Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL117.PRB - Politics and Missouri's Legislature«MDNM»
A colleague recently suggested to me that the March 25 deadline for candidates to file for the August primary is going to have a dramatic effect on the second half of the Missouri legislative session.
In particular, he thinks it will lead to passage, at least in the House, of the governor's call to expand Medicaid eligibility that has been so harshly criticized by Republicans.
The thought is that after the filing deadline, it will be safer for Republican legislators to cast votes for Medicaid expansion because they will not face the possibility their votes will trigger primary opposition.
I think my friend has a point. And he's not alone. I've heard this speculation from quite a few in the statehouse.
For several years, Missouri has had a relatively early filing deadline of late March. But only recently have I begun to see legislators feel so vulnerable to primary opposition because of their legislative activities.
Years ago, senior legislators described for me how they had learned their legislative votes did not have as much effect on their political futures as they thought when they first joined the General Assembly.
This process is so obtuse that it's not easy to single out the potentially damaging votes from the hundreds of roll calls cast each year. Besides, even if voters paid attention to their local legislators' roll-call votes, they soon forget.
More than a couple long-term legislators would confide to me with a chuckle in their voices that they could do almost anything they wanted in the legislature without the fear of voter retaliation.
Rarely did you see incumbents defeated. In fact, that was one of the major arguments by supporters of legislative term limits.
But that era of legislative immunity is long past.
There is far more pressure within each party for ideological and policy purity. Roll calls are more accessible online. And activist organizations now keep much closer watch on those votes.
Just look what happened when the Missouri branch of the National Rifle Association announced their opposition to an amendment in the Senate-passed firearms bill.
The NRA ranks legislators based on their votes on gun-rights issues. An NRA "ranked" bill carries a lot of weight with Republican legislators.
As soon as the NRA announced its position, Republican senators caucused behind closed doors to figure out what to do.
Eventually, they reconsidered and defeated the offending amendment -- even though the amendment requiring a person to report a firearms theft within 72 hours had no penalty provision for violating the requirement.
Even a proposal to change the amendment's wording from "shall" report to "may" report was rejected by the bill's sponsor.
This more vigilant treatment of roll calls vividly was demonstrated last year when a major business organization warned it would target Republican House members whose votes to sustain the governor's veto of the tax cut bill ended any chance for a major cut in business taxes in 2013.
Most of those 15 Republicans came from rural areas where local school officials and teachers play a major community role. The governor's warning that education funding would be harmed by the tax cut bill resonated more strongly in those rural areas than in the state's more urban regions.
Decades ago, I think business interests would have been more tolerant of those votes to sustain the governor's veto.
I can remember an era when there was almost an unwritten rule that a special interest would not punish a legislator for refusing to cast a vote that went against the interests of the legislator's district.
The March filing deadline, however, is not going to entirely eliminate politics in the legislative session.
Remember that two of legislature's most powerful members, it's House speaker and Senate Appropriations Committee chair are expected to be contesting the GOP nomination for attorney general in 2016.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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