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By Phill Brooks
~~«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL012.PRB - Technical Sessions«MDNM»
For all the attention generated from the opening day of the legislature's special session, it's likely your House member skipped the first couple of days.
In fact, most of the elected members of the House of Representatives skipped the opening day, including the chamber's top leaders: the House speaker, majority leader and minority leader.
The official journal for the opening day notes the presence of just 29 of the House's 159 members (there are 163 seats, but the House currently has four vacancies).
Most of these members skipped the opening day because their leaders essentially told them not worry about showing up.
"Whoa," I suspect you're thinking. "How can that be?"
The answer relates to what is called a "technical session." You will not find that term defined in the constitution or the statutes, but it is a common practice in the Missouri legislature.
Many of the sessions of your state House and Senate do require members to attend to cast votes, participate in debates and offer amendments. For example, the final passage of a bill in a chamber requires an affirmative vote by more than one-half of the elected members.
But some legislative actions, such as the introduction of bills and bill assignment to committees, do not involve a vote, discussion or debate. That's where a technical session comes into play.
It's an official session, but it is limited to doing those kind of housekeeping matters when the leadership promises no votes will be taken. The Missouri Constitution makes reference to the fact there can be sessions for which a majority of the members do not need to attend.
Before you think that's just an excuse for legislators to slack off their jobs, consider this. A sparsely-attended special session can save the state a bundle of money — more than $10,000 if a large number of House members do not show up for a session where their presence really is not required.
The savings is related to the daily "per diem" a legislator gets for attending a House session. If a legislator skips a chamber session, he or she does not collect that $98.40 daily expense allowance.
For many years, the House was packed on the opening day of a legislative session.
Some members actually looked forward to a special session. They could get together with legislative friends, spend some time on various legislative-related activities such as interim committee work and, of course, get wined and dined by lobbyists.
But things changed in 2001. In that year, House staff advised the speaker, Jim Krieder, that a special session could start with a technical session.
House leaders argued there was no real purpose in requiring members to be present because the state constitution prohibits the chamber from voting on bills any sooner than the third day of a session. So for the first few days, there would be little official work for members.
This use of technical sessions for the start of a special session is not without controversy. The Senate always starts with a full-blown session that members are expected to attend.
Some senators argue that the beginning of a special session is significant enough that there should be a recorded entry in their journal that a majority of the members were present to answer the governor's call on the day and hour at which he called them into session.
Besides, senators like to voice opinions on any number of issues, regardless of whether there is any formal bill before them for debate, as we discovered with the Senate's opening day of the special session on Tuesday [Sept. 6].
Does it make any difference whether a special session starts with a full attendance of members? Maybe not. But in the marble cave of Missouri's statehouse, this the kind of technical, procedural issue that can generate hours of discussion.
Term limits might have played a role in the continued use of technical sessions for opening the House in a special session. There are fewer legislators, I sense, who enjoy having the summer or fall disrupted by having to show up in Jefferson City. There's a greater emphasis now on getting the session finished as soon as possible, in the fewest number of days.
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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