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Political Rundown: Legislative Deals, Disabilities, Death

Missouri House Chamber
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
MIssouri legislature has plenty of controversial items on the agenda.

Politics can be a 24/7 occupation, as anyone with a cell phone, computer or cable subscription knows. It's not hard to find political news, commentary or just plain rants. They are everywhere. Sometimes it takes a little more digging to find the context, perspective or background on major issues of the day.

Once a week, our political team would like to share stories that gave them insight into the news of the day or perhaps just some pleasure to read.

Picture this

Republican lawmakers in the Missouri House and Senate are still fighting to require photo IDs at the polls, seven years after a 2006 requirement was struck down by the state Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, other states do require photo ID's for voting.  AP's Thomas Beaumont takes a closer lookat how they're handling it.  Bloomberg's Mark Niquette and David Mildenberg also examine the issue, paying special attention to Texas, which held primaries Tuesday with recently contested photo ID requirements now in place.  In addition, the Texas Tribune's Julian Aguilar reports on and explores accusations of disenfranchisement in recent primaries in the Lone Star State.  Finally, Glenn Cook, a senior editorial writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, published a recent column in which he asserts that Nevada has become "a new battleground for voter ID." (Marshall Griffin)

The case of a blacked-out footnote
Regional political activists in both parties may want to pay attention to the strange turn in the Federal Election Commission’s internal controversy over what to do about independent groups like Crossroads GPS, which have been able to raise money without identifying the donors.

In 2012 Crossroads is believed to have spent millions of dollars in Missouri as part of the last-ditch effort to defeat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The federal rule has been clear: If such a group spends more than half its money on political campaigns, it has to file as a political action committee -- and identify its donors.

The FEC, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, has been deadlocked on what do about Crossroads, in a case that could have substantial impact. Crossroads also is at the center of a lawsuit that some consumer groups have filed against the FEC, which accuses the agency of failing to police such spending and force more donor disclosure.

But what has generated buzz lately, according to a detailed article in the nonpartisan National Journal, is a blacked-out footnote in the FEC general counsel’s report that made the case that Crossroads was behaving like a political committee and needed to file like one. The FEC’s Republican members want the blacked-out footnote to be disclosed.

The controversy over the blacked-out footnote could affect this fall’s elections in both Missouri and Illinois. Illinois has a number of statewide offices, including governor, up for grabs. In Missouri, with only one statewide office (auditor) on the ballot, outside groups had been expected to play significant roles in various ballot issues.  At the moment, only one – dubbed “Right to Farm” – is definitely on the November ballot. But national groups already are preparing to weigh in. The fate of the footnote could determine whether Missouri voters find out who is bankrolling the pro or con campaigns. (Jo Mannies)

Previously questioned

I was one of the reporters who stood around Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, on Thursday when he expressed frustration about how Democrats were blocking legislation for a 72-hour waiting period before a woman could get an abortion. The issue of the 72-hour waiting period is interesting, and I suggest reading Springfield News-Leader’s Jonathan Shorman’s article.

But what caught my attention was how Richard threatened to use the “previous question” motion. A “previous question” forces a vote on whatever is pending. While this maneuver is common in the House, it’s rare in the Missouri Senate because individual senators can filibuster -- and often do to force changes to controversial legislation. If several senators filibuster at the same time, they can kill any piece of legislation.

The "previous question" hasn’t been used since the end of the 2007 legislative session. And I know from being there that the decision to use it created a ton of ill will between Democrats and Republicans. After Republicans "previous questioned" abortion legislation and making English the official language, then-Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, called Senate Republicans “punks – because I couldn’t use my other word that starts with a ‘P.’” Then-Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, wondered aloud whether special-interest groups would “buy” a previous motions.

The following year, a deal was struck among some Republicans not to use the "previous question." That deal has remained in place, and partisan warfare has generally decreased within the Senate.

I asked Richard about the impact on the Senate if he used the "previous question" motion. He responded: “I guess we’ll have to figure that out, won’t we?” When pressed why he wanted to "previous question" the 72-hour waiting period bill and not “right to work” or tax credits, Richard said: “They may be on it.”

It remains to be seen if Richard carries out his threat – or if his Republican colleagues go along with it. After all, 18 votes are needed. If some GOP members of the Senate want to keep the peace within the chamber, they may not go along with it. (Jason Rosenbaum)

Without a net

It may not be politics per se, but the New York Times wrenching story, "The Boys in the Bunkhouse," is an object lesson of what can happen -- what has happened -- when the disabled are left without protections.

For 30-plus years, a group of intellectually disabled men lived in a filthy schoolhouse overseen by an abusive caretaker, worked long hours doing the dirty work of eviscerating turkeys at an Iowa factory and made a paltry $65 a month. They went without medical or rehab services; their main source of entertainment was a visit to a nearby convenience store. “It’s as close to involuntary servitude as I’ve ever seen,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, after the scandal became public.

The men's horrendous living and working conditions did not come to light until they were "retired" and asked to train their replacements. The sister of one was outraged to learn that her brother had but $80 in savings after decades of work. She contacted a reporter, and the investigations began to cascade. Social workers discovered a house of horrors:

"Here was a man who had suffered from hearing loss for years, because his ears had never been cleaned. Here was a man with dental wires jutting from his bleeding gums. Here were men with missing fingernails, forked hands, curving toenails cutting into the pads of feet."

The men eventually won a lawsuit; they are now living quiet lives outside of an institution, some back in Texas with relatives, others still in Iowa. Iowa’s governor at the time of discovery, Chet Culver, observed that “every level of government has failed these men since 1974.” The challenge is to make sure that doesn't happen again. (Susan Hegger)

Anniversary to remember

Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the landmark First Amendment case the New York Times vs. Sullivan. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling laid the groundwork for our modern view of journalism's role and the protections it's afforded.

In case you aren't familiar (what, you don't remember the specifics of a 50-year old case? I'm shocked), the Atlantic provides some background:

A political advertisement appeared in the Times titled "Heed Their Rising Voices" criticizing Southern officials for their aggressive response to civil rights protests. The advertisement, signed at the bottom by civil rights leaders and others, was inaccurate in a few minor respects but it incriminated no Southern official by name. It appeared only once in the paper and it cost less than $5,000 to publish.

Some "Southern officials" didn't like it. The Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner (L.B. Sullivan) asked the Times to retract it publicly. They didn't. He sued.

Alabama courts awarded Sullivan $500,000 under the state's libel law, and the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in.  All nine justices agreed: The lower courts' rulings violated the First Amendment's promise that no law shall curtail the freedom of speech or the press. Justice William Brennan wrote the opinion.

We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

They set the standard that public officials can't sue for libel unless there was "actual malice" -- meaning the publication knew the statement was false or recklessly didn't care. Some justices thought it didn't go far enough in ensuring First Amendment protections.

Last Sunday, the New York Times' editorial board lauded the 50-year-old ruling. But they pointed out it's only philosophical without action.

The government can upset the Sullivan case’s delicate balance by aggressively shutting down avenues of inquiry, as the Obama administration has done to an extreme degree in prosecuting those suspected of leaking classified documents, and even seizing reporters’ records. Uninhibited and robust criticism can go only so far without meaningful access to information.

That's true in Missouri as well. We've faced resistance in obtaining open records from the governor's office. The Department of Corrections argues it can withhold records that would provide oversight that executions are carried out legally and effectively, and the state Attorney General's office has fought in the courts for that secrecy. Fifty years later, there's still plenty of work to be done.  (Listen to the audio of the oral debate.)(Chris McDaniel)

Secrets and lives

Our own reporter Chris McDaniel is one of the sources interviewed in "Under the Hangman's Hood," a recent story in the Columbia Journalism Review about the difficulties journalists face in covering the death penalty as states cloak executions under layers and layers of secrecy. As the article notes, Missouri is spearheading a somewhat dubious trend.

Missouri is "at the forefront of a nationwide battle over transparency and secrecy in capital punishment, in which states, responding to gains made by death-penalty opponents, have increasingly moved to conceal execution protocols — or the identities of people who help in any way to carry them out — from public view."  

Execution is, as the article notes, the "gravest action a state can take against one of its citizens." As such, it would seem a matter of intrinsic public interest. So do the people of Missouri -- in whose name executions are carried out -- have the right to know whether this "gravest action" is implemented legally and ethically?

Apparently not. When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discovered that an incompetent doctor was overseeing Missouri's executions, Missouri responded by making it illegal to reveal “the identity of a current or former member of an execution team.” Last year, "the ban was broadened to include even the pharmacies that now compound lethal drugs for the state." But after much discussion, we at St. Louis Public Radio published the name of the compounding pharmacy providing the execution drug; at the time it was not licensed to do business in Missouri.

TheNew York Times' Adam Liptak has also weighed in on the issue of secrecy in execution protocols, citing the situation in Missouri. Liptak has one of the best summaries of the debate:

"Are death row inmates entitled to know how the government means to kill them? That information is a 'state secret,' prison officials say. But it is hard to see how death row inmates can argue that a given method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment if they are barred from knowing what the method is."

The fear that no one will want to supply the drugs if their identities are known doesn't seem an adequate answer to the constitutional issue at the heart of the debate.  (Susan Hegger)

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.