Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL284.PRB - The Shifting Agenda of Missouri's GOP
Like the national Republican Party, Missouri's GOP has flipped on what had been major GOP themes when I began as a Missouri statehouse reporter nearly four decades ago.
Back then, in the aftermath of the administration of Democratic Gov. Warren Hearnes, Republicans led the charge to expand the state's Merit System that protects state government workers from favoritism in hiring, firing or promotion.
The state's tax-collection agency, the Revenue Department, was a major focus of that GOP effort.
I got an insight into this issue shortly after Republican Gov. Kit Bond took office.
His Revenue Department director, Jim Spradling, showed me a box he found in his office that contained hundreds of index cards divided into two sets.
Each red card had a person's name and a sequential number.
Each blue card had different person's name and a sequential number that matched a red-card number.
Spradling said a hold-over staffer told him that the cards came from the lieutenant governor who controlled a block of patronage jobs in the Revenue Department.
When the lieutenant governor wanted to replace one of those positions, he sent the Revenue Department director two cards. The red card designated the employee to be fired. The blue card contained the replacement's name.
For years, Republicans unsuccessfully fought to win approval from the Democratic-controlled legislature to expand the Merit System.
But in the closing days of this year's legislative session there was a sudden reversal when Republican lawmakers passed a measure repealing the Merit System for major portions of state government.
Republicans argued the system was burdensome to effective management of personnel.
It was an example of a major shift I've seen in how the GOP interprets government "reform."
An example of the shifting definition of "reform" arose in response to voter approval on limits to how much a source could contribute to a candidate.
Fourteen years later, Republican legislators repealed the limits -- although two years ago, Missouri voters reinstated them.
There is, however, another side to this "reform" issue.
Republicans argued campaign contribution limits make funding less transparent because special interests found legal loopholes to transfer large amounts of money to their favored candidates without disclosure.
They've got a point. Under campaign contribution limits, I found campaign finance reports less informative in identifying special interests backing candidates.
So, in a way, removing limits on campaign contributions does echo that earlier goal of Republicans for openness in government.
But for other proclaimed "reform" issues of the current era, Republicans have been a force of resistance.
For example, it's been Republicans in the Senate who have obstructed efforts to impose severe limits on lobbyist gifts to public officials.
Another issue involves "dark money" spent by organizations completely exempt from any disclosure requirements for the millions of dollars they spend on behalf of politicians.
Former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens took the use of dark money to new heights with the secret funding for his advocacy organization.
Legislation to require disclosure of dark money went nowhere in Missouri's GOP-controlled General Assembly.
That is in direct contrast to the 1970s when disclosure and openness was a Republican mantra.
Back then, Republican Gov. Bond pushed for a "Sunshine" law to assure public access to government meetings and records.
His communications staff became key allies for reporters when we encountered information barriers from state agencies.
More than once, I sat in the office of the governor's spokesperson when he called an agency official ordering compliance with my information request that had been blocked.
Greitens, on the other hand, put a pass-code-protected lock on the door reporters so often could enter to talk directly with top staff. His staff even used a cell-phone app to delete their text messages.
Of course, in those earlier decades Democrats controlled the legislature, even when Republicans held the governorship. Maybe today's Republican legislative dominance is part of the explanation for Republican shift.
As an aside, the GOP shift about "reform" is the reason I always taught my journalism students to avoid the word "reform" in a story unless in quotes. In politics, "reform" has become almost a meaningless term -- maybe a sin I've committed in this column.
[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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