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Nixon proposes shorter legislative sessions as part of ethics bill

January 10, 2016 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated January 10, 2016 at 4:30 a.m.
Missouri House Minority Floor Leader Jacob Hummel speaks during a press conference following the close of last week's opening legislative session in Jefferson City.

Missouri lawmakers could begin debating changes to the state's ethics laws as early as this week, the Legislature's leaders said as the 2016 General Assembly opened last week.

Gov. Jay Nixon applauded the effort and outlined his own eight-point idea for what ethics reform should look like.

Last on the governor's list was having shorter legislative sessions.

Without making that change, he said, "We stand the risk of losing one of the strengths of our state, (of) having citizen-lawmakers" serving in a "part-time job in which their expertise from back-home is more relevant and important on the floor of the House and Senate."

He said state leaders should be working "to make sure that as many people as possible can afford to take their time to run" for political offices, "and having a shorter session is, in my view, a better way to recruit folks who want to run for office."

State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said: "There's probably some merit to that, (although) it seems like every election we have somebody (with) opponents running against them.

"So I'm not sure that would attract that many more."

Kehoe also said he doesn't have "strong feelings" on the idea.

"It's a little bit different for the local guy than it is for somebody who travels here from out of town," he told the News Tribune. "I think the one thing we have to do constitutionally, that we take seriously every year, is pass a balanced budget.

"And outside of that, I'm not really excited - other than some job-creation things - about things that "need' to be done."

But Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and House Speaker Todd Richardson are not excited about the governor's idea.

"I don't think any of the problems we have in this building happen because we're here 30 days longer, and I don't think any of them will be solved if we're here 30 days shorter," Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "To me, that's not getting to the root of the problem."

Richard, R-Joplin, added: "I'm not too excited about letting the bureaucracy have a little more authority because we're not here.

"We have a job to do. We'll be here from January to May, and we'll do our job, and we'll come in during veto session to override and do that part of business we think needs to be finished."

Richardson said he's willing to listen to the discussion - and so is state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

"I think that's not a bad idea," he said. "I think it would save some taxpayer money.

"I think, as long as we have sufficient time to debate the issues that we need to, I can see it being shortened a little bit."

State Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia - whose district runs from California to southeastern Columbia, including a portion of northwestern Cole County - agreed.

"Any time we spend less money coming down here to Jeff City, I'd be supportive of it," Jones said. "If it saves taxpayers money and (we're) still able to take care of people's business, I fully support it."

Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, noted he also owns a business, "so right off the bat that sounds pretty good."

Still, he said: "I would be hesitant to see if something that has worked for many, many years - decades - if we can tweak it or not.

"If we can show it works, that sounds good to me - but I want to see that we're not short-changing anything or the people we represent."

And Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, isn't sure the change is possible.

"We've hardly ever left early," he noted. "We'll see, but I wouldn't predict that that happens."

Voters changed the Missouri Constitution in 1988 to create the current legislative session plan, beginning the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January and ending at 6 p.m. on the first Friday after the second Monday in May - Jan. 6-May 13 this year.

Before the 1988 changes, lawmakers met from early January to midnight June 15 in odd-numbered years, like 2015, and to midnight on April 30 in even-numbered, election years.

"I was around when we had shorter sessions," Nixon recalled last week. "We saw short-session/long-session.

"And, quite frankly, we got as much done in the short session as in the long session."

Nixon suggested the sessions could be shortened "30 days or so," and noted a number of other U.S. states have shorter sessions - or still meet every other year.

The National Conference of State Legislatures lists Indiana as having a schedule similar to what Nixon proposes: Ending on April 30 in odd-numbered years and on March 29 in even-numbered years.

Kentucky meets for 30 legislative days, ending March 30, in odd-numbered years, and 60 legislative days, ending April 15, in even-numbered years.

On its website, the NCSL explained: "In the early 1960s, 17 states did not place restrictions on the length of their legislative sessions. ...

"Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, session limitations became more defined. Fewer states had unrestricted sessions, and the number of states with indirect session limits declined."

Still, the NCSL research noted, since the late 1980s, several states shortened their session lengths - including Colorado, which returned to a 120-session in 1988 after having climbed from 120 to 160 days in the early 1960s.

Under Missouri's 1988 scheme, there generally are about 71-72 "legislative" days in the period from noon on the first Wednesday in January to 6 p.m. on the Friday in mid-May - a period that covers about 130 calendar days.

The state Constitution says the session officially ends May 30 - or about 145 calendar days each year from the beginning of the session - but the Constitution also says that period at the end of May has a purpose, "to be devoted to the enrolling, engrossing, and the signing in open session by officers of the respective houses of bills passed prior to 6 p.m. on the first Friday following the second Monday in May."

Eleven U.S. states have no fixed session deadlines: Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Two other states - California and Kansas - have no deadline when lawmakers meet in "odd-numbered" years.

But in even-numbered years, Kansas' Constitution limits lawmakers to meeting for 90 calendar days, and California's Constitution sets a Nov. 30 deadline.

Nixon last week noted some states still have legislatures that meet only every other year.

The NCSL identified those as Montana (limit 90 legislative days), Nevada (limit 120 calendar days), North Dakota (limit 80 legislative days) and Texas (limit 90 legislative days).

Shelby Rowe and Brittany Ruess of the News Tribune staff contributed information used in this story.


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