When Santa became Scrooge

Sunday, May 19, 2002

KENNETT, Mo. -- Members of the Missouri General Assembly, by now safely nestled in their own homes and communities after the close of this year's legislative session, are no doubt hoping their constituents will understand at least a few of the problems and barriers they faced in Jefferson City.

When sessions adjourn with war records similar to the one compiled this year, lawmakers are often faced with hostile constituents who exercise only a modicum of restraint as they judge the successes and failures.

Perhaps it is best that newly elected members of the House of Representatives and Senate have no inkling what will happen when the two chambers convene early each January. Their work schedule will include the consideration of thousands of ideas and hundreds of bills in hearings and sessions where endurance is more treasured than careful consideration, and the ability to view intelligently the topic of the day is more essential than the member's political affiliation or his or her winning majority in the last election.

What was once considered essential to political fortunes almost immediately must be converted to other qualities, which in turn must be assumed if the member can enjoy any legislative future beyond a single term in public office.

Undoubtedly members of the session ended are hoping for such foresight and patience from both friends and detractors back home, although it would be remarkable if they found either in great measure. The public knows what it wants from any session. And these qualities, while not definitive, are nevertheless essential to maintaining peace and order in the lives of elected legislators. They're not difficult to name:

1. No new taxes. There is good reason why this is the first piece of business the voters demand. There are virtually no essential programs carried out at the state level that do not require additional funding -- and there is no end to the needs the public would like to receive, all without charge, of course. The scalps of renegades who were unable to fund a popular program without raising taxes are hanging throughout the Capitol's corridors, and the legislator who hopes his vote for higher taxes will be forgiven by constituents will shortly be noted in his public-service obituary.

On this subject, the 2002 session convened with two strikes before committee assignments could even be made. Only a handful of new lawmakers failed to recognize how tough the budget conundrum would be and, in reality, how few options would be available to provide quick and easy exits.

2. Everything else. Whatever else constituents may want from their lawmakers, in addition to a card at Christmas and a free ice scraper during campaign season, doesn't hold a candle to the first requirement, with only a handful suggesting that regardless of its cost, certain new programs or services are required regardless of their cost. This is a tough constituency to serve, much less please, and satisfaction form this group hasn't been seen in recognizable form for at least a century or two.

This session has proved no different than its predecessors in a variety of other ways, and these bear listing if only for exculpatory reasons.

Thanks to the cost-nothing-so-it-must-be-good rationale, legislative leaders are less experienced than their predecessors if only because they have had briefer tenures. The Dick Websters require years of experience, plus an uncanny ability to deal fairly with both sides of the legislative aisle. And in chambers where the bureaucracy is known for its inherent inefficiency, this quality becomes ever rarer until it is given the time to mature. Thanks to the in-and-out requirement of term limits, this asset will soon take on the appearance of the now-extinct Raphus Cucullatus, also known as the dodo bird.

So, too, will members with anything resembling what can be called Institutional Memory, which freely translated means the ability to recall that a bill introduced in a session was defeated for perfectly logical and correct reasons in a session five years earlier. There were only a small handful of Emory Meltons in this session, and they will be gone by the end of this year, again thanks to term limits. The result, making its appearance this year, will be the disappearance of anyone who can recall enough history to keep any session from making a fool of itself and its members appear as cuckoo as a brain-damaged comedian.

Finally, a component of this year's session was the fact that the state's elected leader was serving a first term in office as governor, which is an extremely vulnerable time for any public servant, particularly one who took the oath of office with a margin of only 21,445 votes in a 2,295,333-vote contest. Gov. Bob Holden made some early-on errors, attributable to a lack of experience, perhaps even an inexperienced staff, but so has every other chief executive who ever occupied the Capitol's second-floor suite. Mistakes are a part of governing, and Holden appears to have learned from them, an attribute not always evident in some of his predecessors.

Experienced governors make a General Assembly record look better, if only because of his ability to propose solutions to existing problems. Holden lacked that for several reasons, the principal one being that his budget and planning advisers were already aware of the impending budget crunch, which in retrospect turned Jefferson City's Santa Claus into Ebenezer Scrooge overnight. These are logistical difficulties not every politician encounters, but there are no detours for incumbents and sometimes they run off the road.

This kind of mishap happens to every one willing to enter the crapshoot known as State Government. It's a touch channel to navigate, and reasonable Missourians can appreciate the stormy weather their elected officials have just navigated.

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News & Editorial Service.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: