The General Assembly will convene its 98th session this Wednesday, January 7. I anticipate much blather by a bi-partisan cast – myself included – about this, that, and the other priorities, and what’s different this time. Legislative leaders will renew commitments to improving our state. Gov. Nixon will do the same – and will likely prepare a State-of-the-State address littered with alluring alliterations, his preferred literary device.
Like Christmas, the start of the legislative process is the same story every year. The speakers may change but the underlying themes remain. Unlike Christmas, the early January legislative service lacks a deeper meaning – and it certainly won’t help save your soul. And yet, the legislative pomp-and-circumstance is more than just going through the motions. It’s the symbolic act that triggers the process of governance in our one-fiftieth space of our representative Republic.
Because it’s a new legislature this year, the process will begin more slowly. We need operating rules, so that will be our first order of business. I expect there will be several positive changes to the House rules relating to ethics.
After establishing the rules, committees must be formed. Those too will likely be announced in the first week. Incoming Speaker John Diehl is re-vamping the presently sprawling House committee process from one that is disparate and sometimes leads to conflicting policies to one that is better organized and flows through subcommittees.
The “old” committee structure featured 59 standing committees with a single Rules committee. Bills had to work their way through a standing committee and were then referred to Rules, which lacked the authority to make any substantive policy changes to a bill. Rules was an unusual committee under the old setup. It’s where many bills went to die unreported deaths by inaction. Yet, if a committee member spotted a problem with a bill that could have been fixed or reconciled with another bill, they could not effectively make any change. Further, as the funnel for 59 different standing committees, the Rules committee members had difficult time tracking the details of every bill.
Speaker Diehl’s new system eliminates the gate-keeper function of the Rules committee and will disperse its power across eight to twelve committees with jurisdiction over broad subject areas. For example, Economic Development (where proposed new tax credit giveaways are typically referred) and Ways & Means (tax cut bills) will likely be under the umbrella of a general “Commerce” committee.
Diehl is thus voluntarily relinquishing much of the Speaker’s power. Rather than having to work with only the chair of the Rules committee to kill or move bills after they get out of the original committee, the Speaker has dispersed that power among many more members. Paradoxically, by spreading the powers of the Rules committee around, Speaker Diehl will also facilitate a more consistent policy because the general committees will have greater subject area expertise.
No system yields perfect results. Like Churchill said, democracy is the worst of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. The minutiae of the democratic process matters a great deal. The old House committee system was disjointed at its start with power centralized at its end. The new system will be organized at its start with power decentralized at its end.
After adopting Rules and creating committees, the legislature will get down to the actual business of legislating. I believe the following areas will receive much work and attention:
Ethics reform seems to have real steam this session. Likely topics include: (1) capping gifts to legislators, (2) improving reporting of gifts and out-of-state events, (3) ending the revolving door for legislators to become lobbyists, and (4) improving transparency in campaign advertising.
Tax Credit Reform
I plan on filing legislation in January that ends or reduces dozens of current tax credits and tax exemptions that are targeted to a special few and replace them with a reduction in the overall tax rate for every Missourian. One of the smallest but most obscene examples is the sales tax exemption for legislators for purchases from their state expense account. Rep. Dave Hinson (R-St. Clair) has already proposed House Bill 274, which I believe overlaps in many areas with the bill I am working on. (In case you were wondering, the legislator exemption was passed in 1988.)
The legislature will try, again, to improve failing school districts. Last year, after a series of long nights and difficult negotiations, the House and Senate passed bi-partisan reforms. While we worked, Gov. Nixon did – and said – nearly nothing. He did not, and does not, have a plan of his own. I anticipate the legislature will return to work on the issue this year. As with last year, I will support plans that increase educational options for families, and vigorously oppose proposals designed to trap them in failing schools or school districts.