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Opening day of 98th General Assembly

Cara Porchey (second from right), 5, granddaughter of Rep. Becky Ruth, and Cecilia Bondon (right), 2, daughter of Rep. Jack Bondon, entertain themselves while representatives are sworn in on the opening day of the Missouri House of Representatives 98th General Assembly at the Missouri State Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Rules proposed by House Speaker John Diehl would spread life-and-death power over legislation among 13 of his top lieutenants, instead of concentrating it in one committee chairman.

The move drew bipartisan praise on Tuesday from members frustrated with what they called a “choke point” for legislation under the old rules.

But a request to ban smoking in lawmakers’ offices was rebuffed, with Rules Committee Chairman Kevin Engler saying that ice cream served by special-interest groups in the Capitol Rotunda “kills more people in this House than nicotine.”

Under the old system, all bills were routed through the Rules Committee, which often became a bottleneck.

Under the new plan, legislation recommended by 42 standing committees will be funneled through 13 supercommittees, called select committees. They will be organized by subject matter.

For example, Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, will head the Select Committee on Education, which will second-guess bills recommended by panels dealing with elementary and secondary schools, higher education and “emerging issues in education.”

Diehl, R-Town and Country, appointed the 55 committee chairs on Monday.

At a hearing on the new rules Tuesday, Rep. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, commended GOP leaders for the procedural changes.

“This is such an improvement over what we’ve had in the past,” he said.

Rizzo said that in addition to avoiding a single choke point for legislation, the proposal advances “good government” by increasing the number of House members on conference committees that negotiate compromises with the Senate.

With the change, the House and Senate each will have five members on negotiating committees. Under the old rules, the House had only three conferees, slots that were filled by two Republicans and one Democrat.

“That’s when laws are actually decided on,” Rizzo said, and with only one slot, Democrats were unable to send a freshman legislator to learn the ropes with a more senior lawmaker.

As he has in previous year, anti-smoking advocate Stan Cowan of Jefferson City asked the committee to ban smoking in House members’ offices. He said legislators should consider the health problems associated with secondhand smoke for visitors and office workers suffering from asthma, for example.

Engler, R-Farmington, responded that legislators sometimes work 12- to 18-hour days and those who smoke shouldn’t be denied their habit.

“When you can’t leave the proximity of the (House) floor, there’s a difference,” he said.

Taking note of the daily receptions and lunches that special-interest groups host, Engler added: “I’m a diabetic. Ice cream in the Rotunda kills more people in this House than nicotine.”

The rules ban smoking in the House chamber and galleries but leave office smoking policies to the Republican and Democratic caucuses. In 2013, the House Democratic Caucus banned smoking in its members’ offices, but Republicans left the decision up to individual members.

The Rules Committee took no vote on the changes so that members could study them. When approved, the rules will be forwarded to the full House for a vote.

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Virginia Young is the Jefferson City bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.