Our Missouri General Assembly has discovered both the advantages and liabilities of what is called an an "omnibus" bill.
An omnibus bill is one in which a bunch of supposedly related issues are tossed into a single, monstrous package.
That definition clearly fits the China cargo hub/tax credit bill that, at various times, exceeded some 250 pages of single-spaced sections dealing with all sorts of tax giveaways.
Rolling everything into a giant omnibus bill is a tempting approach for legislators and special interests. By adding largely unrelated items sought by various legislators, it's possible to build majority support for an item in the bill that might not be able to clear the legislature if it had to stand on its own.
That's clearly the case with the special session tax bill. Its combination of a large package involving various business tax breaks along with reductions in tax credits for lower income residents, developers, adoptions and other functions.
Although there had been strong support in the state House of Representatives for the China hub, there also has been been strong House resistance, particularly from the leadership, to scaling back other tax credits.
The state Senate, on the other hand, has shown far less interest in the China hub, but it is eager to scale back tax credits that are costing Missouri more than $500 million per year.
It was the Senate's Ways and Means Committee chair, Chuck Purgason, who came up with the idea last spring to roll those two issues into a large, single package.
Not all omnibus bills start out that way. Sometimes, a short and simple bill moving through the legislature will be seen by legislators as a convenient vehicle for their own ideas. The bill can become what some lobbyists call a "Christmas tree," loaded with different colored ornaments.
Last session, for a example, a simple bill dealing with veterinarians' power to administer drugs became a bloated, legislative behemoth chocked full of provisions dealing with the Housing Commission, medical licensing, student medical testing, hospital licensing, electronic prescriptions and insurance.
There are some drawbacks to taking the omnibus bill approach. As we saw with the special session's tax bill, sometimes the various elements can build a coalition of opposition as well as support.
More significant is that so many unrelated amendments can get thrown into a bill in such a short time that there's no real chance for lawmakers nor their staff to read through the entire bill before voting.
That's what happened a few years ago when the legislature removed government regulation of midwifery. It got snuck into a huge omnibus licensing bill that few, if any, senators actually read before voting on the provision that had been buried among pages upon pages of unrelated and relatively minor items.
An even more serious example of the dangers of omnibus bills arose in 1985 when the legislature passed and the governor even signed into law a bill repealing the law making rape a crime. It was a drafting mistake that got accidentally stuck into an omnibus anti-crime bill that nobody caught until it was too late.
To the relief of the legislature and governor, Missouri's Supreme Court came to their rescue and threw out the entire bill.
Beyond the opportunity for mistakes, omnibus bills run the danger of violating a state Supreme Court decision termed Hammerschmidt.
In 1994, the court threw out an omnibus bill, holding it violated a provision of the state constitution going back to the mid-1800s that requires a bill be limited to just one subject. A related decision prohibits the legislature from expanding a bill beyond its original topic description, called the title.
Long-time lobbyists say that with legislative term limits, few lawmakers today understand that restriction or that major accomplishments of the legislature are in danger of getting tossed out by the courts when piles of unrelated issues get lumped in omnibus bills.
For me, there is a reporting frustration with an omnibus bill. Beyond the difficulty of staying on top of all the elements being added, changed or removed, there also is the difficulty in describing the measure.
For this special session with the tax bill, is it a St. Louis-area China cargo hub bill? Or is it a bill taking tax credits away from low-income elderly home renters? Or is it a tax break for amateur sports organizers? Or is it lowering the limit on tax credits for historic building preservation?
If you think that's a difficult question for reporters, think about a legislator who must cast and then defend a single vote on such a diverse collection of topics.
As always, let me know (at firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email.
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