The return of legislative chaos

By Phill Brooks
    The conclusion of Missouri's legislative session this year reminded me of a quote attributed to Germany's first chancellor in the 1800's, Otto von Bismark. "Laws are like sausages. It's better to not see them being made."

    His point applies to this year's session of Missouri's legislative session. The final few weeks proved wrong my earlier column that the legislature had implemented a less chaotic, more organized, process.
    Legislative leaders had warned me the pressures of the final weeks could force changes. They were correct. But major disruptions arose from something beyond their control -- the filibusters and filibuster threats by six senators who formed a "conservative caucus."
    Their actions led to a harsh rebuke from a legislator whose efforts for a narcotic prescription drug monitoring program died for yet another year from Senate inaction.
    In a letter to lawmakers, Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, charged that a "self-titled 'Senate Conservative Caucus'" had pursued "a path of obstruction not often based on conservative principles. Their brand of 'conservatism' has proven if anything, only to be consistently inconsistent."
    In response, Senate Conservative Caucus Member Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, responded to me that "I'm not going to apologize for standing up for the taxpayer against what I see as ill-conceived policy."
    The conservative caucus was not always successful. Despite opposition to key elements of Gov. Mike Parson's legislative agenda, the Republican governor hit a legislative home run in 2019.
    Every one of his priority issues cleared the legislature over conservative caucus resistance, including state financial incentives for business expansion, state funding for a highway bridge-repair bond issue, and tuition grants for mid-career adults to seek training for better jobs.
    That success proved wrong another column in which I questioned Parson's legislative approach. Given his past record of forging legislative compromises, I should have known better. But Parson benefited from a component of the final week's legislative chaos that I've termed "bloated whales."
    These are bills that become bloated with amendments unrelated to the bill's original purpose. For example, a simple bill dealing with motor vehicle documents became a bloated whale to repeal motorcycle helmet requirements for adults.
    Another bloated whale sent to the governor started as a simple measure dealing with appeals to the utility-regulating Public Service Commission decisions. Added to that bill were amendments dealing with condemnation powers for high-voltage transmission lines, sale of municipal utilities, and making it a crime to damage critical infrastructure facilities.
    In the legislature's defense, amendments to create bloated whales not always are intended to actually become law. Sometimes, it's just to put pressure on the other chamber to pass a single-topic bill dealing with the subject of a bloat amendment.
    Also, as a former legislator reminded me, sometimes the amendments are offered to curry favor with special interests without any intention of passage. But this year, I saw more bloated whales getting passed onto the governor's desk than I can remember from past years.
    In fact, a major portion of Gov. Mike Parson's legislative success came from legislative passage of a bloated whale. That bill started as a simple measure to let the Economic Development Department include on its website the names of the Workforce Development Board members.
    But the bill got bloated to cover major portions of the governor's agenda -- tuition grants to mid-career workers, the $50 million tax break for General Motors and other financial incentives for businesses. The bill is a clear example of the problem that bloated whales pose for legislators.
    Some members supported the GM plant expansion tax break, but opposed tuition grants for working adults. Others supported the GM provision, but opposed the broader business tax breaks. That bill also illustrated another problem with last-minute amendments that create a bloated whale.
    Although administration officials had been negotiating with GM for weeks, the final language was presented to the legislature too late for committee hearings. That prevented any public input.
    It also blocked legislators from grilling GM executives as to whether they actually were seeking tax breaks to expand their St. Charles plant and, if so, why in a state with one of the lower corporate tax rates in the country.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: 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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