Missouri freshmen pick up lessons in first legislative session
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Missouri’s freshman lawmakers filled the state Capitol in hordes this year, including several in the Senate and comprising roughly half of the House, and left an unmistakable mark on the legislative session that ended Friday.
A combination of term limits blocking more experienced legislators from seeking re-election and Democratic losses at the polls in November allowed Missouri Republicans to ride a wave of first-year GOP lawmakers to historic majorities.
Veteran lawmakers took the reins on most controversial issues facing the Legislature, which passed about 150 bills. About 20 of them came from House members or senators serving in their first year.
One of the most significant roles for this year’s freshman lawmakers was their role in overriding Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation consolidating the state’s nine congressional districts into eight, as required by the 2010 census.
The map, which divvies up the current seat of Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan into four neighboring districts, could shape Missouri’s political environment for several decades.
Rep. Thomas Long said he was struck by the magnitude of the decision to override Nixon’s veto and the lasting impact its success could have. Long said he contacted his wife and urged her listen to the debate before the vote, describing the “butterflies” he felt as the House neared a decision.
“You just knew that you were sitting in a little moment of history,” said Long, R-Battlefield. Caught up in the moment of the veto override, Long said his hand continued to shake even after the chamber moved on to vote on another issue.
Four House Democrats joined all the House Republicans in overriding Nixon’s veto, and the Senate followed suit several hours later to enact the congressional redistricting plan. Since 1875, when a two-thirds majority became required to override gubernatorial vetoes, the Legislature has done so seven times. That includes three times in 2003 over bills dealing with guns and abortion.
But even members of the majority party do not win every legislative battle. For one freshman lawmaker, a first taste of state lawmaking demonstrated the difficulty sometimes of winning approval from colleagues.
Coming from an eastern Missouri area especially affected by the state’s methamphetamine problem, Rep. Dave Schatz pushed for legislation that would have required people to obtain doctors’ prescriptions to buy hard tablet medicines with pseudoephedrine. It’s a common ingredient in cold and allergy medications such as Sudafed, Claritin-D, Advil Cold & Sinus and Mucinex-D, but also is used to produce meth.
Endorsed by Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster, the proposal prompted the Consumer Healthcare Products Association to buy radio ads opposing the Missouri proposal.
The group, which represents manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs, said most consumers oppose a prescription requirement. Legislative critics also argued that requiring a prescription would burden consumers who are seeking relief from colds and allergies.
The measure was approved by the House last week, but it was not considered by the Senate before the mandatory adjournment Friday evening.
Missouri already requires the medicines to be moved behind the pharmacy counter, limited the quantities people can buy and required photo identification to purchase them.
Recently, the state implemented an industry-funded electronic database to provide real-time tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases with the hope of blocking sales to people stockpiling the drugs. The pharmaceutical industry has said lawmakers should wait to see if the electronic database works before trying something new.
Schatz, R-Sullivan, said Missouri needs to try different ways to attack the meth problem. He said the unsuccessful attempt this year would help build momentum and a base to try again next year.
He said the January through mid-May legislative session can seem awfully short.
“I took it one step at a time. I wasn’t looking three or four steps down the road, where the opposition was three or four steps ahead of me,” Schatz said.
For Democrats, this year’s session demonstrated that identifying goals without partisan baggage can sometimes lead to success, even in the House where Republicans finished with 105 members.
Rep. Genise Montecillo was among a few Democrats who won final approval for their bills. Her legislation includes provisions that would drop references in state law to “mentally retarded,” “mental retardation” and “handicapped.” Montecillo, a special education teacher, said it was a lot harder to pass a law than it looks on paper.
“There’s a big learning curve. I probably spent the first weeks just sitting in my chair afraid because I didn’t want to get in the line of debate and get gaveled,” said Montecillo, D-St. Louis.