A legislative session of wedge issues - A Senate resolution setting up nullification tops it off
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A legislative session of wedge issues - A Senate resolution setting up nullification tops it off

Date: May 18, 2012
By: Cole Karr
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SJR 45

JEFFERSON CITY - What politicans call wedge issues constituted a major portion of the time and attention of 2012 legislative session.

Wedge issues are deliberately divisive measures to identify for voters a clear difference between the two political parties. Wedge issues can energize or divide a voting base. These issues are often used during election years.

Hours of the 2012 legislative session was dominated by debate over these type of issues, many focusing on objections to federal laws and requirements. 

Issues such as abortion, gun control, contraceptives and the federal health care law, which currently awaits a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, were debated at length by lawmakers.  

Some examples of wedge topics before Missouri's 2012 session included::

Some Missouri wedge issues and conversation have gained national attention. One was the decision to allow the placement of a Rush Limbaugh bust in the Hall of Famous Missourians. A bill to prevent the mentioning of sexual orientation in the classroom, also known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, was featured during a segment of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." The bill for workplace and firearms discrimination was featured on the Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Another resolution was deemed by its opposition as a way for Missouri to secede from the Union.

Early in the legislative session, House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, defended his chamber spending time on wedge issues. "I think that it's important to distinguish between the two parties before people vote."

But Tilley said not all of the issues Democrats attacked as politically motivated were wedge issues.

"I think they're all common sense pro-job, pro-business, pro-individual rights issues, and that's what we've focused on," Tilley said.

On the House's passage of the bill to criminalize implementation of the federal health care law in the state, Tilley said it was not a wedge issue, but rather a way to accurately represent Missourians. He cited election results of Proposition C in 2010, when 71 percent of Missouri voters rejected the notion of mandating health insurance in Missouri.

"We were elected by the voters, and we echo their voice," Tilley said. "That's exactly what we have done."

On the other side, the House Democratic Leader -- Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County -- said there are other pressing issues that need to be addressed such as education, jobs and the budget. He said focusing on issues would have added "substantive value" to Missourians' lives.

"[There are] all those other types of different issues I think that people really are more interested in than whether or not the General Assembly is going to tell Congress that they don't necessarily appreciate their work," Talboy said. "I think that's probably the overall message we've been sending with those resolutions, and I think it's ridiculous."

Legislation Challenging the Federal Government

One measure purposed in the Missouri legislature, but which did not pass, would have put many of these wedge issues in the form of a Constitutional amendment before Missouri voters this November. If it had passed, it would have challenged the federal government and forced the state to ignore some federal laws and actions, known as nullification the act of a state declaring a federal law or laws void in the state.

The multi-issue resolution would have put forward a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the three branches of Missouri government from "recognizing, enforcing or acting in furtherance of any federal law" or other federal actions that "exceeds the limited power enumerated and delegated to the federal government." Whether or not a law exceeds the criteria would be determined by the General Assembly or the Missouri Supreme Court.

This, according to the resolution, was an effort for Missouri to enforce its sovereignty. Opponents are calling it a part of the "Republican agenda" and a way to secede from the Union.

Under the resolution, the state would have been prohibited from acting on a number of specific federal actions, including:

However, the legislation had some judicial issues. Mike Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court Judge, said the resolution was a solution in search of a problem.

"If the problem is that the federal government is overreaching beyond its powers, the courts will say so," Wolff said. He cites the recent U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the constitutionality of the federal health care law.

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Supremacy Clause, states any law made under the authority of the United States is the "supreme law of the land," and any state laws going against federal law are void.

"If there's a problem of [federal] overreaching, it's not a problem that can be cured by the Missouri legislature," Wolff said. "They may be operating in things not in their pay grade."

However, Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, supports the effort. He argued the federal government has overstepped it's power, and said the people of Missouri know how to govern the state better than those living and making decisions in Washington, D.C.

"I think that the federal government has far exceeded some of it's power enumerated in it's Constitution." Purgason said. "When it's not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, it falls back to the State Constitution. I think this is a way the state legislature can get back some of its power and authority it's lost, or seceded, to the federal government."

Wolff said the issue of state sovereignty is a legitimate issue, one that the United States fought the Civil War over. 

"It's a legitimate issue because people feel it is a legitimate issue," Wolff said. "But the question is 'is it a legitimate legal issue?'" 

The Constitutional concerns over the bill had the opposition arguing that the resolution was an attempt to secede from the Union. Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, calls all issues taken up by the resolution an effort to "dismantle the United States as we know it." She said it's all a part of the national Republican agenda.

"They are trying not to be a part of the nation mainly because we have an African-American president," Wright-Jones said. "The things that they are talking about have been in law and we have been working on for some generations. All of a sudden they've become anathema to them. That's because we have an African American president, quite frankly. If it was someone else this wouldn't be an issue."

Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, sponsored similar legislation in the Missouri House in 2010. He disagrees with the opposition's secession argument.

"That argument is so lame and preposterous that's it's an attempt to secede from the Union," Curtman said. "We don't necessarily think that the federal government ought to come in and dictate our state policies that we can handle at the state level."

Curtman referenced the 10th Constitutional Amendment, which delegates any federal powers not delegated in the Constitution to the states. He also cited Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Elastic Clause, which grants specific powers to the U.S. Congress.

Wright-Jones called herself a progressive Democrat and said she would never support the bill, even if the issues were taken up separately.

"The Founding Fathers that they speak of so fondly were the ones that set up what we have in the Constitution," Wright-Jones said. "And these bills, to me, are asking to remove these things from the Constitution and dismantle the government of the country."

Leadership's Reflection

Overall, Talboy said the General Assembly did not do all they could.

"Our job is to try to make the lives of the citizens here [in Missouri] better, and we haven't done necessarily the best job at pursuing that goal." Talboy said.

Tilley disagrees with Talboy on the success of the session.

"The federal government sometimes over reaches and this is a way to bring it back into balance," Tilley said.