In just a few weeks, the Missouri General Assembly will gather for its 2018 session.
This may be one of the most important legislative meetings in the state’s modern history. It’s become increasingly clear the state’s political health depends on lawmakers reasserting their prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government by standing up to Gov. Eric Greitens.
We make this recommendation after a year of disappointment. Missourians were optimistic last January when Greitens took office. He promised transparency, a renewed focus on ethics in government and an outsider’s approach.
“The people do not expect miracles, but they do expect results,” Greitens said in his inaugural address. “And we will deliver.”
What, exactly, has the governor delivered?
He has made Missouri government far more secretive by using a dark-money organization with undisclosed donors. He’s obscured sources of funds for his inaugural. He’s installed a special application on his phone that erases what could be public records.
Greitens has ducked legitimate questions from the press and public. He has strong-armed quasi-independent commissions, apparently because he wants to replace qualified state employees with his friends. He has engineered the suspension of a tax credit program considered essential for poor Missourians.
He has traveled the country in pursuit of his own ambitions. He has insulted legislators. He has treated lawmakers as a nuisance, not as a partner in improving the state.
We had hoped that the governor would hear critical but constructive voices, including those from members of his own party, on these issues and others. It’s now clear, however, that Greitens’ self-regard is so high that his mind can’t be changed.
That means the General Assembly must assert itself in 2018 and assume its constitutional role as the protector of the interests of the people in Missouri.
Here are some ways that might be accomplished:
▪ Appointment power.
Senators in both parties are angry at Greitens’ assertion of unilateral appointment power for state boards and commissions. This year, the governor appointed 10 people to the state board of education, all without Senate consideration, because he wanted to force out a well-liked education commissioner.
But senators say the problem extends far beyond education. The governor’s office rarely consults with senators about appointments. That’s a major breach, designed to exclude elected officials from the appointment process.
Sen. Gary Romine, a Republican, has already indicated he’ll work to deny confirmation of Greitens’ appointments to the state board of education. Other senators are working on a plan to reject all Greitens nominees until the governor confers directly with the body about the appointment power.
They should go further: The legislature should enact a bill to limit the authority of recess nominees.
Until confirmation or an emergency, appointees should be barred from hiring or firing high-ranking state employees.
▪ Ethics reform.
The General Assembly should insist dark-money organizations disclose their donors. Some elected officials who rely on secret money may resist such an effort, but they should always remember today’s political friend can become tomorrow’s enemy.
Greitens and his allies have shown no reluctance to attack Republicans they don’t like.
▪ Sunshine Law reform.
The General Assembly should make it clear that all government text messages involving public business are public records. It should prohibit the use of applications that erase text messages. It should give the attorney general the power to appoint an investigator for open records complaints.
The legislature should prohibit the governor’s office and the executive branch from charging exorbitant and unnecessary fees for open records requests. It should set firm deadlines for compliance with penalties for delays.
There may be other ways to improve government. Greitens will fiercely resist these reforms, so it will likely take supermajorities to enact them. The effort is necessary.
Either the General Assembly is a co-equal branch of a democratic government in Missouri, or it’s a rubber stamp for a governor whose only interests are his own. In a few weeks, we’ll know where legislators stand.