Newly-elected state representatives have finished a week of rookie camp. There’s a more formal name for it, but that’s what it is—a week getting to know state institutions and facilities, names and places, finding out where their offices are and where the bathrooms are in the capitol, learning the protocols of being a state rep including how to address one another during debate, how to introduce legislation, and who are some of the people in the hallways who will be their new best friends.
The House has asked your correspondent to come in at the end of rookie camp and talk about the capitol press corps and their relationship to it, the history of the capitol and the legislature, and to admonish these new folks to do nothing that would embarrass themselves, the legislature, or their families back home while they’re serving.
Afterwards we split the group into two segments for behind the scenes tours. Dana Miller, the Assistant Chief Clerk of the House (also Chairman of the State Capitol Commission) took one group and I took the other, then we switched. She led her group through some of the hidden spaces of the building and I took my group into the public areas.
The tours gave both of us a chance to talk about the condition of the Capitol—and there’s a lot to talk about these days. More than a year ago the legislature set aside forty million borrowed dollars to make long-delayed repairs to critical parts of the building’s substructure. The first part of that work was completed during rookie camp, the rebuilding of the south front steps, the east steps, the terraces and the carriage entrance. For years water has leaked through increasingly chipped steps into the Capitol basement, weakening the entire area and contributing to mold problems in the basement where a lot of people work, eat, and hold hearings. Several other much-needed repairs also have been made.
Next summer will see the start of phase two that will include repairs to the building’s exterior stone work, rebuilding the plaza on the river side of the building, repairs to the Fountain of the Centaurs, and more terrace work.
My part of the tour involved showing the folks some of the architectural features and decorations on the interior. While the exterior of the building is getting the repairs and restorations it deserves, the interior continues to deteriorate. We looked at several places of peeling paint, unrestored paintings by great artists, and poorly-lighted areas that keep visitors from enjoying and learning Missouri history from the artwork that makes our capitol unique. We talked about the plans that began almost two decades ago to restore the interior of the building, plans that were stopped with the terrorist attacks in 2001 that forced diversion of the millions of dollars set aside for that work to make up for state government’s revenue loss in the wake of the economic drop after the attacks.
It’s hard to know where the restoration of our state’s greatest symbol will go next as it moves through its centennial era to the 100th anniversary of its dedication in 2024. The bonding money will be used up by the second phase of superstructure work. The state budget is unlikely to grow, or grow very much, in coming years because of the current tax structure while financial demands for basic services and operations are expected to keep growing. Given priorities such as education, health, mental health, prisons, and social services, it’s hard to think there will be much left over to make the inside of the Missouri Capitol the jewel its designers and builders wanted it to be.
The new people that voters elected to represent them in the legislature got a taste of the enormity of their obligations, possibilities, and responsibilities—as well as the possible pitfalls that await them—during rookie camp.
It has dawned on this observer that he covered his first story in the capitol in 1967, fifty years after the ancestors of today’s legislators held a one-day meeting in the unfinished House and Senate chambers so lawmakers who would not be back for the next session two years later could say they had served in the new capitol. That means that I have covered and watched people like these rookies for half of the building’s history. So I took the liberty to sermonize:
State capitols are intended to be grand representations of the greatness of their states. They are intended to be inspirations to citizens, statements of democracy, and symbols of the permanence, the stability, and the power of a state to care for and to protect its people. The very motto of our state is carved in Latin on the south front: “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.” Not a few people. ALL of the people.
Understanding that you are here to protect and care for ALL of the people, not just the powerful few who have the capacity to make you feel important will be one of your greatest challenges.
It is easy to speak in phrases of nobility and inspiration, statements of democracy and so forth because it is always easier to speak of nobility and dignity and greatness than it is to recognize shortcomings, deterioration, and decay.
So I urge you to see your capitol in its entirety and be unafraid to acknowledge that it suffers from inattention; that it is easy to say, “My office is fine” while ignoring a cracked column at the top, the quick and easy slathering-on of coat after coat of paint that covers problems but robs the building of its beauty and character, to ignore the cracked and peeling paint, the mold and leakage problems in the basement. Notice your capitol and reflect on what else it says about government’s attitude toward its people—and whether you will spend your career just slathering on a coat of paint that covers, but will not solve, problems and masks a dingy reality that is easily ignored. For in truth, this building also represents Missouri in ways too many choose to ignore. Its deteriorating structure, its peeling paint, and its unrestored great works of art carry a message of needs unmet, problems uncorrected, responsibilities avoided, and obligations covered over.
So welcome to OUR capitol. But it is YOUR responsibility. And it is not just the capitol; it is the entire state that is your responsibility.
There will be thirty-nine new members of the House and one person in the Senate who has not served in the legislature before when the General Assembly convenes under new state leadership in a few days. While some see glasses half empty, we choose to see them half full—of opportunities that come with the fresh eyes of those who went through legislative rookie camp and those who are still going through their own rookie camps called transition.
So we lift our half-full glass. Here’s to the rookies!