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Opinion: Ignoring the constitution in Missouri government

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As Missouri legislators begin their 2024 session, they might want to consider a recent Missouri Supreme Court decision striking down a significant bill lawmakers passed in 2022.

The decision, issued just days before the 2024 legislative session, invalidated the 2022 law because state lawmakers and the governor violated a pretty simple restriction in the state's Constitution.

Lawmakers should not have been surprised. The constitutional restriction is completely clear and has been upheld in previous Supreme Court decisions.

The issue involves a prohibition on the legislature passing a bill that gets amended beyond the bill's original topic. The Constitution provides that "No bill shall contain more than one subject which shall be clearly expressed in its title."

Seems pretty simple. But lawmakers in the 2022 legislative session ignored that restriction as they have so often in the past.

The bill in question, HB 1606, began as a pretty simple proposal to expand the requirement for counties to publish annual financial statements in local newspapers.

But in the Senate the process went off the deep end adding a pile of unrelated issues.

The final version included restrictions on local government banning sleeping or camping on sidewalks, requiring martial status on deeds, banning local governments from COVID-19 vaccines requirements for their employees, limiting property condemnation awards, restricting local government regulations on refrigerants, exempting World Cup soccer tournament ticket sales from the sales tax, expanding local government power to expand employee retirement benefits and a pile of other unrelated provisions.

This long list of unrelated issues illustrates how the legislature went off the rails.

In the closing weeks of a legislative session, it's not unusual for legislators to attach completely unrelated issues pushed by various special interests and lobbyists.

But legislative leaders have not enforced the state Constitution's requirement that a bill be limited to the original topic by ruling a bloated bill out of order.

Surprising to me is that the governor signed that 2022 bill the Supreme Court struck down when in the same year, Gov. Mike Parson had vetoed two other bills in which he cited violation of the single-topic constitutional requirement.

A 1997 Missouri Supreme Court decision cited the importance of the single-subject constitutional restriction because "these constitutional limitations function in the legislative process to facilitate orderly procedure, avoid surprise, and prevent 'logrolling' in which several matters that would not individually command a majority vote are rounded up into a single bill to ensure passage."

Although the court allowed the law in question to stand, finding the bill related to a single subject, I found that comment insightful.

In the final weeks of a legislative session, the process to win approval in the second chamber can be almost like blackmail requiring agreement of the original chamber's sponsor to accept the unrelated provisions added by the second chamber.

This absence of discipline enforcing the state constitutional restriction could become even worse in the 2024 legislative session when legislators push amendments unrelated to the original bill to gain bragging rights for their upcoming campaigns or at the urging of special interests.

That likely was the case with the 2022 bill in which the House passed a simple single-topic bill only to see the Senate bloat what began as a simple seven-page bill into a 64 page quagmire.

Legislative and gubernatorial violation of a state constitutional single-topic restriction extends well beyond the lawmaking process itself. It interferes with governmental transparency and can obscure your understanding of the actions of your elected officials.

A bill containing completely unrelated topics makes it almost impossible for voters to understand and more difficult for reporters to describe the bill in a simple sentence.

Beyond that, a bill with a nearly incomprehensible number of topics allows a legislative leader or local legislator to focus their descriptions on just the most politically popular element rather than all of the more complicated and controversial issues inserted into a bill.

With the impending 2024 primaries and general election, this legislative practice only serves to foster confusion and obscurity for voters.

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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