Posted 05/06/2011: Twenty-eight amendments on a trivial bill and about two and a half and 28 minutes later, the Missouri House of Representatives finally began its budget discussion Thursday afternoon. With a deadline the very next day and a Senate who was waiting on the House vote, I wondered why Reps. seemingly killed those valuable morning hours amending a bill with vaguely-related measures. This was the bill that rendered my story that wasn't a story, but rather a lesson, nonetheless, in the reality of politics.
St. Charles Republican Senator Tom Dempsey's original Senate Bill 145 would require the auditor of any county with a charter to take annual inventory of county property over $1,000, instead of the current $250 requirement. By the time about the seventh amendment came up, I would have been surprised to hear any proposition containing the words auditor, charter, or annual inventory. Reps. tacked on amendments tailored to their municipalities, ranging from firefighter elections to water protections. Why did they do this? I called the office of Senator Eric Schmitt, chair of the Jobs committee who heard the initial bill, to find out. Schmitt's Chief of Staff Shawn Furey said interestingly, the largely-amended House substitute for this bill was not the House's attempt to stall the House's third reading of the budget bill, as I had presumed initially. Instead, it was simply an effort by Representatives to seize the opportunity of tacking on amendments to a broad local government bill.
Twenty-eight amendments, a whole morning, and no story later, I concluded the phenomenon was simply the less exciting logistical strategizing in good old American politics.
This sometimes foreign concept of people connection was brought to my attention this past Tuesday, when I attempted to create an enterprise story on the disastrous flooding and displacement in Poplar Bluff. As a student journalist, I know all too well how lawmakers can avoid interviews, especially when busy (or at lunch). Thus, when the assistant of Poplar Bluff/Butler County Representative Todd Richardson told me he was in the district dealing with flood efforts, I thought surely, I would end up with only reader wraps. Much to my surprise, at around 11:15 a.m., the MDN phone rang- it was Representative Richardson, calling to tell me his assistant gave him the message, and he would be willing to update me on the situation. Not only was he willing to give me the details of his sandbagging efforts among National Guardsmen at Black River, he thanked me for my interest in his district and his people.
As reiterated by Richardson's interview, above any important law or meeting, a representative's top priority is to be among his or her people. This six-minute interview was the most humbling conversation I have ever had with a lawmaker. Perhaps this kind of story, a story of immediacy about the people is the kind of story lawmakers want the greater community of Missourians to know about. It is this kind of story that will prompt a legislator working to curb a flooding river and re-house 1,500 constituents to call back a student journalist during lunchtime.
Bill sponsor and St. Louis Republican Senator Jim Lembke said Missouri is unusual, in the sense that it has the fourth-largest House in the country. A decrease in members, he said, could save taxpayers up to five million dollars. Why, however, has no legislation been passed before now to address this issue? Why do similar bills always get killed in the House? Would this issue not have been important to address before redistricting, as reapportionment coincides with how the state should redraw its boundaries?
Clay Republican Senator Luann Ridgeway said this cut in members could render an out-of-touch government for Missourians. Each member would approximately have 20,000 more constituents, a number Ridgeway believes is too large. I wonder if the larger constituent population per member would yield a less attentive public, as people could potentially feel less empowered to try to get their beliefs across. Would I, as a St. Louisan, feel significant in a pool of 55,000 represented constituents, as opposed to one of 35,000? It will be undeniably interesting to see if on the heels of redistricting, the House will pass a perhaps monumental bill that could gain national attention.
As I sat in the House press gallery listening to the House floor fly through third readings of bills with little discussion, I could not help but reflect on the significance of my ability to multi-task. Just weeks ago, when I began working at MDN, I barely could manage finding my way around and fumbled through legislative process notes before every hearing and House session. Now, I am pleased to say I believe those times have changed, as fundamentals become subconscious and asking tough questions leaps into the forefront of priorities.
Politics, just like other current events, happens constantly and quickly. We have learned, first and foremost at MDN, always to be ready. At the Missouri State Capitol, a Senate filibuster or surprise roll call vote can send a reporter flying up three/four flights of stairs to the press gallery quicker than someone could tweet breaking news of a terrorist attack. Life, like news, is a ceaseless passing of time, a limitless space we must never fail to notice, even as we settle into the comfort of routine.
After trekking up three flights of stairs with a Marantz, camera, tripod, and laptop in tow, I settled into my seat in the Senate lounge, exhausted by approximately 9 a.m. Quickly preparing to hear deliberation about common instances of school kids’ teasing and taunting, I was jolted into gear as one testimony after another consisted of heart-wrenching, gruesome tales of school cruelty.
As once a young girl with snow white hair, glasses, and a blatant love for school and learning, I am all too familiar with the universality and timelessness of bullying. Observing girls in all-girls Catholic institutions for many years, it is apparent the term “bullying,” as most Missouri lawmakers have agreed, is not restricted to physical abuse done by one student onto another. Instead, it encompasses verbal abuse and harassment as well. I ponder the thoughts of whoever once said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” Words are, unarguably, the most powerful means of hurting someone.
With modern technology, many who “bully” are afforded the luxury of hiding behind computer screens and can anonymously blog, post jeopardizing pictures of someone to the public, and use less discretion about what they say. Typed words do not always convey, either intentionally or unintentionally, a respectful tone. “Bullyers” are able to maximize their resources for abuse on victims, often used by perpetrators to mask their own insecurities.
Initially not expecting much news on an off week, when legislators' doors were locked shut phones went straight to voice mail, one of my most important news stories emerged from what began as a long shot enterprise. Reading the AP wire, I saw something had been printed about a fascinating important national story--the charged Arizona shooter being ordered by a federal judge to come to Springfield, Missouri for a mental evaluation. A mass killer in our state? Being evaluated by our prisons? I had to check it out.
Considering federal prisons typically aren't the most welcoming of media, no matter how hard you pry and deviate to slightly gentler questioning, my chances of getting a sound bite looked slim. Several voice mails later, including those to suspect Jared Loughner's notable public defender and also the case's federal judge, I still had nothing. After voicing three readers, fellow reporter Theo Keith suggested I call a Springfield Representative. I thought this task sounded nearly impossible. Why would a Representative on his Spring Break want to talk to me? Nonetheless, I scoured our records for cell phones. Nothing. I called office voice mails, until finally, Springfield Representative Dennison attached at the end of his message a number "in case of emergency." I figured this national issue affecting his town constituted as such, so I braved up and called. Surprisingly, he answered, from his cell phone in Alabama. He graciously answered my questions, and I finally had a story--a story with both a national issue and a local angle. Who knew? On the only day I come into MDN relatively un-researched and clueless as to what I would be covering, I ended up successfully tackling a story I've been following on networks across the country for months. Oh, the ceaselessly surprising life of a journalist.
Tuesday morning's hearing on Senate Bill 56 was the most sober in my Capitol experiences. After legislators and organizations spoke for and against taking away habilitation centers for the disabled by the year 2018, Missouri civilians made their words on the issue hit closer to home. One woman, Jackie Swinnie, lost her son to a degenerative disability when he was 23. Swinnie spoke about her son with delicacy and passion, as she advocated her premise that he lived out his life comfortably and peacefully in assisted community living.
Interestingly, another mother, Theresa Barnes, had a similar situation with her son Henry, but a strikingly different opinion on the bill. Henry, Barnes said, has a severe mental disability. She said prior to living in a habilitation institution, he was very violent toward family members and almost uncontrollable. I could not help but think how difficult it may have been for Barnes to stand up in public testify against community living for her son, whom she says needs an institution to survive.
From having worked at a therapeutic horsemanship program for many years prior to college, I have been around children and adults with physical and mental disabilities and have spoken with their parents. The stories I have heard about struggles, triumphs, and special moments have been humbling. After Tuesday's hearing, I wonder what the fate of these children are, especially for those who do well in an institution setting, yet still are able to intermingle in the community. Regardless of potentially removing institutions, I cannot help but revert to what St. Louis Republican Senator John Lamping said. "What a benefit to society by getting the community involved in understanding the lives of people in the community. It'd make it a better place to live." From my experiences, what a benefit to Missouri politics by getting Missourians involved in understanding and facilitating politics.
St. Louis Democratic Senator Joe Keaveny shed some light to these pressing inquiries merely minutes before the session was called to order. He noted it is extremely unusual for this type of process to happen in the legislature: for Missourians' vote to be questioned, for a bill to undergo strict modification prior to taking effect, and for an issue to evoke such active public attention.
As the "abnormal" issue was taken up on the Senate floor prior to third reading, discussions amounted to little talk of the bill's substance, but rather discussion about the legislative process in general. St. Louis Senator Maria Chapell-Nadal, in a rather impassioned decree, explained the process of this bill should have been different from day one. She said Missourians "think this bill is about saving puppies," which she says is not true. Interestingly, Nadal went on to say though she planned to vote against the modified Prop. B bill to uphold the majority vote of her district, she conveyed Missourians needed to be more informed on the issue back in November. Also, she said lobbyists need to be more informed, from here on out, before pressing the legislature. She encouraged lobbyists not to demand she vote one way or another, but rather support their positions with solid facts. Nadal, who was cited by other Senators in the discussion as someone who scours over bills and really understands them, declared it is the job of the Senate, especially, to dig deeper into these bills. She said Missourians and legislators, for the matter, need to know what they are voting on, what they are passing through committees. She concluded there is essentially a need to uphold a higher standard for state legislature so poor clarification can be addressed and nipped in its early stages.
Is it fair to say the Prop. B issue will be the issue in this year's legislative session? As bills modifying Prop. B gain significance on the Senate, and soon the House floors, Missourians may observe a scenario that will be noted historically as the issue that rocked Missourians back into politics.
This type of battle was a bit refreshing from those I typically am exposed to at the Capitol. The irony of the event was apparent. Just two floors above these competitive, lively kids challenging their bots were competitive, lively lawmakers challenging their bills. These innovative children perhaps, in the future, will become the next inventors, the next politicians.
As part of Science-Technology-Engineering-Medical (STEM) week, the students converged in what may have been a symbolic attempt to push for emphasis on more science and engineering in Missouri schools. As these kids grow up, they will have resources and technological advances our current politicians never had growing up. What will be the future of politics, our voting system, and bills as science infiltrates the minds of our country's next lawmaking generation?
Emotion, I have discovered, sometimes is the story. It most certainly is the story behind most stories, and usually is the story most powerful of all. In speaking with advocates for dog breeding organizations, I sensed a deep passion, frustration, and unyielding motivation in fighting to keep the bill. In speaking with Hubert Lavy, a dog breeder from Silex, I sensed a similar, but different story--one of passion, frustration, and unyielding motivation in fighting to sustain his livelihood.
Nothing is more automatically balancing for a journalist than rendering a valid understanding of emotion from both sides of a controversial story. We strive to achieve fairness in all of our pieces, and by establishing a comfortable environment in which our journalists will speak to us, we allow for emotion and honesty. Our stories, in these moments, are born.
Months after the passing of Proposition B, a bill to improve conditions and impose restrictions on dog breeding facilities, debate over the issue has not ceased. Missouri notoriously has been known as the Puppy Mill Capitol of the world, and thus many impassioned dog advocates and animal organizations have been adamant about their decision to pass the law. Also, most are adamant about the value of their vote, which did lead to the bill's passage in the first place. Yet, many breeders and supporters of maintaining the breeding/livestock industries relentlessly argue for Prop. B's repeal. In examining this issue, it is interesting to note that the bill passed originally with only 52% majority vote.
As I follow the puppy mill beat for my feature piece, I am extremely interested to see what unfolds when the bill comes to the House floor, which most likely will be soon once the amended substitute to the bill clears the Rules Committee. This issue, unlike most, does not extend along party lines. Instead, it seems as if it somewhat pertains to district demographic or individual preference. What is next for Missouri dogs in this extended debate? As negotiations continue, Missourians on both sides of the issue will continue to bark for justice to their legislators.
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