As hundreds of new bills pour in, constituents shouldn't read too much into promises

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The 2018 legislative session is less than three days away, and hundreds of bills have been submitted by lawmakers in Jefferson City already. Only a select few will become law.

Legislators are speaking about these potential laws on a grand thematic scale. Already, several bills target tax credits, raising the gas tax to pay for crumbling infrastructure and reforming K-12 education.

But odds are that an introduced bill will not pass. An analysis of the Openstate.org database puts the number of bills passed over six years — from 2012 to 2017 — at 7 percent.

In 2017, just 73 of the 1,860 introduced bills passed. Of the 2,108 bills introduced in 2016, only 101 became law.

Just three of the legislators who represent or represented Boone County from 2012-2017 passed any legislation for which they were the primary sponsor — former Sen. Kurt Schaefer, former Rep. Caleb Jones and current Sen. Caleb Rowden.

So what does that say about a legislator’s effectiveness? Bill passage isn’t the end-all, be-all factor, but it often coincides with power.

More than half of the legislators who rank in the top 15 in bills passed between 2012 and 2017 hold or held leadership positions in the General Assembly. This number excludes the chairs of state appropriation committees, whose names are listed as sponsors of all the budget bills.

Some, like former Rep. Tony Dugger, who holds the non-budget chair record over the same six-year time span with 18 bills passed, leave the legislature to become lobbyists.

Others, like then-Sen. Mike Parsons, who has the fourth-highest number of bills passed in the Senate, ascend to higher positions — lieutenant governor in Parson’s case.

Parson’s vacant Senate seat was then occupied by former Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, who, with six bills passed as a member of the House, ranks among the highest in bill success.

Many lawmakers play influential roles without sponsoring successful bills. For example, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, brought the Missouri budget to a screeching halt for weeks, filibustering on the Senate floor to demand that action be taken on campaign finance and ethics reform. Many blamed him for the historically low number of bills passed last session.

But in the past six years, Schaaf has only sponsored one signed bill.

Sen. Ron Richard’s name only appears on two passed bills, yet the Joplin Republican is the highest ranking member of the Senate and is instrumental in guiding keystone legislation through the chamber.

“Bills passed doesn’t mean as much as you might think. Many bills are doomed from the beginning, but are still introduced to fulfill a promise to a constituent or lobbyist,” said Phill Brooks, founder of Missouri Digital News, decades-long Capitol veteran and professor emeritus at MU.

“More significant can be amendments tacked on, measures killed, measures substantially altered as a result of threatened filibusters, minds changed from debate,” Brooks said.

Assignments on select committees can also translate to power and effectiveness. Appropriation chairs like Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, and Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, wield immense clout as overseers of Missouri’s $27 billion budget.

Chairing the state licensing committee, tasked with stopping or green-lighting potential industry regulations, can bring in a flood of campaign money and lobbying from industries — ranging from dentistry to landscaping — as they try to control how their businesses and professions are regulated.

Legislators can also find success in attaching amendments — small changes — to legislation and claiming a victory for a bill sponsored by another lawmaker.

And, in the end, bills pass and fail based on the vote of each individual legislator. Electing a legislator who will, in turn, vote for sweeping ideological change instigated by another lawmaker is a necessary piece of the whole.

But what’s certain is that constituents need to be wary when their legislator waves around a bill at the beginning of the session as evidence of fulfilling a campaign promise.

There’s very little chance that bill will make it to the governor’s desk.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

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