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Opinion: Examining an abnormal legislative summer

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This summer was one of the Missouri government's most unusual for a time when state government usually slows down.

It began when Gov. Eric Grietens called two special sessions in a row — one to work on utility breaks for smelting plants and the other for anti-abortion bills.

There have not been two special sessions in the same year in more than decade. The last was in 2003. And both those special sessions essentially dealt with the same issue — the state's budget and Democratic Gov. Bob Holden's unsuccessful efforts to get the GOP legislature to pass a tax increase.

This year's second special session had a couple of other unusual aspects. First, Greitens attempted to restrict his call by issuing a second proclamation that was less extensive on banning local ordinances involving pregnancy-choice decisions. Missouri's Constitution allows a governor to expand an ongoing special session with other proposals. That's happened frequently over the decades.

But the Constitution is silent as to whether the governor can issue a new call to restrict items in his initial call. It may be a legal issue of no consequence, since lawmakers regularly sponsor bills not included in a governor's call, as they did this year.

Another unusual aspect of that second special session was the degree to which the Senate caved in to the House, which passed a version of the abortion bill the governor had endorsed.

With fewer members, the Senate tends to be the stronger of the two bodies. That wasn’t the case this year. The Senate simply slam dunked the House version before ending the session.

A few critics said Senate members just wanted to get home sooner for summer vacations. But some senators argued they simply liked the stronger House language rather than the earlier Senate version that was concocted to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

The budget presented another departure from normalcy this summer. The governor waited until the last possible day to sign the budget — June 30, just one day before the budget year began. And unlike prior governors, Greietens did not hold a news conference to explain his budget decisions.

There was another twist to the budget. Greitens did not use his line-item veto powers to reduce a single spending item. Instead, he used his power to withhold appropriated funds from agencies. That's been an increasing trend because it gives governors more flexibility to release money if tax collections improve.

But this is the first time I can remember that all of the spending cuts to the legislative-passed budget were in the form of withholdings.

Another unusual development this summer arose from an appointment to the state Board of Education. Appointed was Delbert Scott, a highly respected former long-term member of the Missouri legislature.

But just a few days after his appointment announcement, Scott turned down the position because his membership would violate a state law that prohibits an education board member from being an official with a private or public educational institution. Scott is the president of the Kansas Christian College. What made the situation even more unusual is that Scott's son, Todd, is a lawyer who once worked for the state Senate and now works for the governor.

The legislature contributed to the summer's departure from normalcy with far fewer bills taking full effect than normal — less than 50. That's less than half the amount of the past several summers.

Despite a super-majority of Republican lawmakers, their productivity was frustrated by internal divisions and a governor who did not lay out a detailed, comprehensive legislative agenda.

The bizarre nature of this summer was capped by a couple of legislative social media gaffs that got national attention.

The first came from Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, who suggested a presidential assassination. That led to calls for her resignation.

But Rep. Warren Love, R-Osceola, apparently did not learn the lesson about the dangers of social media. He came under attack for a social media post that critics said advocated lynching the vandals of a Confederate memorial.

Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps, and he manages the multimedia website on state government news, MDN.org. Brooks can be reached at column@mdn.org.

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