State House changes little in its new era

Sunday, May 18, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- For all the talk of a new era with Republicans in charge and a massive cadre of rookie lawmakers in office, in some respects the Missouri House of Representatives changed very little.

Just as it always has, the majority usually gets its way.

Unlike the Senate, where unlimited debate is tradition and one stubborn member can gum up the whole process, the House runs on pure majority rule.

After almost 50 years out of power, Republicans weren't afraid to exercise the clout of their 90-73 majority during this year's legislative session that ended Friday.

That translated into successful passage of most elements of a pro-business agenda that made scant progress under Democratic leadership. It also enabled the House to hold the line against major new taxes even when the Senate, which Republicans also control, signaled it was willing to consider the option to help the state deal with its budget problems.

House Democrats adjusting to their status as the minority party, however, complained the majority acted with too heavy a hand, shutting Democrats out of the process.

House Minority Floor Leader Mark Abel, D-Festus, compared the leadership of House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, to that of Bob Griffin, a former Democratic speaker who earned a lasting reputation for ruling with an iron fist during his 15 years in the post.

"I have never seen anything like the process we've been through this year," said Abel, an 11-year veteran. "I resent it and resent how my members were treated much of the time this year."

Hanaway said such ill feelings from the new minority party are to be expected.

"Change is difficult," Hanaway said. "When you take something away from one group of people who had total control for 48 years and give it to another, they are going to fight hard to get it back."

Dramatic last day

An example of what Democrats perceived as an abuse of authority occurred on the session's last day. The House took up and passed a controversial bill that would cap awards for pain and suffering in civil lawsuits. It would also limit the ability of lawyers to file cases in counties where juries have a reputation for handing out big financial judgments.

When the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, said it was the "most important vote" members would make this year, Democrats responded with loud boos.

"It's the most important vote, yet there's no debate," state Rep. Rick Johnson, D-High Ridge, yelled sarcastically.

House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, made no apologies for using his power to prevent debate on that bill and cut it off on others throughout the session.

"I think, with the tort reform bill, it was the screams and howls of the trial attorneys by whom Democrats are bought and paid for," Crowell said.

Considering the time spent on the measure in the Senate and on an earlier House version, Crowell said the issue was debated more than any other. Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, vowed to veto the bill.

In other respects, rule changes instituted by Republicans made for a much smoother finish to the session and avoided the standard train wreck at the end.

The session's final week has always been one of resurrection, where bills that stalled in the process find new life as amendments to other legislation with a better chance of passage.

The result is massive bills hundreds of pages long. In years past, lawmakers would be forced to vote on these omnibus measures without a chance to read them.

The new House rule largely prevented changes to bills on the last day. As a result, most of the contentious issues were worked out earlier in the week, sharply reducing the amount of last-minute activity.

Freshman behavior

The 90-member House freshman class, in office because of term limits, also created a much different atmosphere in the chamber.

Leaders of both parties gave the newcomers high marks despite their inexperience.

Freshmen representatives handled some of the session's most high-profile bills, such as nursing home reform, and played key roles in numerous other issues. For example, state Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, successfully carried legislation needed to get Missouri law governing commercial drivers' licenses and other trucking issues in line with federal regulations and preserve federal funding.

As Southeast Missouri steadily shifted to Republican representation in the 1990s, fewer area lawmakers had opportunities to sponsor and pass major legislation when Democrats still held the majority. That changed with GOP House control.

State Rep. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, handled all major crime issues, including sentencing reform and tougher restrictions on the distribution of products used to make methamphetamine.

One of the top bills affecting local interests was sponsored in the House by state Rep. Lanie Black, R-Charleston. Against stiff initial opposition, Black managed to win passage of the measure, which helped to keep open the Noranda Aluminum plant and its 1,100 jobs in New Madrid.

"That is perhaps the most important thing that got passed for all of Southeast Missouri -- saving the Noranda plant," Crowell said. "If that was to go away, you might as well drop a bomb on Southeast Missouri."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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