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GOP and Dems blame each other for slow session

May 13, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri legislature finished its least productive session in anyone's memory Friday with each party blaming the other for the gridlock.

An analysis of the last fifteen sessions, which represent the Carnahan and Ashcroft administrations, showed an average of more than 200 bills passed each year. This year's snail pace, replete with partisan bickering, produced a mere 73 measures--56 if you discount the budget bills.

That low number is even more drastic when you consider that a record number of bills were introduced, more than 1600 in all.

Of course, you can't judge a session solely on numbers. Some legislators say it's a good thing when they don't pass too many new laws. That means fewer ropes tethering the people, they say.

But in the legislature's last day, more major bills were killed than passed. The Senate slayed bills exempting the mentally retarded from the death penalty, lowering the drunk driving standard to .08, regulating HMOs, and bolstering the state's open records law.

The successes lawmakers could boast were few: a bill creating a no-call list for telemarketers, a measure aimed at reducing domestic violence, a proposal banning race-based police pullovers, and a $2.25 billion bond measure for highway construction and repair, to name some.

The Democrats blamed the Republicans in the House for logjamming the process early on. They say the GOP was intent on not giving Gov. Mel Carnahan and other Democrats running for office any victories to trumpet in the coming campaign season.

"I was disappointed by the bitter partisanship of the session," said Carnahan, who is facing a tough battle for the U.S. Senate against incumbent and former GOP governor John Ashcroft. "Leave politics out of (the session), and then go out and fight the election later."

The majority Democrats said the House Republican leadership pulled every bill off the quick-moving, noncontroversial consent calendar. Afterwards, each of those measures became susceptible to the amendment process, thereby slowing everything down.

The Republicans pulled the bills in retaliation to House Speaker Steve Gaw's February decision to end debate on a tobacco money bill before the GOP could offer any amendments.

Sen. Ted House, a St. Charles Democrat, said the GOP's move had a snowballing effect on the whole session, as each part of the process became back-logged waiting for House debate on consent bills.

One of House's bills, a measure affecting only a school district he represents, was stalled and seemingly dead until the House approved it on the last day. Normally, a bill like that would have gone through almost effortlessly.

House GOP leader Delbert Scott, of Lowry City, defended the Republican's move, saying Gaw's decision to close debate was "uncalled for." Further, he said, the Democrats over the years had begun to abuse the consent process, placing more and more controversial bills on the calendar.

Rep. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, said the Republicans couldn't be responsible for the logjam because the Democrats--who have a majority in both chambers-- control the floor, the debate and the agenda.

He and other Republicans chided the Democrats for not having an agenda worth pushing and then not having the leadership to marshal it through.

"They had nothing in their agenda to address a crisis in urban education," said Gibbons, who is the GOP assistant leader in the House and a candidate for state Senate. "The democrats were more worried about who was going to be the next speaker than passing their agenda."

Many lawmakers and lobbyists spoke of the effect the November election had on the session.

"It started a year ago when the governor filed for the Senate race," said Louis DeFeo, a thirty-year lobbyist for the Missouri Catholic Conference. "Everything began to be looked at from the point of view of how it would affect his race."

But Carnahan is not the only one seeking higher office. Gaw, D-Moberly, is seeking the Secretary of State's office, running against another House member. Several Senators are vying for the same seat in the U.S. Congress. Numerous others are trying to move from the House to the Senate.

House downplayed the effect of the election season. He said election years 1996 and 1998 were very productive. However, he conceded some lawmakers had expressed unwillingness to push Carnahan's legislation since they know the governor will be gone in mere months.

The Missourian's analysis showed the previous low bill total, 118, was in 1992, Ashcroft's final year as governor. That observation gives credence to the theory that a lame-duck governor harnesses little power to push his agenda.

Looking back at the governor's January State of the State Address, none of his major initiatives survived the session. He pushed for the .08 bill, mandatory trigger locks on guns, police authority to pull drivers over for not wearing seat belts, and a plan asking voters how to spend the tobacco money.

All those ideas were killed in the legislature.

DeFeo, one of the Capitol's most influential lobbysists, said the narrow majorities the Democrats hold also contributed to the malaise. Looking back over his thirty years, he said, the Democrats always had wider margins.

He said former House Speaker Bob Griffin would just turn off the microphones when Republicans tried to talk. Now, with just a four seat majority, Democrats need to hold ranks to push their agenda.

That difficulty was evident Thursday evening when Gaw tried to close debate on the .08 drunk driving bill. Needing 82 votes to halt the Republican amendment machine and hold a vote on the bill, four holdouts and two absences in the party killed the motion. The debate went on for another two hours.