Governor Greitens talked in his post-session news conference last Friday evening of calling a special session of the legislature to take up issues he was disappointed the legislature didn’t act upon this year. He spoke of “summer school,” although some legislators are likely to suggest to him that a special session, if he decides to call one, would be more economical and might be more productive if it ran concurrently with the veto session in September. Extraordinary Sessions, as they are formally termed, are seldom called immediately after exhausted lawmakers drag themselves home after a regular session, even a relatively non-contentious one.
Governors are seldom as pleased as legislative majority leaders (whatever the majority might be) with results of a legislative session. And although they, and several others, can think of some issues that deserve special session consideration, governors most often have decided to let things cool down, to do some between-sessions discussions, and try again in January.
We have counted sixty times that the legislature has been summoned back for special sessions—although other scholars might have a different number. We are not counting the two times the Rebel legislature met after fleeing from Jefferson City ahead of Union troops’ arrival. Some would argue they were not special sessions, just continuations of the regular session by the elected legislators.
The FIRST special session happened before we were a state and some things in state government that are part of our political genes today were there at the beginning. Some of the attitudes that we saw in this 2017 session were there almost two centuries ago and the sentiments behind one piece of 2017 legislation are an echo of what happened in that first special session in 1821.
A two-hundred year old document in the state archives is the first petition from the citizens of the Territory of Missouri to ask for statehood. Two years later, in 1819, Congress was debating the issue when New York Congressman James Tallmadge tried to add an anti-slavery amendment to a bill authorizing the territory to write a state constitution that would, upon Congressional approval, clear the way for statehood. Senator Henry Clay led the compromise effort that was approved on March 3, 1820. Missouri Constitutional Convention delegates met on June 12 and in the next thirty-eight days drafted the document, which was sent to Washington for approval.
The first state legislature met from September 18-December 12, 1820, passing the first laws that would apply to Missourians as citizens of the United States—once Congress approved the State Constitution. But a provision in that constitution had become a sticking point.
Passionate debate in Congress about whether slavery would be allowed in Missouri when it entered the union had taken a new direction. Although Missourians had welcomed the Missouri Compromise that allowed slave-holding Missouri to enter the union with the simultaneous admission of Maine to keep the free state/slave state balance, many chafed at the power of Congress to become involved in “an internal matter,” in this case, whether slavery could exist in the state. U. S. Senator-to-be Thomas Hart Benton, in fact, argued that Congress had no right to ban slavery anywhere—although the Missouri Compromise did exactly that.
The issue of slavery, per se, was therefore transformed into an issue of states’ rights when delegates were picked to write the first State Constitution. Although some historians suggest the majority of the delegates opposed slavery, the state’s rights issue shaped part of that first document, which is why it contained provisions prohibiting the legislature from ever passing laws prohibiting the entry of slaves into Missouri, forbidding emancipation without permission of a slave-holder, AND requiring the legislature to pass a law forbidding any free Negroes and Mulattoes from living in Missouri “under any pretext whatsoever,” although about 300 free Negroes already lived here.
That contrary spirit is what led to the first special session of the legislature—because Congress was not going to tolerate Missouri limiting the movement of any free people into any state where they wanted to live.
Congress, after some tense discussions that included some talk of secession by southern states, refused to approve the constitution until that provision forbidding free Negroes and mulattoes from moving here was removed. That’s why state lawmakers returned to St. Charles in the summer of 1821 to meet a congressional mandate to make sure the legislature “never pass any law preventing any descriptions of persons from going to, and settling in, the said state, who now are, or hereafter may become citizens of any states in this union.”
Do it or you can’t join the union, said Congress.
Missouri’s legislature did it. But it made sure Congress knew Missouri didn’t like being forced to do it. The delegates at that special session meeting in June, 1821 maintained Washington had no power to attach any conditions to statehood and they refused to change the Missouri Constitution. However, they did pass a resolution promising the state would not pass any laws limiting the rights of free Negroes and Mulattoes. The House committee that came up with the resolution said in its report:
…The general government have no right, when a territory, as Missouri was, shall have been authorized to form a constitution of state government for herself, to interfere with the free and unrestrained right, by imposing any previous conditions or restrictions whatever.
The resolution also complained Congress had not applied extra standards to any other state, calling the requirement regrettable and noted that Negroes and Mulattoes “had no pretention [sic]” of citizenship in any of the 23 other states and could not be considered full citizens of Missouri even if they chose to live here. Lawmakers reluctantly approved it on June 26, 1821.
Congress felt Missouri had slapped it in the face but Henry Clay convinced Congress to accept the resolution instead of starting a new fight. President James Monroe signed the proclamation admitting Missouri to the Union on August 10.
Forty years later, to the day, the worst battle of Missouri’s Civil War was fought on the Oak-covered hills around Wilson’s Creek, south of Springfield. The first special session of the Missouri legislature is seen by many historians as the concluding segment of the first of a series of ultimately futile efforts to keep the union from falling apart.
Incidentally, the “free negro and mulatto” agreement lasted only four years. Once Missouri was in the Union, it would not be voted out, and in the regular session of 1825, the legislature adopted a law requiring any free Negroes or Mulattoes to produce written certificates of their free status before they could live here.
With the help of King Marc Powers, ruler of the Kingdom of Arcania, a small territory set aside within the Missouri Capitol, and Dana Miller, the Assistant Chief Clerk of the House, we have looked back at the last twenty years of special sessions and have come up with these examples of reasons and seasons:
In 1997, Governor Mel Carnahan called two special sessions. One session began thirty minutes after the adjournment of the regular session on May 16 because two appropriations bills were not passed by the deadline. The legislature acted quickly and adjourned six days later. He also called lawmakers back for a special session coinciding with the veto session in September to enact acceptable sections of an economic development bill he had vetoed and to pass a new law allowing local tourism taxes to be enacted after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the original law unconstitutional.
Governor Holden, in 2003, vetoed four appropriations bills and called a special session to re-pass them. Before that special session adjourned, he signed two of the re-passed bills but vetoed two others which the legislature re-passed. Holden signed them although he objected to them but the legislature would not change them and another special session was out of the question, so he signed them. He called another special session, however, for September to consider revenue increases the legislature refused to consider in the regular session. The legislature wasn’t interested in September, either, further supporting the idea that the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.
Governor Blunt called a special session in September, 2005 to pass new abortion restrictions the legislature had been unable to pass in the regular session. In 2007, he called a special session to let contracts have access to bond money for bridge repairs and to pass new economic development taxation.
Governor Nixon’s special session history was a mixed bag. He called a special session in June of 2010 to pass $150 million in tax incentives to keep the Ford Claycomo plant at full production. He called a special session for September, 2011 for tax credit overhauls and incentives for making Lambert-St. Louis Airport a hub for trade with China. But majority Republicans could not get together to pass those bills and they called it a day and let the sixty-day schedule run out. (Note to Governor Greitens: Make sure you have the votes to pass the legislation you want before convening a special session.) The legislature was called back in December, 2013 in an effort to pass last-minute tax incentives to convince Boeing to move production of its 777X airliner from the state of Washington to St. Louis. The legislature rushed the incentives through by Boeing’s deadline, but the company got a better deal from Washington and stayed there. In late 2014, Nixon called a special session to allocate money to pay the Highway Patrol and the National Guard for the security services it provided in Ferguson. But he cancelled the call three days later when legislative leaders pointed out a way to pay those bills from the existing budget.
Incidentally, Governor Hearnes holds the record by calling three special sessions in 1970—before Missouri’s constitution was changed to provide for annual sessions.
The first Missouri Constitution and the ensuing first special session set a pattern of contrariness that was played out in this year’s reluctant approval of a law allowing driver’s licenses that comply with the federal Real ID law, passage of which is the latest example of Missouri’s defiance of federal regulations that eventually crumbles after lengthy grumbling.
In 2017, Missouri lawmakers finally buckled to federal pressure—as their legislative ancestors did in that first special session—and passed a Real ID compliance law. But they, as did their ancestors, attached some language to prove they weren’t just getting in line.
Take that, Washington.