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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL004.PRB - Interim Committees«MDNM»
Without much fanfare, a small group of Missouri legislators has been working on putting together a plan that could be one of the major issues for the 2012 legislative session.
It's a politically thorny issue involving how tough to be on sentencing convicted criminals in the face of arguments that punishment wastes taxpayer money and to impose long prison sentences on first-time, non-violent offenders is not particularly effective.
Before term limits, we used to see a lot more of these kind of long-term, fact-finding and consensus-building efforts by legislators when the Missouri General Assembly is not in session.
Interim committees, like the sentencing group, that meet during the summer and fall provide vehicles for building the coalitions needed to win legislation its passage.
Without the constant disruptions legislators face during a legislative session, there is something special I've seen develop among legislators in their level of understanding and collaboration when they have the opportunity, collectively, to fully concentrate their attention on a single issue.
That intensity of work can lead to stronger bipartisan partnerships on issues that deeply divided lawmakers at the start.
One of the best examples was an interim committee on medical malpractice in the 1970s. Back then, the partisan divide on malpractice lawsuits was as deep as it is today. Republicans tend to take a pro-business stance by arguing for restrictions on liability lawsuit awards against businesses and doctors. Democrats tend to argue the position of civil attorneys in opposition to limiting damage awards.
It was a fascinating process for me to watch as a bipartisan group of senators, starting with significant policy differences, began to develop a consensus while also expanding their own knowledge of the issue. In 1976, their efforts led to adoption of a comprehensive package addressing what they concluded was a real crisis in affordable malpractice insurance coverage for doctors.
A key provision of their package later was thrown out by the state Supreme Court. But the original 1976 law had laid the foundation for subsequent legislative efforts that defined Missouri's current laws on medical malpractice.
Today, we don't see that kind of intense, interim session work as often as we did a few decades ago. Now, efforts to craft major bills in preparation for a legislative session tend to be done during meetings by special interests and agency officials that are held behind closed doors with little or no public debate.
The recommendations of these groups might not even be announced until just before the start of a legislative session. There might be little effort to involve legislators with opposing views in any significant role in drafting the proposal.
The last day of the 2011 regular legislative session was a perfect example of the price our state pays for crafting legislation through these kind of short-term secret processes rather than through interim committees that meet in public and have a longer focus.
Three of the biggest issues before state lawmakers last session — development of a St. Louis-China cargo hub, limiting tax credits and laying the groundwork for a second nuclear power plant — died because of major, unresolved disputes in the session's final hours.
Negotiations to work out the final details all had been done behind closed doors, secret from the public and even from many of the legislators who were going to be asked to cast votes. In fact, the final nuclear plant compromise emerged so late in the session's last hour that the sponsor bowed to complaints from his colleagues that they did not even have time to read the bill before voting.
That secret approach continued with the efforts to put together a package for the special session. As a result, the governor and legislative leaders discovered that a number of lawmakers were not on board with the package.
Looking at this from the perspective of more than a few decades, I have a sense that our term-limited legislators have lost the sense of working to achieve long-term objectives.
Before term limits, when legislators expected to be around for years, the more effective lawmakers committed years to develop expertise on an issue, craft a working law and develop the coalitions to assure legislative success.
Now, it has to be done quickly without the future-focused thought, deliberation and consensus-building that I had seen in years past.
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.
[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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