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Term-limited state senators reflect on their pasts - and the state's future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2010 - As the state Legislature gathers Thursday for a special session, many of its members will be making their last mark on state government.

They are the dozens of term-limited legislators -- 52 in the House and 10 in the Senate -- who cannot run for re-election this fall.

Most of the accolades for these retiring legislators were made during the final days of the regular session, which ended May 14. But the special session, which Gov. Jay Nixon just called last week, offers a chance for a "last hurrah," of sorts, for the term-limited crowd.

Among them are three area members of the state Senate who, despite their political differences, long have been deemed among the most respected legislators in Jefferson City.

Sens. Joan Bray, D-University City, and John Griesheimer, R-Washington, Mo., are each leaving after 18 years in the Legislature -- two more than now allowed under term limits.

Both served the maximum eight years in the state Senate, after 10 years apiece in the state House -- two of those years before term limits went into effect after the 1992 election.

Joining them is departing state Sen. Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, who also served the maximum eight years in the state Senate, after seven in the House.

Nixon, in an interview, lauded all three as "great leaders'' who "served very honorably for our state."

All three discussed their legislative pasts, their concerns and their hopes for the future -- the state's and their own -- in recent interviews with the Beacon before the special session was announced.

Their return to Jefferson City to cast what likely will be their final votes is particularly noteworthy because the special-session issues -- proposed tax breaks for Ford Motor Co.'s plant near Kansas City and a plan to revamp the state's pension system for public employees to reduce costs -- will touch on what all three view as the state's biggest issue:

The troubled state budget.

"The cuts this year were extremely painful,'' said Bray. As an example, she cited the state's decision to close psychiatric emergency rooms as of July 1 -- a move that has raised concerns among police as well as mental-health workers and advocates.

"We cannot just do 'cut, cut, cut,' " said Days.

Along with Griesheimer, all three veterans correctly predicted that public education would be hit hard by Nixon's latest round of cuts, also announced last week.

All three say they fear that public education may continue to suffer if the state's economy does not improve within the next year, when the federal stimulus help runs out. As it stands now, said Bray, "there's no way on earth that education isn't going to be hurt in a big way."


Nixon and the three departing legislators share concerns that crafting the state's 2012 budget year could be particularly grueling -- and painful, for the public as well as politicians. "I just hope the dire predictions don't come true," said Griesheimer.

Bray added that she's all for making state government "more efficient and more cost-effective," but that she's not enamored of Nixon's repeated talk of "right-sizing government."

"That kind of talk is goofy to me," she said, explaining that Missouri has long has been "a low-tax, low-service state."

Bray also parts ways with Nixon, a fellow Democrat, when it comes to state credits for economic development and historic preservation. "I've watched the growth of tax credits, especially historic tax credits'' spark "a real comeback in downtown St. Louis, as well as in Kansas City and small towns."

Although Bray said she understands the need to "tweak around the edges'' of the tax credits, she finds Nixon's effort to curb the growth of historic tax credits to be "inexplicable."

Griesheimer, though, sees tax-credit changes as "the elephant in the room" that the Legislature will have to soon address.

"I have been a supporter of the tax-credit system," he said. But the state of Missouri's budget troubles, he said, make clear that the state "cannot sustain the current tax-credit system we have."


All three legislators agree that, soon, cutting the state budget won't be enough to keep it in balance, as the state constitution requires.

All three agree that Missouri needs to increase revenue.

Otherwise, says Griesheimer, Missouri will have to consider charging "user fees for state services.''

"There are some essential things the state has to provide," he added. "I don't know how you continue to maintain those services with limited resources."

But when it comes to finding that extra state cash, there is a partisan split.

Day and Bray says the state needs once again to consider increasing its tobacco tax, which at 17 cents a pack is now the lowest in the country. The national average is 48.5 cents a pack.

Griesheimer opposes hiking the cigarette tax, in part, because he says that it wouldn't be a long-term solution to the state's budget problems. "Only 20 percent of the population smokes. As more and more people choose not to smoke, it's stupid to raise taxes on a finite revenue stream."

In any event, Griesheimer said any debate about the tobacco tax also is pointless. "You're not going to get any kind of tax increase passed," he said.

But all three agree on another option -- taxing internet sales.

Bray says imposing the state sales tax on internet purchases "immediately draws in $15 million to $50 million a year'' in tax income -- money already due the state.

Griesheimer emphasizes that he's generally against all tax hikes. But imposing the sales tax on internet purchases is really a fairness issue, he said.

"We're hurting our 'mom and pop' stores that are already paying the sales tax," Griesheimer said. "There's a significant cost savings" to individuals who opt instead to shop online.

"I've had store owners tell me that it's really hurting them," he added. "We need to make the playing field a little more level."


The biggest challenge facing the Senate, all three said in separate interviews, is maintaining the civility for which it's known. All three fear that, thanks to term limits, the Senate may soon be infected with the partisan rancor now permeating the state House.

Several legislators in the state House, including House Speaker Ron Richard, are now headed to the Senate because they have little or no serious opposition in the Aug. 3 primary or the Nov. 2 general election.

Other House members are involved in spirited primaries for Senate posts. And Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, is among the term-limited senators departing at the end of this year,

Shields and other Senate leaders, the three said, have made a concerted effort to avoid what Days called the "my way or the highway'' sentiment.

Bray says that approach has made the Senate "a comfortable place'' for constructive, civil debate.

As a result, said Griesheimer, "the Senate has become the decision-making process in the Legislature."

The Senate's clout has increased, all three said, because most senators already have served in the House, so they are more familiar with legislative procedures.

The trio blame term limits for killing off any long-term institutional memory in the House. "Fewer and fewer people know how it works," said Days, because new House members generally have no knowledge of state government.

Because term limits restrict House members to four two-year terms, that chamber's members are increasingly moving on or moving out as other elective posts and high-paying jobs -- notably as lobbyists -- become available.

The rapid change in House membership, said Griesheimer, has swiftly changed that chamber's temperament over the past 10 years.

"Civility has been lost in the House,'' he said, because even among legislators in the same party, "you have people working as fast as they can to get ahead."

Griesheimer added that the Senate's future tone may depend on how many of the House's verbal "bomb throwers'' -- he declined to name names -- get elected to Senate posts this fall.

"I hope enough of the sitting senators'' will make clear "we do things differently here," Griesheimer said.

As an example, he said pointedly, "We don't throw papers at the end of session."


The power and influence of all three departing senators may help explain why the contests to choose their successors have become three of the region's hottest political battles on the ballot.

Bray and Griesheimer already have touched off political buzz by getting involved in the August primaries that likely will determine their successors in their districts, the 24th and 26th, respectively.

Bray has endorsed former state Rep. Barbara Fraser, now representing the swing 5th District on the St. Louis County Council. Fraser's chief Democratic rival in the Aug. 3 primary is former state Rep. Sam Page of Creve Coeur. The victor will face Republican John Lamping in the fall.

In the GOP-leaning 26th District, Griesheimer has endorsed Dick Strautman, former mayor of Washington. Griesheimer declined to comment about terse public exchanges he has had with one other Republican contender for his seat, state Rep. Brian Nieves of Union, Mo.

Also running in the 26th's GOP primary are Donald Meyer of Labadie and former state Rep. Jack Jackson of Glencoe.

So far, Days has stayed out of the crowded -- and combative -- four-way Democratic primary to choose her replacement in the 14th District. The contenders: state Reps. Theodore Hoskins, Don Calloway and Maria Chappelle-Nadal, and former University City Mayor Joe Adams.

The victor will automatically win in November because no other party has fielded candidates.

Of her own tenure, Days said she is most proud of her role in crafting legislation to allow water districts to issue bonds to finance improvements and to create Missouri's presidential preference primary, the once-every-four-years primary that has replaced the state's old caucus system for determining the party's presidential contender.

As for her own future, Days acknowledges "I'm looking for a job" and "I'm not closing any doors."

As Bray looks back, she points to her role as an advocate for mass transit and other non-highway forms of transportation. She also notes her detailed involvement in the budget process in both the House and the Senate.

Looking ahead, Bray is still considering her options. She emphasized, "I do not plan to be a lobbyist, although I could happily tell others how to lobby the Legislature better."

Griesheimer cites his leadership roles in the state's economic development bills over the past four years and his 2006 success in overhauling the state's auto-emissions inspection program.

But although he loved his years in the Legislature, Griesheimer already is focusing on his political future. He is competing in the August primary for Franklin County presiding commissioner.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.