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As session went on, cracks developed in Republican unity.

Party discord derailed Blunt's MOHELA proposal.

At stake was a $478 million spending plan for Missouri colleges.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


They threw the book at sex offenders, took at stab at rewriting eminent domain laws, overhauled campaign finance rules and made sure that ethanol will soon be in every gas tank in the state.

But members of the Missouri Legislature closed their 2006 session Friday knowing that it's what they didn't do that might be remembered most. And their inaction on the biggest issue of the year is raising questions about the effectiveness of the Capitol's dominant Republican leadership.

Conspicuously absent from list of accomplishments for Republicans and their governor was the passage of a $478 million spending plan that would have funded projects at almost every college campus in the state.

The demise of the proposal, which was contingent on the sale of assets from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, or MOHELA, was a stinging defeat for its architect, Gov. Matt Blunt.

It was also emblematic shift in the political landscape in the Capitol, one of growing disharmony among the Republicans who control the both chambers with wide margins.

"Early in the session it seemed the two chambers were pretty well together, " said Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington. "But it seemed like as the session went on there was a crack, and that divide grew wider and wider."

Those differences affected more than just the MOHELA sale, with Republicans locking horns on issues ranging from Medicaid fraud to tax incentives for developers.

Republicans leaders are quick to emphasize their successes. They pointed to the passage of a tough sex offender bill and an overhaul of campaign finance laws as proof they can deliver on the big issues.

"We did what we do very well here, offer common-sense solutions to complex issues, " said Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

But in contrast to last year, when a Republican leadership and their new governor harmoniously stitched together a sweeping pro-business agenda, this was a session of loose ends and mounting disagreement on where to take the state.

Governor's surprise

The fact that the session was less ambitious in scope was to be expected in an election year, when legislators were eager to sidestep contentious issues.

Many Republican leaders started the session hard-pressed to identify more than a few top priorities. Most tended to gravitate to issues with broad support, such as imposing harsh penalties on sex offenders and boosting the rights of property owners amid eminent domain disputes.

"They were probably afraid of doing anything of any significance without motivating key constituencies against them, " recalls Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia.

But what had been stacking up as an uneventful session took an unexpected turn, when Gov. Matt Blunt surprised even most legislators with his MOHELA plan. His proposal would have required the loan authority to sell billions of dollars of assets, an untested step that some feared would hurt borrowers.

Blunt envisioned only a limited role for the Legislature, who he felt needed to do little more than agree on how to spend the MOHELA windfall.

But the task of divvying up a pot of money that ultimately grew to $478 million revealed conflicting priorities among Republicans in the House, Senate and the Governor's Mansion.

Over the weeks, the competing spending plans and the particulars of the MOHELA deal triggered a standoff within Republican leadership that ultimately killed the deal.

Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, described the meltdown as a clash of egos, one in which House Republicans refused to accept compromise.

"You have people whose mission is to be combative instead of looking for the common good, " he said.

The internal Republican battle over MOHELA will likely continue.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said Friday he disagrees with the governor's plan to move ahead with the asset sale. The plan would have MOHELA donate assets directly to higher education institutions, thereby sidestepping an uncooperative Legislature.

'Job is unfinished'

Many Republicans say the collapse of the MOHELA plan has less to do with a civil war in the party than it does with the issue itself.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said MOHELA came from left field. As such, it failed to naturally unite Republicans.

Last year, in contrast, Republicans passed a slate of pro-business bills that they had deliberated for years. The result was a productive session but only because Republicans shared a pent-up agenda.

"Everything fell in so easily last year, " Jetton said. "This year, there was so much more disagreement."

Having said that, Jetton and others say the Legislature successfully took on dicey issues such as eminent domain.

Critics say their work fell short. The bill increases the compensation that must be offered to those whose homes stand in the way of development. But it does not tackle the stickier issue of defining "blight, " the legal justification used to determine that a property should be taken.

"What people need to realize is, this job is unfinished, " said Harold Ostergaard of Brentwood, who joined other members of the St. Louis-based Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition at a rally in Jefferson City last week.

Republicans say other key bills illustrate their productivity. Among those are measures that mandate that all gasoline sold in the state contain 10 percent ethanol by 2008, and a sex offender bill that imposes 30-year sentences for the worst sex offenders.

Republicans also boast of a new campaign finance bill that they say adds more transparency to those who contribute to candidates and elected officials.

Many Democrats, however, attack the plan for also eliminating limits on campaign contributions to candidates. They said the move was particularly in bad taste amid growing questions over lobbyist influence in Jefferson City. After the session ended, Democrats from both chambers gathered next to a sign picturing the Capitol building as "For Sale."

"To lift the limits will create a political environment that is like the Wild West, " said Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis.

Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, said Republicans squandered opportunities to fight Medicaid fraud by cracking down on dishonest medical providers. But she said she welcomed the dissension among Republicans.

"We can help them unravel even more, " she said. "We are happy to be of service."

Meanwhile, social conservatives criticize Republican leaders for sitting on bills that would have banned abortion providers from providing sex education instruction in public school.

Also dead was a bill that would have protected pharmacists who refuse to dispense morning-after contraception; another would have allowed more skeptical teaching of evolution in science classes.

Jetton said Republican leaders simply couldn't agree on the controversial measures: "We just couldn't get any resolution."

Bartle, meanwhile, offered the simplest explanation for the growing disagreement among his fellow legislative majority.

"Whether they're Republicans or Democrats, they're still just human beings with different opinions, " he said.

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