WWET: What would Earl think?

Senator John Lamping is proposing a state constitutional change that would take away the public’s right to choose a Lieutenant Governor, ending a practice that has existed in Missouri since statehood 192 years ago.  He wants to let each party’s Gubernatorial primary winner select his or her running mate and have them run as a team in November. Missourians no longer would be able to vote for a Lieutenant Governor candidate in the August primary or in the November general election.

Thus would end one of the more interesting quirks of Missouri’s voting record–the election of a Governor and a Lieutenant Governor of different parties (think Nixon-Kinder, Ashcroft-Carnahan, Teasdale-Phelps).  The committee chairman says the proposal is “something worth talking about.”

But Sen. Lamping thinks we should have two people representing the executive branch who would be “extensions of each other.” Here is the reasoning behind his proposal that has us wondering what Earl would think.

“We all very often hear from the second floor when the things we are doing are not pleasing them and there are a lot of times when we don’t hear from the second floor and we’d like to have that relationship be a little bit closer,” Lamping told a Senate committee the other day.  He continued, “With the two parties being represented in each of those two offices, each have access to a podium. Each has an access to be heard.  But more often than not they’re going to conflict in their messaging.  So what I’m hoping would happen if these two offices were held with members of the same party is that whatever it is the administration is trying to propose and push forward, that they would be heard more consistently and that ordinary people who don’t often understand what’s going on down here might better have an opportunity to hear what’s going on down here.”

Earl, in his prime, would eat Senator Lamping alive for that kind of thinking.

Earl Blackwell was a Senator from Hillsboro.  He was a Democratic Senate President pro tem  when Democrats controlled every statewide elected office except Attorney General.  He was describe in his time as “colorful.”  Others called him a bully.  Some saw him as a hero. He was Governor Hearnes’ worst enemy in the Capitol . Having a closer relationship with the second floor (that’s legislative lingo for the Governor, whose office is one floor below the third, or the legislative floor) was the LAST thing Earl Blackwell wanted to have.

Blackwell wanted a Senate completely independent of the Executive Branch. He considered the House under the control of Hearnes, and so did many others who had seen three-time Speaker Tom Graham replaced by Jim Godfrey, a Hearnes ally.
The issue was more than a purist’s view of the separation of powers in government. Blackwell also held a grudge.  He thought that he was going to get Hearnes’ backing for Lieutenant Governor in 1968.  But Hearnes supported William S. Morris of Kansas City and Morris won, replacing Tom Eagleton.

Remember that the legislature convenes several days before statewide officers are sworn in.  When Eagleton resigned to take the Senatorial seat of Ed Long in Washington, after Long stepped aside so Eagleton could have a few days of seniority, Hearnes appointed Morris to fill the vacancy.

Blackwell refused to recognize Morris as a legitimate Lieutenant Governor. He said the appointment was illegal.  And he said that if Morris showed up to preside over the Senate on opening day, 1969–one of the constitutional duties of a Lieutenant Governor as Senate President–he, Blackwell, would throw him out of the chamber.  Morris decided not to push things and didn’t try to enter the Senate. Blackwell was formally elected pro tem that day.

After Morris, Hearnes, and others were sworn in, Morris was allowed to preside. But that didn’t last long.  The day Morris presided, the Senate adopted rules that effectively removed his abilities to preside, assign bills to committees, or sign bills passed by both Houses and transferred those responsibilities to the President pro tem, Blackwell.   Blackwell thus had the power to decide whether Morris could preside.  Morris said he would not preside again as long as his presence depended on the whim of Blackwell.  He did not want the embarrassment of going in to preside only to be kicked out by the pro tem.

Then the confrontation in 1969 escalated.  This was back in the days when patronage politics was far more prevalent than it is today, although it would be incorrect to say our system has been purified of political patronage.  We all know that’s not so.  When Blackwell got power to throw the Lieutenant Governor out of the chamber whenever he wanted to do so, Hearnes ordered that any Senator who wanted a constituent to get a job in state government had to clear the deal with Morris. And Morris said he would look carefully at those requests in light of what the Senate had done.

The Senate reminded Hearnes that it had advice and consent power over any appointments he might want to make.  Hearnes reminded the Senate that Morris had to approve any payment vouchers the Senate issued for its expenses before the state comptroller would issue checks and Morris wasn’t going to sign any vouchers until the mess was cleaned up.

The confrontation between Senate President pro tem and Lieutenant Governor festered until Republican Bill Phelps was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1972 and ran into Democrat Senate President pro tem Bill Cason of Clinton.  The Supreme Court settled that confrontation by ruling that the Lieutenant Governor could preside over the Senate any time he wanted to do so because the state constitution says he can. Otherwise, said the court, the senate has the power to make its own rules. That is why to this day, the pro tem, not the Lieutenant Governor, assigns bills to committees.  To this day, it is the pro tem, not the Lieutenant Governor, who signs bills passed by the Senate and the House before they are sent to the governor for a decision.

Blackwell’s heavy-handedness eventually caught up with him and on January 19, 1970, just a few days more than a year after he had put Morris in his place, the senate voted to remove Blackwell as pro tem.  But his war with Hearnes was not over.

The legislature had approved a tax increase Hearnes wanted in 1969.  But Blackwell, who once complained in language that sounds completely contemporary these forty-some years later, “We have too much government, too much taxation, too much unnecessary spending, and too much waste of taxpayers’ money,” circulated a petition to overturn that tax increase. And in April, 1970, voters did that.

Blackwell left after four terms in the Senate.  He finished fourth in the 1972 Democratic primary for Governor and called it a career as a Senator in ’74.   He died a little more than three years ago. He was 85.

Senator Lamping needs to give thanks that he’ll never know Earl Blackwell, who chewed up and spat out a Lieutenant Governor of his own party because the last thing he thought state government needed was a Senate that had a close relationship with the second floor.

Kicking and Screaming

Lessons are there to be learned by a series of events in the legislature during the last few days.  You may decide if there is something to be learned from this wandering that speaks to the long-term impact of politically-expedient short-term thinking. Or maybe it makes perfect sense to you and the actions were wise and judicious.

The Senate started debating a fix to the Second Injury Fund this week.  The fund is broke.  Thousands of Missourians claiming second job-related injuries have filed claims that are not being processed, let alone paid, because the fund is almost bereft of, well, funds.  One estimate says the fund could be a billion dollars short of meeting its obligations to 30,000 claimants.  Why is that?

Well, back in 2005, the legislature decided to be kind to the employers of those workers and imposed a limit on the taxes employers pay to support the fund that compensates their workers who are injured to the extent they cannot do their jobs well or at all.  And for eight years the taxes flowing into the fund have not kept pace with the claims filed by those workers.

The Senate started debating Senator Scott Rupp’s bill that doubles the tax to a figure that is still below what the state auditor says is needed.  When asked if the business community agreed with the proposal (a question that in itself is a clue to how much of state government operates these days), Rupp said they were going along with it “kicking and screaming.”  Rupp says the state won’t be able to settle all of the claims against the fund until at least 2020 even if his bill doubling the tax becomes law.

On the same day the Senate began debating the Second Injury Fund bill, a joint education committee released a new formula for funding higher education on the basis of institutional performance.  The study behind the formula says our higher education institutions already are underfunded to the tune of $388 million dollars. Significantly, the formula says that if these underfunded institutions don’t meet performance goals, they could lose ten percent of their already underfunded appropriations.

That study has come less than a week after Governor Nixon presented a proposed state budget that leaves funding for elementary and secondary education about $625 million under the levels the legislature promised schools they would be at by now in the latest foundation formula rewrite in–here’s that wonderful year again—2005.

The day after the Second Injury Fund debate started and the higher education formula was announced, two state senators, Mike Kehoe and Ryan Mckenna, unveiled their 10-year plan for a penny sales tax on motor fuels to pay for transportation needs.  Missourians have voted against increasing the regular fuel tax and proposals to charge tolls on our major highways have been shunted to the shoulder. The transportation department has dumped or is dumping 1500 employees, selling equipment, and closing dozens of facilities because it has only about half the money it used to have to take care of roads, bridges, railroads, airports, riverports, and limited mass transit. This plan will have to go to those reluctant voters if  it gets past the legislature and the governor, both of which or whom have been proud to proclaim “no tax increases” for years.

So how will the state legislature deal with all of these shortages it has identified in education and in the Second Injury Fund?

Ummmmm…….

Well, it could always cut business and income taxes in an effort to keep Kansas from luring Missouri jobs across the border to a state that faces a $300 million budget deficit because of tax cuts.  Everybody should agree that the answer to shortfalls in funding obligations to things like education and the Second Injury Fund is less funding, shouldn’t they?

One of the advantages of being a state government reporter is that you get to wander the halls trying to find out what inspires lawmakers to do some of the things they do.  We think we have found the source of that inspiration.

During the legislative session, groups that want to make favorable impressions on senators and representatives arrange to serve meals, often in the third floor rotunda but sometimes lines form outside the doors of individual legislators’ offices.  All this food is made available at no cost to those who eat it. We confess to having no shame about gathering at the trough, too.  After all, to understand how the system works, participation in the system to some degree is helpful (if not always nutritious).  That’s our rationale and we’re sticking to it.

Yes, friends. At the Missouri Capitol there IS a free lunch.

Son of Screwing Up the Capitol

Speaker of the House Tim Jones called the Missourinet newsroom last Friday while I was in another part of the building appropriating  unhealthy Christmas goodies that were not under close watch by other company departments. He left a message suggesting we should talk about the stuff going on in the House Press Gallery that we chronicled in our original “Screwing Up The Capitol” entry. The call came shortly after we had posted a response issued through the Speaker’s office defending the construction.

Haven’t called him back yet but we appreciate the tone of his call and we look forward to a good chat after the holiday season’s comings and goings calm down.

The concerns about the construction invasion of the gallery, one of the great architectural features of the Capitol, has caught the eye of several people and organizations, none of whom are impressed by the scheme.

Not being one who wants only to complain, we have been trying to think of helpful alternatives.  And we have one.

Twenty years ago or more, the House enclosed an area at the back of its chamber and created a gallery. The decision came not too long after those of us in the press gallery on the tense last night of a legislative session watched through the open back doors of the House chamber as two Representatives got into a shoving match in the rotunda.  As we recall, Representatives Tom Villa and Tony Ribaudo of St. Louis–neither of whom was a poster child for Weight Watchers at the time–were the protagonists.  Construction of the back gallery closed off that view.

The gallery is closed to the general public. Admission is only for House members or their invited guests. The gallery was created to keep lobbyists from hanging around the back door of the chamber and pestering door keepers to haul lawmakers out into the rotunda where they could be convinced to lean one way or another.  But that isolation is no longer valid. Members of the House have computers on their desks and Blackberries on their hips and with today’s texting, the lobbyists are in the chamber electronically.

If the House needs staff space, it would be better served if that rear gallery was subdivided to create staff space instead of carving up the press gallery.  There would be no conflict with those who want to preserve their press space and/or the architectural integrity of the building.  The staff would not be in an inconvenient location, one floor above the House floor.  It would be on the same floor, within a few steps of each member’s desk.  Access to and by the staff would be much more convenient.   The advantages are clear.

Do House members need the lounge at the back of the chamber?  Not really.  They have their own offices where they can close doors and relax or talk with others.  They don’t mind mingling with lobbyists in restaurants and other establishments.  Obviously the rear gallery can be put to better uses.

Furthermore, the creation of office space in an area already enclosed will not be visible to the public during the course of construction or afterward–as opposed to the ugliness that was portrayed in Phill Brooks’ pictures that were part of the first entry on this topic.

And the final result would not distract from an important architectural feature–the press gallery and Herman Schladermundt’s magnificent stained glass window.

Of course, there are some questions about the entire project.  We don’t recall any appropriations for this work. Nor have we heard how much of the House’s money will be spent on it.

And then there are the rules of the House.  What the Speaker is promoting now is a violation of his own chamber’s rules, which remain in effect until changed.  Here’s the critical rule:

 Rule 116. The gallery at the front of the chamber above the Speaker’s dais shall be reserved for members of the Missouri Capitol News Association holding valid credentials issued by the Speaker and any other member of the press issued credentials by the Speaker. All other upper galleries shall be open to the public.

 The Speaker, therefore, is building offices that his staff won’t be able to use because the area is restricted to the Capitol press corps under rules his members adopted and that previous House members have adopted for many years.  The “credentials issued by the Speaker” part of the rule has never been enforced although one previous speaker did issue cards.  There’s some question about the constitutionality of a Speaker, in effect, licensing the press to begin with.

There is a process for changing the rules to fit the Speaker’s plan but it can’t be used until the session begins January 9th and will take some time afterwards, including floor debate that people throughout Missouri can listen to on the internet.  At the very least, the construction in the press gallery is premature because of the House’s own rules.  But even Speakers can understand the old adage that it is better to apologize after the fact than seek permission before the act. We’ll be interested to see if any members of his own caucus want to challenge his extra-rules actions in the gallery.

Oh, one other thing.  The Speaker has cited the declining use of the press gallery as a reason for appropriating the space.  His decision comes at a time when the Capitol press corps is showing some slow growth.  A new newspaper will be covering state government in 2013.  Two years ago another new organization began covering Missouri politics.  We are seeing a diversification of media that is bringing more eyes and ears to coverage of state government.

So we offer this solution to an issue that has attracted what seems to be wider attention each day (I got a call at home Friday night with a message on behalf of a former Representative and a former First Lady, for example). Some editorial writers and commentators have noted the issue. A couple of organizations have weighed in.

So we’ve set forth a logical alternative.  Looks like there’s more to talk about when we talk.