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Missouri lawmakers pre-file record number of bills; most won't make the cut

by Ryan Pivoney | December 12, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Missouri lawmakers have filed a record number of bills ahead of the upcoming session. But frankly, most won't become law.

A system designed to be slow and deliberate -- coupled with the political behavior of legislators -- creates an effective barrier that prevents policy from moving too quickly or without notice.

And that's a good thing, legislators and General Assembly staff agree.

Folks growing up in the 1970s through the 1990s might remember the "Schoolhouse Rock!" series of children's shows, particularly the 1976 segment "I'm Just a Bill."

While the educational program does a good job of explaining the broad process to children, the Missouri Capitol isn't so simple.

I'll wait in a line with a lot of other bills

On Dec. 1, Missouri legislators began pre-filing legislation for the Second Regular Session of the 101st General Assembly, which begins Jan. 5.

As of Friday afternoon, representatives in the House had filed 474 bills and 35 joint resolutions. Members of the Senate had filed 341 bills and 16 joint resolutions.

It's the most bills the Legislature has pre-filed before a session, said Dana Miller, chief clerk and House administrator.

But that's no surprise.

For the past several years, the number of pre-filed legislation has been climbing.

However, most bills won't be signed by the governor, or even make it to the stage that allows the public to provide formal input.

Last session, state lawmakers filed 1,449 bills in the House and an additional 630 in the Senate. In total, only 50 were signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson.

The number of bills that become law changes every session depending on the political environment and factors surrounding the legislation, Miller said.

In her nonpartisan role as chief clerk, it's Miller's job to ensure her office prints each bill, House leadership assigns them to a committee and that the bills meet the requirements established by the Missouri Constitution.

"Every year, it seems like we just file more legislation," she said. "The trend has just been that the number of bills filed keeps clicking up. But we kept up."

When I started I wasn't even a bill, I was just an idea

From start to finish, legislation can take anywhere from several days to several months to develop, a lot of which has to do with its subject matter.

All bills start with ideas, Miller said, whether they come from the representative or senator themselves, constituents or lobbyists.

The bill itself is drafted by House and Senate staff, which begins in October. Lawmakers discuss their ideas with research staff, who then do the work of determining what needs to be changed, removed or added to state statutes.

After the goals are clearly defined, the legislation is sent to House and Senate staff attorneys responsible for putting words to the page in a format that complies with the state Constitution.

That rough draft is returned to the lawmaker, who can choose to not do anything with it or move forward with the legislation and pre-file on or after Dec. 1.

By tradition, bills handling budgetary appropriations begin in the House and can address more than one subject in a single bill. They can also be filed after the March deadline for all other bills.

All other bills can be brought up through the House or the Senate but must only contain one issue, however broad or narrow that might be.

Lawmakers often cite this single subject rule in an attempt to strike down amendments they believe are unrelated to the bill. Some also reference Hammerschmidt v. Boone County, a 1994 Missouri Supreme Court case that determined it is unconstitutional for lawmakers to merge two pieces of unrelated legislation. Bills, and all provisions within it, have to be "germane, connected and congruous," the ruling found.

You're right, there oughta be a law

The legislative process in the House and the Senate is basically the same.

The lawmakers' pre-filed bills will actually be introduced on the first day of session, which will be Jan. 5. They then have until March to file any additional legislation for the session.

"You'll have a line out the door on that first day because a lot of members want to file early," Miller said. "And the irony is, nothing happens to that legislation other than it just gets printed."

Getting an early start isn't a bad thing, she said. It gives the clerk enough time to print 100 copies of each bill (100 is the standard, they print more upon request) and it starts to get the public thinking about various measures.

However, nothing of substance can happen to the legislation until the session begins Jan. 5.

Each bill is assigned a number and title, which has to relate to the bill's subject matter, and is read out loud by the clerk when the session begins or after it is filed if the session has already started. It is then placed on a calendar for a second reading before the speaker of the House or the president pro tem of the Senate assigns it to a committee.

It's a long, long wait while I'm sitting in committee

Once in committee, committee chairs pare down the list of legislation by deciding what will receive a public hearing and when.

In committee, the bill is presented by its sponsor and becomes the subject of a public hearing -- an opportunity for the public to voice support or opposition to the legislation.

A single public hearing might suffice for a smaller piece of legislation, but more controversial or complex bills often call for multiple public hearings so lawmakers can gather different perspectives, expertise and experiences.

"That's a very important part of the process," Miller said. "It's where the deep dives occur, it's where all of the -- what I would say -- the true policy-making and the changes occur. Lobbyists are really engaged at this point, the public's very engaged and committee members work very closely."

The Missouri Ethics Commission defines a lobbyist as anyone who attempts to influence state government actions as part of their regular business and/or spends at least $50 on behalf of public officials.

As a committee, lawmakers can recommend the bill be passed, that it be passed with amendments the committee suggests, or the larger body pass a similar committee substitute for the bill. Or, the committee can recommend the bill doesn't pass and it dies there (unless a majority of the House or Senate votes to move it along).

The committee can also choose to move the legislation along to the larger body without a recommendation.

Well, now I'm stuck in committee, and I'll sit here and wait

If a bill has made it past committee, it's beginning to show real signs of promise, Miller said.

"We say most bills go to die in committee," she said. "Just because it's a matter of timing."

Lawmakers don't usually have time to fully consider every bill assigned to their committee because of the large volume of legislation filed each year.

In fact, legislation most frequently gets held up in the committee stage of the process in both chambers.

And not all bills are immediately assigned to a committee after their second reading.

The Constitution requires all filed legislation be assigned to a committee, but House and Senate leaders often choose what goes to committee first to prioritize some bills over others or prevent committee chairs from becoming overwhelmed.

"Just logistically, when you have over 1,000 bills or 1,400 bills filed in a session, and you have a five-month session, it's just not physically possible to refer and hear every bill," Miller said. "So they have to make choices on what gets referred."

If committees meet at the usual rate of once per week, it would be difficult for committees to take up the 100-plus bills assigned to them, Miller said.

There's plenty of time for committees to meet, she said, but the process of engaging the public and ironing out differences among committee members takes time.

Sometimes party leaders agree to make legislation a priority and can run it through the House and Senate in about six weeks, Miller said. It's unusual, she said, but that's the expected path for redistricting legislation in the upcoming session.

The House and Senate are responsible for drawing U.S. congressional distract maps following the 2020 census. Because census data was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers weren't able to address redistricting last session as they normally would. Now, they will be rushing to pass on a map ahead of the date in which candidates can begin filing to run for Congress.

Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, is chairman of the Senate redistricting committee and said it will be a priority at the start of session.

The maps have to be voted on and approved like any other piece of legislation, which Bernskoetter said won't be easy to do before the filing date unless things go smoothly.

Yeah, I'm one of the lucky ones. Most bills never even get this far

Coming out of committee, House and Senate leaders decide when the bill will be placed on the perfection calendar, in which a date is set for the legislation and any amendments to be debated among the full House or Senate.

The committee's amendments, if they had any, are debated and voted on first. Legislators can then suggest new amendments but eventually have to decide when the bill is "perfected."

The perfected bill then goes back on the calendar for a third reading, in which only minor or technical changes can be offered, but lawmakers can still debate the bill.

The lawmakers would then take a vote on the bill.

For a bill originating in the House, a majority approval -- 82 votes of 163 members -- would send the legislation to the Senate. Senate bills also need a majority -- 18 votes of 34 members -- to pass and move to the House. Once it reaches the other chamber, the process begins again.

Miller said the number of bills being signed into law has been dwindling in recent years, but that doesn't necessarily mean lawmakers aren't accomplishing their agendas.

And I'll sit here and wait while a few key lawmakers discuss and debate

Through amendments, trading bills and other means, legislators can move their priorities along without sticking to a single bill they file.

Lawmakers can also use legislation as leverage for other policies they want passed, state Rep. Rudy Veit said.

Veit, a Republican from Wardsville, was first elected to the House in 2018. He's preparing for his fourth session and has pre-filed eight bills since Dec. 1.

"The politics of it is what makes it complicated," Veit said. "A good bill can be passed and still not get through because of people -- legislators -- wanting to use that bill for some other means, like passing a bill or getting their bill passed or we just get tied up ... arguing about bills."

When numerous amendments are attached to a bill, it becomes an omnibus bill. Although treated as a single bill, omnibus bills piece together several subjects or measures under a broad umbrella category and effectively limits debate on those topics.

While some omnibus bills have been signed into law and later struck down by courts for violating the single subject rule (like in Hammerschmidt v. Boone County), others skate by as legislation pertaining to broad topics like local government or public safety.

An abundance of amendments can also make a clean bill with wide support more controversial, Veit said, as some legislators might support the core but not added amendments or support amendments but not the heart of the bill.

While it's logical to think the best bills are what make it through to become law, Veit said that's not always the case.

"Politics does come into play," he said.

He said lawmakers have to weigh whether the "good" parts of a bill outweigh the parts they don't support.

Still, Miller said, the slow, deliberate legislative process is by design.

It's not easy to become a law, is it?

As required by the Constitution, bills are read on three separate days before they can be passed, which Miller said acts as a safeguard to prevent the General Assembly from passing hasty legislation.

Veit said the process also acts as a safety net for producing quality legislation.

He said it's a tough process to get legislation passed by both chambers, but that's what makes for good laws.

"If it was simple, we'd have more controversial laws passed," he continued.

Veit, who serves as vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been working with other legislators to find and fix any errors in bills before they get too far along in the process.

He said that work will save time and help maintain the integrity of the bill before it hits the floor for debate or amendments are added.

"Every bill doesn't need to be passed," Veit said. "So we need to work hard just to make sure that what we do pass is good for our society."

He signed you, Bill. Now you're a law!

Once it's approved by the House and Senate, a bill is sent to the governor for approval. Parson can sign the bill into law, veto -- or reject -- the bill, or veto parts of it in the case of appropriation bills.

The Legislature can then overturn a veto during a brief session following the regular session, so long as two-thirds of the House and Senate agree.

Legislation then takes effect Aug. 28, unless lawmakers attach an emergency clause to make the law effective immediately after the governor's signature.

If a bill dies over the course of a session, it is up to individual lawmakers to decide if they want to file it again in the next session.

Miller said most lawmakers give their legislation more than one attempt, and it's fairly easy for House and Senate staff to update the bill language and assign it a new number if they choose to do so.

Print Headline: Missouri lawmakers pre-file record number of bills; most won't make the cut

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