A new experience for Missouri’s legislature

Phill Brooks

There’s a fascinating history behind the legislature’s use of a constitutional provision to call themselves into this spring’s special session.

In fact, some of the legislators who adopted that constitutional provision thought it never would happen. Instead, it almost was an afterthought in what started as a much simpler constitutional amendment sponsored in 1987 by Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County.

Goode sought to fix some significant problems that arose after the General Assembly had evolved into a body that met every year rather than once every two years.

One problem involved vetoes.

Only the same two-year General Assembly that passed a bill could vote for an override if vetoed by the governor. That meant the legislature had no way to override vetoes by the governor that were made after the even-year session had adjourned.

Goode’s solution was to have a short session every September for lawmakers to consider vetoes.

Another issue Goode addressed in his proposal was the carnival atmosphere that arose on the legislature’s last night of the annual session. Back then, the Constitution set the adjournment at midnight.

It became a party. Some legislators set up bars in the Capitol hallways providing booze to anyone walking by. More than a few under-age Jefferson City teens discovered they could get alcohol that night at the Capitol without being “carded” to prove their age.

So, Goode set the last-night adjournment to 6 p.m. It was one of the biggest steps I’ve seen in civilizing the legislature.

Another of Goode’s innovations was to set a week-early deadline for passing the budget.

Years earlier, lawmakers had adopted a joint rule for an early budget deadline to avoid budget debates from sidelining action on major bills with disagreements that push action off until the closing days of the session. 

But that budget rule became a joke. The legislature regularly simply voted to suspend the rule.

It’s an institutional reality that only the approaching constitutional adjournment date forces legislators to stop arguing and finally accept compromises. Goode’s proposal put the deadline into the Constitution which legislators cannot suspend.

When Goode’s proposal went to the House, things got complicated.

It was the House that added the ability for the legislature to call itself into a special session with a petition signed by two-thirds of the members in the House and two-thirds in the Senate. 

The House also added teeth into the week-early deadline for the budget by prohibiting the legislature from calling itself into a special session if it had missed the deadline.

That too became somewhat toothless because the governor still could call a special session to deal with the budget, as happened just a decade later when the legislature grid locked over family planning funding pushed by Gov. Mel Carnahan.

There’s an interesting footnote to this history, I just discovered.

Regular legislative sessions now adjourn every year in mid-May. But the Constitution gives the legislature another two weeks for bills that were passed in the closing days to get printed and signed by legislative leaders. No votes can be taken during those final two weeks. They’re limited to “enrolling, engrossing, and the signing in open session.”

But the specific date for adjournment is a bit strange. It’s one day before the end of May. It was reading through the original constitutional amendment, I found the answer. Until that amendment, the enrolling process for odd-numbered years ended June 30, the last day in June.

The amendment simply replaced the word “June” with “May” for both odd-numbered and even-numbered years. It left unchanged the “30” date, even though May has 31 days.

I don’t think that was intentional. They just made a mistake, now embedded in Missouri’s Constitution.

As for the ability of the legislature to call itself into a special session, there was resistance in the Senate. So the final compromise raised the number of legislators who had to sign the special-session petition to three-quarters of each chamber.

I sensed some in the Senate thought that higher number would prevent the provision from ever getting implemented. This year proved them wrong.

(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).