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Capitol Perspectives: Preparing for a Legislative Session By Phill Brooks

The eve of the 2020 legislative session reminds me of an era when there was a more organized effort to find, before the start of the session, bicameral and bipartisan solutions to the state’s most pressing problems.

This year’s session faces some huge issues including urban gun violence, health-care coverage, highway funding problems, teenage vaping and the growth of secret money in political campaigns.

But on vaping and firearms, Gov. Mike Parson essentially has declared it’s up to the legislature to find solutions.

I’m not optimistic comprehensive solutions can be achieved by legislators during a frantic session that lasts slightly more than four months.

While individual lawmakers can propose bills on those issues, what has been missing for several years before the start of a legislative session has been comprehensive solutions drafted by bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers from both chambers that arise from lengthy, statewide public hearings.

Decades ago, some major issues often were subjects of joint committee meetings and hearings across the state before a legislative session began.

There were several advantages to this approach.

Out-of-town hearings made it easier for experts and citizens from across the state to testify.

Those hearings allowed more time for testimony as opposed to committee sessions during the legislative session that are restricted to the few hours when the chambers are not in session.

Without being distracted by the hundreds of bills they face during the session, committee members had more time to focus on the issue at hand and to talk among themselves to find bipartisan solutions.

Finally, a joint committee composed of House and Senate members was in a better situation to craft proposals to avoid the House-Senate conflicts which so often derail bills in the final weeks of a session — like the prescription drug monitoring issue that has stymied the House and Senate.

I saw a demonstration of these advantages a couple of decades ago at the conclusion of extensive joint committee meetings on medical malpractice lawsuits.

One of the leading conservative advocates for lawsuit limits told me he came to realize that a major cause of malpractice lawsuits was, indeed, medical failures.

But he said it was not caused by bad doctors. Instead, he said he learned it was a result of evolving medical technology that allowed higher-risk surgeries for which there was a higher chance of failure.

Unfortunately, for the most part, joint committees have become a ghost of the legislative past.

A major reason has been abandonment of House-Senate joint rules that created standing joint committees.

Now, joint committees are established by statutes that must be signed by the governor. But that’s different from joint committees established at the start of a General Assembly.

With term limits, I suspect few lawmakers remember the importance of joint rules. Some may not even realize that the legislature once had joint rules.

The legislature abandoned joint rules because of a House-Senate fight over whether to allow bills introduced in the first year of a two-year General Assembly to be carried over into the second year.

It was a grid-lock issue between the two chambers that caused them give up adopting having joint rules, thus abandoning standing joint committees. They did not imagine that with term limits, lawmakers would forget about the value of joint rules.

With fewer years in the statehouse because of term limits, I sense legislators have not developed the year-long attachment to Jefferson City. I find far fewer legislators in their Capitol offices between sessions than before term limits.

That return to a truly part-time legislature was an objective of some term-limit supporters. But, it probably has lessened interest in committee sessions throughout the year.

Of course, another major difference is the deep ideological divide between the two parties that makes bipartisan solutions by joint committees more difficult than before term limits.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.