A statehouse year of ‘S’ words

In Association News On
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By Mark Hughes and Phill Brooks

Missouri Digital News 

News from Missouri’s statehouse for 2015 was dominated by words starting with the letter ‘S’ – suicide, scandal, Syria, stadium and Series.

Suicide: The self-inflicted fatal gunshots of State Auditor Tom Schweich, followed by his spokesperson, Spence Jackson, sent reverberations across Missouri’s political landscape.

Schweich was a leading candidate for the GOP nomination for governor against a former House speaker and U.S. attorney, Catherine Hanaway.

On Feb. 26, 2015, he committed suicide at home after complaining of a whisper campaign by the state GOP chair falsely identifying him as of the Jewish faith.

Schweich also had been the target of a radio advertisement mocking his small-frame appearance. The advertisement was produced by a political firm that had been hired by Hanaway’s campaign, according to the New York Times. The firm later announced that it, not Hanaway, had been responsible for the ad.

Just a month later, on March 29, Schweich’s spokesperson was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“I just can’t take being unemployed again,” police reported he had written in a suicide note in reference to the likelihood of replacements in the auditor’s staff.

Schweich’s death led to a transformation in Missouri politics, shifting partisan control of a statewide office when Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon replaced Republican Schweich with a Democrat, Boone County’s Treasurer, Nicole Galloway.

And with Schweich’s departure from the gubernatorial campaign, a number of other candidates jumped in – some promising to end negative advertising.

Scandal: Missouri’s legislative leadership underwent a major change after two leading legislators resigned amid scandals involving inappropriate behavior with female college interns working for the legislature.

The first to resign was House Speaker John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, after reports of sexually explicit text messages with a college intern. Diehl resigned May 14, just one day before the end of the legislative session. He was replaced by House GOP Leader Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

In the other chamber – and political party – Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, who had been the Democratic floor leader when he was in the House, resigned amid reports of unwanted sexual advances toward a female college intern in his office. LeVota denied the allegations, but resigned after one of his former female interns said she had been subjected to similar explicit, unwanted sexual overtures from LeVota.

After the legislative session adjourned, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, announced his resignation to take a job with conservative financial contributor Rex Sinquefield. Dempsey’s departure did not involve scandal. It is noteworthy because it triggered an unprecedented mid-session change in top leaders in both the House and Senate.

The Senate elected the chamber’s GOP leader – Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin – as the new pro tem – the first time in Missouri history the same lawmaker had served as both speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate.

Syria: Gov. Jay Nixon became one of the few governors in the country to embrace the idea of accepting Syrian refugees into the state.

The Democrat governor’s position prompted immediate calls from Republicans for the state to demand a delay until there were better assurances terrorists would not be able to masquerade as refugees entering the state.

The controversy prompted an unusual interim joint hearing of the House Budget Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee to grill administration officials about their plans – after Nixon’s administration had refused to provide any details. Testimony from the hearings suggested that state government would not be much more than a conduit for federal funds to private organizations assisting refugees.

Stadium: As Gov. Nixon’s two man-team continued their closed-door negotiations with the NFL for building a new football stadium in St. Louis, a group of legislators sought to derail the efforts.

Nixon has argued that he has the power to obligate the state to pay off bonds to build a new stadium without approval from either the legislature or Missouri voters.

Nixon’s team’s proposal would require about $250 million in bonds supported by the state.
But on Sept. 16, a majority of the Senate – 21 members – delivered a letter to Nixon that they would oppose any state appropriations for bond holders if there was not prior approval from the legislature or from Missouri voters.

Later, the chair of the House Budget Committee – Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage – joined Senate Appropriations Chair Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, in voicing objections to Nixon’s idea that he had power to expand the state’s debt without legislative or voter approval.

Series: Fortunately, not all of the words starting with ‘S’ were negative for Missouri this year. Suffice it to say the Kansas City Royals did a first-class job in winning the World Series, and the City and their fans displayed world class sportsmanship in a peaceful and appropriate victory celebration.

In other Missouri statehouse news for 2015:

• Ferguson protestors disrupted the opening day of the Senate. Despite a lot of political rhetoric about the issue, little was done by the General Assembly except some restrictions on municipal fines. Nixon appointed a commission, but he offered no specific proposals to the legislature.

• The last week of the Senate’s session for the year was disrupted by its own members. Democrats, angry that Republicans had shut off a filibuster on Right to Work legislation launched a filibuster that blocked any action on legislation for the final week. Ironically, a motion to override the bill that would have prohibited compulsory union membership to hold a job failed in the House during the fall veto session.

• Missouri’s governor suffered a historic series of veto defeats in the fall. A total of 10 non-budget of the Democratic governor’s vetoes were overridden by the Republican-controlled legislature. Nixon now is tied for suffering the greatest non-budget-veto overrides in a single year in Missouri history.

• Planned Parenthood came under legislative attack after a video was unveiled that abortion opponents claimed showed a national Planned Parenthood officer discussing the sale of aborted fetus parts. After a Senate committee investigation, the University of Missouri severed ties with a physician who served as the on-call physician for chemical-induced abortions at Planned Parenthood’s Columbia facility – effectively preventing the facility from performing abortions.

• Protests toppled the top leadership at University of Missouri after students complained of inadequate attention by administrators to complaints of racism on the Columbia campus. University President Tim Wolfe resigned after members of MU’s football team threatened to sit out the next game if Wolff remained. Later that same November day, MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he too would resign.

Missouri Digital News is a news service covering statewide events, including the General Assembly in Jefferson City, that is free to all Missouri Press Association members. To sign-up to receive weekly MDN news in your inbox, contact Matthew Barba at mbarba@socket.net

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