Jordan Shapiro's Blog in 2011
As the legislative session comes to a close, I am in for some many more long nights at the capitol. Last Wednesday it seemed as if the General Assembly decided to cram in enough work for an entire session into one day. The day began with the governor signing one bill on Proposition B and the day ended with him signing yet another bill on Prop B, which ended up changing the first bill he signed earlier in the morning. But the craziness over puppies would only begin to describe the rest of the day.
Later in the afternoon, after a week-long stalemate the House and the Senate finally agreed to a compromise on congressional redistricting. It happened suddenly and without much fanfare, but at long last we had a map. The map was passed by both chambers quickly and delivered to the governor that night. Whew I was relieved. Although my day was over, the Senate ended up debating well into Thursday money on a massive tax credit overhaul that included tax credits for "aerotropolis", the China hub in St. Louis.
It has become apparent that the Missouri General Assembly has adopted my personal philosophy of procrastinating to the last minute before getting something done. Better late than never.
This week the focus around the capitol was on redistricting, the process of drawing new congressional maps. Things around the capitol, particularly between the House and the Senate were tense as neither side seemed willing to recede from their previous position. Thursday they stayed up into the early hours of Friday morning only to not reach an agreement on the maps and adjourn until Tuesday. For a journalist this week was a lot of fun. On Monday I had my first professional stake-out waiting for members of Missouri's congressional delegation to come to Jefferson City to discuss the redistricting process. Then on Wednesday, while I was covering the state's budget, Republican Senators were over an hour later to session because they were meeting about the maps. When I finally realized something was going on I tried to see what I could find out. It ended up that the Senate finally decided to grant the house a conference committee over the matter (one week after the House asked them). I became really interested in the process that on Thursday despite not being at the capitol, I kept checking my Twitter account to see the new developments. Needless to say I am glad I wasn't there Thursday because the conference committee until 2 AM and still could not come to an agreement. This week and the political posturing between the House and the Senate demonstrate the need and the ability to compromise. While both sides have been engaged in a war over maps, many of the states primary issues have not been addressed. One can only hope things will return to normal soon in the capitol. But, it is not looking promising.
Muslim Awareness Day
Wednesday the capitol saw many Muslims come and visit their legislators. It was really interesting to see a group of people with a common bond rally around the capitol and try to be involved in the legislative process. Muslims have been slightly under attack this year in the Missouri General Assembly through a bill that would prohibit the use of Sharia law in court cases. Many critics have pointed out the law is unfair to Muslims. I thought it was amazing to see a group of people come into a building where they may not have felt especially welcome. To me, it shows courage of a group of people who were willing to come in and raise awareness for issues that affect their community.
I had the privilege of covering the Senate this week and I could not help, but wonder about the priorities of our legislature. While thousands of Missourians lost their unemployment benefits over the weekend, the Senate seemed more concerned about discussing issues such as fine arts education, sprinklers in nursing homes, and which decade had the best Saturday Night Live stars. Yes, I was stunned when a ten-minute discussion broke out about which decade was better for SNL. I have to wonder where are the priorities in our legislature. St. Louis City schools remain unaccredited, Missouri has over 9 percent unemployment, there is $189 million in federal funds for education that have not been passed and yet the Senate has other issues and priorities. Maybe they are just trying to get through some bills before they tackle the big issues and maybe they are trying to make time to debate the tough items. But, it seems to me that our legislature may be falling out of touch with what really matters to our state.
Pleasant Surprise and Bipartisanship
This week was an unexpected nice surprise. I was expecting a very busy week with the budget mark-up process. Last year it took over three days to complete the House version of the process. I was prepared for the worst, but on Tuesday it took only an hour to finish the budget and send the bills up to the last floor. I was stunned and very excited that my day would be short. I also was happy because it became clear the reason for the short process was due to unparalleled bipartisan support. Every Democrat I spoke to after budget mark-up said they were very happy with the way Republican leaders approached the process and how their concerns were heard. They applauded the Republicans for their bipartisan support particularly the budget chair, Ryan Silvey. It was great to see that despite all of our state's problems there is a will to work together to solve problems.
This House budget process began this week and needless to say it has been a flurry of activity. The Budget committee started Monday and has been in committee until Wednesday breaking only for session and caucus meetings. On Monday I went to the budget hearing in order to get a jump-start on the education process. I listened for over an hour about numbers, graphs, and programs I had never even heard of. Then it came like a bolt of lightening. The issue of the governor's travel reared its ugly head once again. All it was was a one sentence statement by a House accountant that launched my story and my day on Monday. The budget chair had changed the language in all the appropriations bills that would not allow the governor to bill that agency for his travel as he has been doing since he took office. And there was my story, not what I expected to come out of a budget hearing, but this only shows that as a reporter you must always be vigilant because anything can come your way.
Next week the nitty-gritty budget process hits full force when mark-up begins. Looking forward to many long hours in the House Hearing Room 3 and in the newsroom.
On the Radio
This week featured my radio debut. On Monday I did my first radio story, which was exciting and challenging at the same time. Unlike print where you have space and time to go into detail, radio must be done in less than 40 seconds. It was a strange concept for me to leave out interesting parts of my story, but on radio things are different. For example, I gave a sentence each to the two different sides of an issue (the corporate franchise tax), where normally I would have spent paragraphs talking about the different viewpoints. I had to leave out that Democrats tried to pass amendments to the bill, but the Speaker denied them the ability to have their amendments considered on the floor. I also wasn't able to include a heated exchange between two representatives arguing over a set of numbers. But with that said, radio provided an opportunity to make me a better writer, by taking a story and honing in on the absolute most essential parts of a story. Sometimes on point, the essential facts can be left out or masked behind lines of detail. Doing radio taught me the importance of making sure the "bare bones" of a story stick out over the detail. Having to record myself also made me realize the importance of reading every story out loud to make sure all the words sound right. I never thought I would catch so many mistakes in my writing just from reading it out loud. Radio taught me some invaluable lessons on how to be a better print journalist, I never would have thought that.
Around the capitol this week, the House Budget committee began the long painful process of putting together Missouri's budget. More to come on that process later. I also covered Missouri's House for the first time while they were in session. After five weeks I have begun to feel more comfortable and more at ease around the capitol. I no longer hesitate or freak out when I walk into the office of an important legislator. I have actually found my way around the building (a difficult task at first) and I have located the most important place, the coffee machine on the third floor. I can't wait to see what next week brings.
This week started off really slow on Monday. The halls were empty and few people came to work. All the state agencies were closed for President's Day. So I was looking forward to a relaxing week based on the way Monday started. I was sadly mistaken. Wednesday brought about two committee hearings and two stories for me. It also brought about a surprise with the House passing a resolution saying that Gov. Nixon needs to fill out a form when he travels. The move comes in response to the governor's $400,000 travel budget, which he billed to state agencies, over the last two years. That event alone shifted things around our newsroom.
Wednesday's hearings were about education, particularly charter school expansion and whether or not schools can reject children from unaccredited schools. The first hearing about charter school expansion took over two hours and even then people still wanted to testify. During the opposition portion of the hearing a women stood up claiming she had opposition. The chairman let her speak and thus began her "opposition" testimony. The women said that she wants her children to go to jail and her children to be shot and her children to not grow up and get a job. Her statements caught everyone off guard as it became clear she was being very sarcastic. Although she was ordered to sit down, her point was made. This instance demonstrated to me how passionate people, especially parents, are about education.
University politics and happenings around the capitol
This week I wrote two stories both regarding the University of Missouri system. Monday I wrote about two proposals to fill the vacant slot in the Board of Curators (because of the 2010 Census). Wednesday, university presidents from across the state testified about their budgets and what a state budget cut would do to their schools. Both of these stories were very interesting to cover because they demonstrate how the universities are having to cope with changes across the state. This week has also presented me with the opportunity to see how highly politicized education has become in our state. For example, a representative has been using the budget reductions for higher education as leverage to push through a tax on cigarettes. I had always thought that education was an issue that was the least politicized. Guess I was wrong.
This week around the capitol has been relatively low key compared to my first few weeks. On Wednesday the House and Senate adjourned after only one hour. I interpret this low-key week as the "calm before the storm." Many legislative issues especially about education are just beginning to come up and be debated.
I also met Winston for the first time this week. Winston is Sen. Engler's dog that he keeps up in his third floor office. This just goes to show that you can run into almost anything throughout the capitol on a given day. From a Scientology exhibit to a dog living in an office to Senators asking each other if they have ever lost their photo ID before on the floor of the senate.
Reporting this week was aided by taking trips in the elevator. I was fortunate enough to be using the elevator often enough and long enough to pick up some interesting tidbits that ended up leading me to sources. On Monday, I was writing a story about the A+ Scholarship budgets and I walked into the elevator to head up to the House chamber to interview a source. There was someone in the elevator when it picked me up and she asked me how I was and what I was doing. I told her about my story and she was very interested. She turned out to be a Rep from St. Louis City who offered me some great information and good quotations into my story. I was able to find another story angle by a strange coincidence of running into someone in the elevator. I realized that the elevator was a goldmine of opportunity to get to talk to people (even for a brief moment) outside of thier office and outside of thier element. When you interview a representative in their office the power dynamic is in their favor. You are in their workspace and they are in control. The elevator, however, provides an equal playing field good for casual conversation and catching people off their guard. It is safe to say that I will be spending a lot of time in the elevator this semester.
This week posed a significant challenge to reporting. Because of the blizzard I was unable to dig my car out and make the drive to Jeff City. The blizzard, however, also provided a good opportunity for me to step outside the comfort zone and report from home on a new topic. Doing phone interviews and reporting on the weather was different and challenging for me, but I found the opportunity to be worth it. It is safe to say that the bad weather derailed the entire state. I found it really interesting that many legislators had to spend the night inside the capitol because the weather was so bad. They played poker and spent the night in their offices.
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