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Turf Wars

By Phill Brooks

State government experienced an unusual turf war this past week that blew up a planned meeting between legislators and the governor on fundamental changes to Medicaid.

The governor wanted the meeting to be on his turf, the Governor Office Building across the street from his mansion.

But the chairs of the legislature’s Medicaid committees insisted on their own turf, the House Lounge in the Capitol, just across the hall from the House chamber.

They also proposed a regular committee hearing with the governor as a witness. Jay Nixon, on the other hand, planned a media event orchestrated by his staff.

Both sides imposed demands that were quite unlike the successful negotiations I’ve seen between governors and legislators in years past.

I never sensed that the meeting location was a big deal for prior administrations or legislators. Governors were regular visitors to the legislature’s turf.

Warren Hearnes loved to go to the legislative hallways. In fact, he regularly hung out in Rep. Tom Walsh’s office just across from the House chamber. In his second term, Kit Bond spent one night a week during legislative sessions drinking with senior senators in one of their offices. John Ashcroft went to the Senate’s side one year to work out a dispute between House and Senate leaders on a higher education tax bill.

And it was no big deal for legislators to wander into the governor’s office for negotiations.

At the end of legislative sessions, legislators regularly went to the governor’s office for bill signings. Getting invited to the ceremonies was appreciated and helped forge working relationships.

Now, however, public bill signings with crowds of legislators participating with the governor in his office have become far less frequent.

As for the debate over the meeting format, I cannot recall a governor ever being expected to testify as a common witness in a public legislative hearing. Rather, successful negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders almost always were done in private, behind closed doors. Those could be tough and, as I’ve been told, sometimes tense sessions that would have been hindered by being conducted in front of reporters.

For the most part, those successful negotiations did not involve entire legislative committees. Rather, when the governor got involved, it was with top leaders and the key legislators handling the issue. Those legislative leaders of years past could deliver the votes for whatever compromise was reached.

But Nixon discovered with the China Hub package a few years ago that legislative leaders could not get the votes for passage of their deal.

It is, however, the public feud over the arrangements of Nixon’s Medicaid meeting that stands out as the most historically unusual. Arranging the logistics of a meeting between legislators and the governor would not have been carried out through news releases and complaints voiced at public committee hearings.

Prior governors and legislators had personal relationships such that a meeting quickly could be set up with a private phone call. Beyond that, the governor’s staff worked closely enough with legislators to be sensitive to the potential scheduling difficulties for part-time lawmakers.

The staffers of the prior governors I’ve covered would have realized that trying to hold a Medicaid meeting just two days before Thanksgiving would interfere with the holiday plans of many legislators. Some would have to drive for hours for just a short meeting. Unlike the governor, they do not have access to state aircraft or Highway Patrol drivers.

On the day he learned of the governor’s Medicaid meeting announcement, a frustrated House committee chair, Jay Barnes, complained to me that the governor’s staff refused to discuss changing the date to fit with scheduled committee meetings.

This failure to communicate on even the simple issue of a meeting date suggests to me a dysfunctional relationship between Missouri’s governor and it’s general assembly.