Todd Richardson, the new speaker of the Missouri House, got it right.
“I don’t think the last five months have put the legislature and this public institution in a particularly good light,” he said moments after his peers selected him to replace John Diehl.
Diehl resigned the powerful post in the final week of the session after The Star published sexually suggestive texts he exchanged with a 19-year-old legislative intern.
Before it ground to a halt on Friday, the 2015 session was rocked by the suicides of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich and his media spokesman, Spence Jackson. Overly close ties between lawmakers and lobbyists cast the legislature in a bad light. And the insistence of Republican leaders on pushing a contentious anti-union bill poisoned relationships and stopped other important work from getting done.
The most constructive action is a bill limiting the percentage of revenue for cities that can come from traffic tickets. It should stop many of the abuses that were revealed by the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., which is one of several Missouri cities that rampantly ticket citizens in order the keep local government up and running.
And fortunately for Kansas City, lawmakers renewed a half-cent sales tax that raises about $35 million a year for public transit in the metro area.
But once again, the General Assembly proved itself incapable of solving big problems — especially the lax ethics laws governing its own members. Bills to reduce the influence of money in government went nowhere.
Legislators passed a bill limiting welfare benefits for the poorest of Missouri’s families. But they didn’t even talk about reining in the runaway tax credits that mostly constitute corporate welfare, at a cost to the state treasury of about $500 million a year.
Lawmakers again refused to expand Medicaid eligibility. Opponents contend the current Medicaid program is broken, but they won’t do the hard work of examining what is wrong and how it can be fixed.
A bare-bones plan to raise money for much-needed highway work sputtered and died. Lawmakers didn’t even try to fix a glitch in a constitutional amendment which has enabled some convicted felons to possess a handgun without criminal repercussions. The session ended Friday with Missouri still the only state not participating in a national database used to track overuse and illegal use of prescription drugs.
The legislature’s Republican majority did manage to pass a few of its high-priority bills — most of them at the behest of business interests and calculated to limit options for workers.
A “right-to-work” bill, the passage of which brought work in the Senate to a halt in the last week, would make it harder for unions to bargain on behalf of entire workforces. Nixon promptly denounced the bill, which did not muster the required number of votes in either chamber for an override. In all likelihood, Republicans wasted a great deal of time and political capital on a bill that won’t become law this year.
Republicans also led a drive to reduce the number of weeks a person can qualify for unemployment benefits. And they passed an intrusive bill that limits the ability of cities to pass certain ordinances, including ones that set a local minimum wage. Neither should become law.
The final week of the session is usually when lawmakers rush to compromise and pass bills right up to the closing bell at 6 p.m. This year, the Senate adjourned three hours early. No sense prolonging the agony.
At least Richardson realizes that something is wrong. A great deal of fence mending and coalition building will be required in the off season. Lawmakers have to serve the state better than they did this year.
While the Missouri legislature noisily went to pieces, Kansas was in quiet agony, as lawmakers searched for $400 million to balance the state budget. It is about as much fun as a root canal.
Nobody wants to raise any kind of taxes. Some legislators still ramble on about the state’s “spending problem,” but no one has proposed how to cut such a large sum from the decimated budget.
Rifts are appearing, tempers are flaring and who knows how long this is going to go on.
▪ Another year, another failed attempt to get liquor in Kansas grocery and convenience stores. The Senate rejected a proposal to sell full-strength beer outside of state-sanctioned outlets.
▪ The chairmen of the House education committee and the state Board of Education signed a joint letter this week urging school districts to teach financial literacy to students.
Great idea! Just don’t look to state government as a role model.