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Steve Tilley

Steve Tilley

There is a lesson to be learned from those whose light burns brightly but goes out fast: In politics, effective governing takes serious people and years of effort.

A flash in the pan often is nothing but fool's gold.

There were times in his brief (and not quite over) career that Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley appeared to be one of those serious people. Now we may never know.

Mr. Tilley, who sits on $1.5 million in campaign cash, announced Thursday that he would not seek the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. The surprise decision came as a shock to Mr. Tilley's party, and may end his political career following next year's legislative session. Term limits will force him out of office.

For years, Mr. Tilley, of Perryville, had been seen by many Republicans, and most Democrats, as the Missouri GOP's next star. He leveraged his House leadership position to rake in millions of campaign dollars. Retired investor Rex Sinquefield of St. Louis has given him $275,000 just since 2009.

Mr. Tilley's charm, smile and fundraising prowess opened doors. But in the arena in which public policy truly matters, one in which elected officials leave a lasting mark, Mr. Tilley was not a serious player. Unless he reverses course in his final term as speaker, his legacy will be that of an obstructionist who put politics before progress.

In 2010, for instance, Mr. Tilley lent his name to an effort to pass serious ethics reform. He told us that he would bring his legislative power to bear on the issue of limiting the pernicious effect of money in the Capitol, a serious and ongoing problem that invites corruption.

One of the state's most prolific fundraisers and recipients of lobbyist largesse said he had had an epiphany. He would accept no more lobbyists' gifts and he would try to enact a law making that the norm.

But when a bipartisan committee led by then-Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, produced a comprehensive, fair piece of meaningful ethics legislation. Mr. Tilley and the rest of the House leadership rejected it. They eventually pushed through much weaker legislation that probably won't ever become law because of constitutional problems.

That law, ironically, was before the Missouri Supreme Court for argument the day before Mr. Tilley announced his plan to put his ambitions aside. Imagine what might have been, if various leaders unprepared to lead hadn't put their ambition ahead of the hard work of people like Mr. Wilson and his fellow Republican Scott Lipke of Jackson, and Democrats like Terry Witte of Vandalia and John Burnett of Kansas City.

Most of the members of that ethics committee were given the unwanted task of reining in an out-of-control Legislature mostly because they were subject to term limits and on their way out. They did yeoman's work, serious work. It was trashed because people seeking cash for higher office thought a meaningful ethics bill would get in the way.

In reality, Mr. Tilley never stopped taking the gifts offered by lobbyists to influence decision-making. Instead, he started reimbursing lobbyists for their gifts, using campaign funds he obtained from, well, lobbyists.

With one year remaining as speaker, Mr. Tilley still has a chance to be remembered as something other than the best speaker money could buy.