collapsed Friday.

Within the Senate, however, members seemed to be learning how to get along.

Accustomed to making his own decisions as a small businessman, freshman Republican Sen. Mike Kehoe, a car dealer in Jefferson City, said he was impatient at first with the Senate's deliberative process.

But now, he said he enjoys sitting down and working through an issue with colleagues who disagree.

"Show me a family with 26 people and tell me there haven't been some tense moments," Kehoe said.

Some Senate procedures may foment conflict, said Franc Flotron, a former Republican senator from Creve Coeur who now works as a lobbyist.

For example, by telegraphing how long a filibuster they'll tolerate, Senate leaders give the protesting senator an edge.

"It's easier to talk for an hour or two than it is to work out a problem," Flotron said.

But last week, as he observed a Senate debate where members joked with each other and sought each others' opinions, he sensed a change.

"It made me optimistic for next session," Flotron said, "that they've learned how to work together."

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