Notes from the front lines

Semi-blog things.

Some people who can do something about it are finally paying attention to the Capitol.   The Governor is suggesting $50 million dollars be spent in the next fiscal year to fix up the basement which is in terrible shape–not the part where he and legislators of certain status park, but hidden areas where there are distressing leaks.   The money also would go for new windows.  The place has a lot of them.  And many of them leak.  It’s been about four decades since the original windows were replaced.  It’s time to seal the building again against the elements. 

The building, its facilities, and its priceless art will need millions of dollars more in renovation, restoration, and repairs.  Perhaps events held from time to time to observe centennials in the progress of its construction–such as an event last week remembering the groundbreaking in May of 1913– will lead to continued commitments to return this building to the glories its designers and builders dreamed for it to be.


Incidentally, this reporter is one of the few people remaining who has touched both ceilings of the House and of the Senate. It’s not exactly something to be carved into a tombstone.  But it does mean that I have been higher in the House and Senate than almost every Representative and Senator who have served in this building—even during some night sessions after long dinners with lobbyists. 


We were in the elevator with Senator Will Kraus the other day.  He had me where he wanted me.  One of the blogs about seersucker Wednesdays had maligned his saddle shoes.   “They’re blue, ” he said, “not black.”   

 Which, of course, makes him even more stylish, with shoes that match the colors of his milk and sugar suit.   Our apologies to Senator Kraus’ shoes.  We did not knowingly or with malice aforethought in any way intend to indicate the shoes did not match the coat. 


Speaking of Senator Kraus.  When we started to write these notes, it was 10:15 p.m. on Tuesday night, May 7, and the Democrats were trying to talk down Sen. Kraus’ tax cut bill.  About 45 minutes earlier we walked over to him as he was sitting on a bench at the side of the chamber while Senator Jamilla Nasheed prattled on, and told him, “If this keeps going for another two and a half hours, you’ll be out of uniform.”     Two and a half hours would mean it would be Wednesday and we know what that means in the senate.

 But the advice was erroneous.  The clock and the calendar might think it is Wednesday, but if the Senate is still doing Tuesday’s business, Tuesday can last far more than 24 hours.   I remember one day that lasted about 32.  Senator Richard has been pretty good this year in setting the schedule for the senate. He maxes out at about 14.  


Speaking of what happens on Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder was in the chair that Tuesday when a Senator demanded to know his position on the clothing some of the fashion trend-setters of the Senate wear on Wednesday.  Kinder opined that in his part of state–Cape Girardeau–wearing of that kind of clothing was commonplace–BUT NEVER BEFORE MEMORIAL DAY!

The legislature will be gone by then and what’s the sense of wearing seersucker if you miss a chance to flaunt it?


In the days when Missouri was an agrarian state, the legislature met from November into early March.  Every other year.  sessions began after the fall harvest and quit in time for planting season.  A check of old journals shows lawmakers sometimes met on Christmas.   We stepped outside the building early one evening last week.  The sun was gently setting in the west.  The grass was the lush dark green of Spring.  A light breeze was blowing.  It was quiet. It was delicious. 

It was a reminder that 6 p.m. May 17th can’t come soon enough. And it was a reminder that some of the old-timers had some pretty good ideas.



This is Bob Priddy reporting from Kerfluffleland.

A Kerfluffle is a fuss and a fuss is a matter of worrying over trifles.

Governor Nixon got his Fruit of the Looms in a big knot yesterday afternoon when reporters didn’t ask him questions about what he wanted to talk about, just after he had read a stemwinder of a Medicaid expansion speech to a rotunda full of folks who thought his words were golden.

His message in the rotunda was similar to the message he’s been preaching all over the place about the need for the legislature to approve Medicaid expansion.  So what he was doing was hardly new–or news.

What was new –and what was news–was that the speech came shortly after he had told the Revenue Department to quit scanning and keeping records of people with concealed weapons permits.  That’s been an increasingly important issue as the legislature questions the operations of the department’s Motor Vehicle Division and the division’s collection and retention of a lot more private information than ever before demanded to get a driver’s license or any other kind of state identitification card. In recent days when he had paused long enough for a reporter to ask him about the increasingly strident accusations of misdeeds by his Department of Revenue, he wandered through a set statement that amounted to saying nothing was wrong.

When reporters kept trying to get a clear understanding yesterday of what he had done with his CCW order and why he had not done other things or why he decided only people with concealed weapons permits should not have those documents scanned and kept, he began to sputter and charged the entire senate committee inquiry into deparatment operations was a “kerflulffle” designed to take attention away from Medicaid expansion.  He sputtered a few other things about CCW permit holders and then bolted for his office with the intrepid Phill Brooks trying to ask another questions.

 AUDIO: Nixon

There are plenty of people, however, who think the whole revenue department document scanning and retention operation is something more than a trifle.  There are those in the capitol, particularly those who have pronounced Medicaid expansion a dead issue despite the governor’s tub-thumping for it, who might argue that the Medicaid rally was a kerfluffle  intended to take people’s minds off privacy invasion concerns.  One person’s kerfluffle is another person’s cause for war.

We’ve been around long enough to know the capitol is stuffed with kerfluffle from January to mid-May.  My isue is a crisis. Yours is kerfluffle.

Accessibility has never been a priority for this administration.  Managing the message HAS been a priority.  In Jay Nixon’s case, it’s always preferable to read a speech than to answer questions about what he’s doing and why.

So Nixon does something that alters the actions of his revenue department.  But it’s only one action on one of the issues that has Republican legislators in both chambers in a mini-froth accusing the department of violating public privacy and state laws.

Nixon decided to let reporters crowd around in a corner of the rotunda for a few precious minutes after his big speech and went off in a huff when the reporters didn’t want to talk about another Medicaid expansion speech but instead start asking why he did one thing but not another; what was his reasoning for doing what he did, and does he think more action should be taken.  There was no time and apparently no inclination for a quieter, more organized discussion with reporters in his office of Medicaid or of the revenue department.  So he got urinarilly agitated and stalked away because reporters preferred to ask him about what was new–and news.

Bob Priddy, from somewhere in Kerfluffleland.

Life and death in the State Senate

We do a lot of stories about issues before the legislature that are about important issues such as tax credits, industrial development, whether voters should have to show pictures of themselves to election clerks, whether motorcyclists should wear helmets, what to do to stop people from making meth, whether neighbors should be able to sue stinky pig farms and other issues that touch on the lives of some or many Missourians.  On rare occasions, we cover debates that focus on the two most basic elements of our existence: life and death.

The senate has started debating death.

Senator Joseph Keaveny’s bill asks the state auditor to study thirty murder cases to determine the comparitive costs of executions and life in prison with no parole.  The question before the senate before it adjourned Monday evening was who should pay for that study—the state or some outside organization.

The debate underlines the multiple social and political facets of the death penalty and cannot help but go beyond economic issues, which Keaveny insists his bill is about, to human feelings about whether some people deserve to forfeit their lives for taking the lives of others.

There is a currency of thought that social issues, or at least SOME social issues, cannot be fairly argued by those who have no personal experience on which to base their attitudes.  I have heard women legislators, for instance, denounce the men who think they can dictate reproductive rights laws.  But legislators are forever passing laws regulating human behavior about which they have no personal involvement.  It is unlikely that many, or any, of the 34 members of the State Senate have watched an execution.

This reporter has watched death penalty debates that go back to the state’s reinstatement of executions many years ago.  Not only the reinstitution of the penalty but the debates about the method by which the state would kill a killer. Or not.

This reporter has also watched 16 executions. He has talked with relatives of the victims. He has talked to relatives of the executed inmates. He has talked with relatives of inmates whose last-minute reprieves have bought them years more of prison life.   He has heard death penalty opponents say that executions don’t really bring relief to the relatives of the victims—although those relatives all have said they have been glad to long wait was finally over.

Several years ago, this reporter spent two nights in a Bonne Terre motel while one man’s execution bounced from judge to judge, court to court, and the execution was on, then off, then probably back on, then off, and maybe on again before finally the state abandoned the process.

You see, executions are traditionally carried out at 12:01 a.m. on the day set by the Missouri Supreme Court.  An odd time, you might think.  But the court only sets the date for an execution, not a time.  If a stay of execution is issued at, say, 11 p.m., the state has time to get it overturned before 12:01.  But if it does not, the state has the entire 24-hour day to appeal stays, to get new rulings, and for the inmate’s lawyers to appeal or file new motions.  In the cae of the inmate at Bonne Terre, the state did not abandon plans to hold the execution until about 8 p.m. after a U.S Supreme Court judge had issued a stay that clearly would take more time to deal with.

Several minutes after everything was shut down at the prison, the prisoner was returned to his cell, and reporters and other witnesses had left the penitentiary, a reporter for the Associated Press and I sat down with the inmate’s relieved family at the motel.   They told us they were glad that they could continue driving from Kansas City to Potosi (where death penalty inmates are kept until a few days before their execution date when they are moved to the Bonne Terre prison) to visit him.  They knew what he had done but he remained their son, brother, cousin, nephew, and they didn’t want him to die.

That was a little more than seven years ago.  Michael Taylor is still alive.  His case remains on appeal.  The state’s method of execution remains under challenge.

No doubt there were some who listened to the interview with Taylor’s family posted on our web page who thought, “His family already has had sixteen years more with him than the family of the victim had with her.”    Taylor and another man kidnapped a 15-year old Kansas City girl in 1989, raped her and murdered her.  She would be approaching 40 now, perhaps with her own family.  Her family, his family, continue to wait—with far different perspectives on the death penalty.

So the senate is debating who will pay for a state Auditor’s study of the relative costs of life versus death.  Anti-death penalty advocates say executions cost more than housing a person in prison for life without parole.  Pro-death penalty advocates say the economics of the death penalty should not be the focus of the issue; justice is the issue.

Some Senators already have argued that the death penalty is a deterrent, a statement that anti-death penalty advocates question.   Memory recalls  that when John Ashcroft was Governor and was asked if he thought the death penalty was a deterrent, he responded that it certainly deterred the executed inmate from committing another murder.

But another memory remains that goes back several years before that comment.   It happened during a legislative committee hearing on the death penalty when a Kansas City Star reporter named J. J. Maloney testified.  Maloney was a crime reporter who had first-hand knowledge of the subject.   He had been convicted of murder and armed robbery, crimes committed when he was 19.  He got four life sentences and served 13 years before he was paroled to become a Star reporter.  He told the committee that night of the hours after the murder and the armed robbery when a policeman came near his hiding place.  He had the cop in his gun sights, Maloney told the committee, and he never once thought about what his punishment would be if he pulled the trigger. The officer moved on without spotting Maloney, probably saving his life. The death penalty, Maloney said, is not a deterrent.  Criminals don’t think about punishment when they’re committing their crimes.

Death penalty debates, even those on a seemingly detached issue such as who will pay for a study of the costs of prison life or prison death, are almost always rooted in emotion, in the conflicting values that make us human, the conflicting values of a family glad their condemned son will live a few more months or years so they can visit him, or of a family that has been wondering for almost 25 years what might have been if two killers with consequences of their acts the farthest things from their minds had not murdered a teenage girl.  J. J. Maloney, a murderer and reporter who gave lawmakers an inside look at the mind of a criminal all those years ago, died in 1999 at the age of 59 at the home of his mother, who had visited him in prison every month and who every day wrote him a letter. And the search for justice goes on.