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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL006.PRB - Special Sessions«MDNM»
The difficulty that Gov. Jay Nixon has encountered to get legislative approval of his China hub and tax-credit reduction proposal stands out when you look at the history of special sessions.
Only twice in the past half-century has a special session rejected the main issue for which a governor called the session.
In 1981, the Senate called it quits and gave up on congressional redistricting. In 2003, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives refused to even take up Gov. Bob Holden's tax increase package.
There are several factors that make a special session a powerful tool for the governor to force lawmakers to take up a priority issue.
During a regular session, it's a lot easier for the governor's ideas to get lost in the huge pile of other issues before lawmakers. In a typical session, there are more than 1,000 bills filed.
In a special session, however, the governor's proposal stands out, because only his issues can be introduced as bills. Over the years, I've heard legislative leaders express concern that the higher visibility for the governor's proposals means the public's perception of legislative "success" or "failure" is determined by the governor getting what he wants.
A desire to get it done and go back home plays a significant role. During a regular session, lawmakers are stuck living in Jefferson City from January until mid-May, regardless of what gets passed or not. But in a special session, they can go home as soon as they complete their work.
That was a clear factor when the legislature passed the elderly prescription drug coverage bill in 2001. On the morning of Sept. 11, the legislative disputes over that bill seemed so less important. There was a collective desire by lawmakers to get back home to their families. Within days of the attacks, the legislature finished its work and went home. It was one of the more emotional times I've seen in the statehouse, when the desire to be back with family was enormous.
Despite the advantages a special session offers a governor, there are some drawbacks. If the legislature is controlled by the opposite party of the governor, a special session provides a platform for launching investigations into the administration.
Another drawback involves what Gov. Mel Carnhanan would describe to me as the seductive trap of a special session, although even he was forced into calling a couple. The trap is that legislators and the administration can end up feeling less pressure to pass something in the regular session if they think the governor will simply call a special session.
We've seen a bit of that the past couple of years when legislative leaders heard, or at least believed they heard, that the governor would call a special session on an issue still pending in the closing hours. It took a bit of the steam out of the issue.
On the other hand, one of my colleagues points to a few years ago when the governor's threat to call a special session sparked legislators into getting a bill on illegal foreigners passed so as to avoid being forced back into Jefferson City during the summer or fall.
Intertwined in this issue is what I sense is a declining interest among legislators in spending their summer or fall in Jefferson City. Prior to term limits, you had a much larger number of lawmakers who saw their legislative service as a near full-time job with interim committee work going on throughout the year. Some actually enjoyed being in session. They enjoyed being with their legislative friends and lobbyists.
Lawyers in the legislature, at least a few, gained too because of a law that gives a lawyer-legislator representing a client the legal right to postpone a civil or criminal court hearing whenever the legislature is in session.
Sen. Dick Webster used that right to delay the criminal case hearing of the "Town Bully" of Skidmore, Ken McElroy. That delay ultimately led to residents gunning down McElroy in 1981. It's a murder that remains unsolved to this day.
As always, let me know (at email@example.com) 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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