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"A birther will run the House."

Post-Dispatch Editorial: Legislature won't find success until voters clean it up

Before Missouri legislative leaders pounded their gavels to end their annual session on Friday, Republican leaders already were declaring their five-month frat party a success.

This is not unusual. Nearly every Missouri legislative session ends the same way.

The majority declares it won. The minority decries misplaced priorities. Posturing begins for the next election. But few legislative sessions in Missouri history have been as remarkable as this one. The blame belongs primarily to the Republican-led House, which pushed an agenda with the apparent goal of getting its most extreme members on late-night cable television shows as the butt of jokes.

In that regard, Republicans were successful. So says the man the GOP says will be the next speaker of the House.

Friday morning, state Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, used the social media site Twitter to define his version of legislative success:

"The left wing prog haters outside the Capitol have gone apoplectic in their rage this week. Mission accomplished. Session=Success."

There was a time when success would have been measured by the passage of jobs bills, or increased education funding, or protecting the state's water, air and other natural resources, or, as it was a few years ago, fighting insurance companies so that children with autism could get the coverage they need.

Now success is defined as angering poor people, gays, minorities and women.

The sad reality is that the Missouri Legislature is going to get worse before it gets better. Mr. Jones, the majority floor leader, has been tapped by his caucus to replace outgoing Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville. That Mr. Jones is a former supporter of the birther lawsuits filed by Orly Taitz against President Barack Obama says about all you need to know about his level of seriousness.

So how did Missouri plummet so far?

Last fall, we began a series of editorials titled "Fix the Legislature" that pointed out the problems: term limits, the negative influence of money in politics and partisan redistricting. Each came into play in knocking this year's legislative session off the rails.

It's worth noting, for instance, that next year, there will not be a single member of the House or Senate who was in his or her respective chamber in 2005 when Republicans cut thousands of Missourians off of the state's Medicaid rolls.

That decision is worth remembering. For the last few years, it has been a driving force behind the effort led by some of the Senate's now-departing lions, among them Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, to right a wrong.

Mr. Crowell and Mr. Purgason don't disown the 2005 cuts; they still claim — wrongly — that they were necessary. But both men came to recognize that there was another program that should have been cut before Medicaid — the state's bloated tax credit system. In 2005, tax credits were sacrosanct.

Tax credits still are off limits because special interests who benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars in what is basically corporate welfare use their political contributions to control the legislative process.

Mr. Crowell passionately made the case that it is unconscionable for lawmakers to think it's fine to cut off health care for poor people and disabled people and to cut money from schools while continuing to feed corporate fat cats.

It took awhile for him to come to that position. It took time to learn, time to mature, time to develop relationships and trust with politicians on both sides of the aisle before such a nuanced and important position could be reached.

That a man who was once known for making flatulence noises during a state of the state speech would become the voice of reason before leaving the Senate says a lot about how far the Missouri Legislature has fallen. It also says a lot about how Mr. Crowell has grown.

Because of term limits, there is no time for seasoning anymore. The budget reins are handed to neophytes like Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City. He's a bright young man, but before he's learned the ropes, he's begun campaigning to move up to the Senate.

Then there are people like Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, a man who could have become one of those old lions who once prowled the Capitol's halls. Mr. Stouffer used to have big ideas about moving the state forward. He once traveled the state pushing better highway funding.

Then term limits began creeping up. He started stumping, first for Congress, then for statewide office. Now he rejects any discussion of tax hikes and pushes ideas like making it harder for seniors, disabled people and minorities to vote.

Legislators like Mr. Stouffer, Mr. Silvey and numerous others need money to run these races, so they sell their souls to whatever special interest is paying. Republicans run to the right and Democrats to the left because legislative leaders have carved out districts where moderates don't have a chance. No elected official in either party has to worry about solutions that might work for all Missourians.

Next year, the transformation will be complete.

A birther will run the House. Neophytes will take charge in the Senate. Success will be measured by damage done to political opponents, not building a better future for Missouri.

Voters can make a difference this November by recalling that old Nancy Reagan advice and just saying no. But in reality, because the system is tilted so far from them, voters' options are limited. The best thing voters could do is to rise up and fix the system in a statewide referendum.

Get rid of term limits, or at least extend them so institutional knowledge doesn't disappear before lawmakers have grown into their jobs. Reinstate campaign finance limits and limit the ability of lobbyists to curry favor with elected officials. Reform the redistricting process so that communities of interest matter more than politics.

The people need to matter again. Fix the Legislature and make it so.

@ProgressMO

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