Missouri has long been a conservative state in its outlook, no matter the party in charge. So in January, when legislative leaders celebrated the 100th General Assembly and the 100th anniversary of the Assembly meeting at the Capitol building in Jefferson City, there were no fireworks over the Missouri River or a grand gala.
Instead, there was a special joint session of the General Assembly and a reception with a “massive” cake in the rotunda.
“It was like, you know, two-and-a-half feet tall by four feet long and served 400 people. So that was a lot of fun,” said Dana Rademan Miller, chief clerk of the Missouri House of Representatives. “We were looking for cost-effective ways to commemorate this date, this milestone date. And I think we achieved that.“
Lapel pins have been ordered, too, but the big celebrations won’t come for a couple of years during the state’s bicentennial. Sometimes, the show of state government is entertainment enough.
“There's so much history about the Capitol and in fact, they make history every day here,” said Bob Priddy, author and founder of the Missourinet radio service. He spent 40 years covering state politics before retiring in 2014. “It's fascinating to watch … just great theater,” he said. “It's just marvelous stuff to watch happen, good or bad, whatever happens, just watching it happen. It’s exciting.”
In the beginning
The General Assembly first met in St. Louis in 1819, two years before Missouri became a state. The capital then moved to St. Charles. Jefferson City became the capital in 1826.
“The people in St. Charles appointed a special commission to find the place for the state capital to be permanently. And the rule said that it had to be in the middle part of the state on the Missouri River within 40 miles of the Osage River,” Priddy said. “That's because in those days, people traveled so much by river, if they were going to go anywhere.”
The mode of transport to Jefferson City is not the only thing that’s evolved over the years.
For more than 150 years, the General Assembly met every other year. That changed after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1970, according to Miller. To this day, each session technically lasts two years. That’s why 2019 marks the 100th General Assembly.
Miller, who started as a Senate intern in 2001, said she’s seen two major shifts firsthand: the Republican takeover of both chambers after the 2002 elections, which coincided with the full impact of term limits.
“It's fundamentally changed the body because the members don't have the same amount of institutional experience that they once did,” Miller said. “In the past, we had turnover, but there was always a core group that just stayed and they kind of transitioned as the new individuals came in and were elected, they kind of transferred that knowledge.”
It means legislative staff, workers at state agencies and even lobbyists play a more important role in helping lawmakers get their policy proposals enacted, she said.
“We just kind of help them when it comes to ‘Here's the process and here are your options,’ what you can do within the confines of the Constitution, and within this existing statutes,” Miller said.
Priddy, on the other hand, doesn’t mince words when it comes to term limits.
“I think term limits is the worst thing to happen in Missouri politics since the loyalty oaths of the Civil War,” Priddy said. “I watched the legislature’s tone, its decorum, its practices basically crumble.”
For years -- this one included -- lawmakers in the House and Senate have filed legislation that would adjust term limits.
A new-look Capitol
The current Capitol is the third one in Jefferson City, and the one that’s endured the longest. The previous two were destroyed in fires. Visitors often marvel at the building’s high ceilings and historic artwork.
“They’ve been shocked at how, how big it is, how tall it is, you know, how colorful it is,” said Casey Conklin, an educator with Warrensburg schools who brought a group of students to the Capitol for Missouri STEM Day. “I don't know what they expected, but it wasn't, it wasn't what they've been experiencing.”
But the building is showing its age. A $50 million dollar project is underway to restore the Capitol’s exterior and replace its distinctive white stone.
“Our building now is wrapped in what I call the biggest plastic bag in Missouri history while they do a lot of the cleaning and tuckpointing and sealing it to keep it from leaking water,” Priddy said.
Once that’s done, attention can turn to the interior. Nothing’s final, but Miller hopes lawmakers sign off on plans to renovate the building.
“She's a beautiful lady and she's a gracefully aging, but she's showing signs of age, let's just put it that way,” said Miller, who is also chair of the Missouri State Capitol Commission. “I think she got really good bones, but we have stretched it to its seams. … We really need to get the building up to code.”
Lawmakers are feeling that space crunch, too. The Missouri House’s 163 members are the fourth-most in the country.
That’s why Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, thinks the renovations are the perfect time for another change. Both he and Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, are sponsoring resolutions that would shrink the size of the House by more than 30 members. If passed, it’d go to a statewide vote in 2020.
“This being a unique time in our state’s history, we’re on the verge of the 2020 Census, and we’re on the verge of a full Capitol remodel, which would change the makeup of the physical structure,” Holsman said, adding it “may be one of the last opportunities in a long time to change the makeup of the legislature itself."
And while the legislation has cleared committees this session, Priddy is skeptical it’ll make it to voters.
“This is not the first time that someone has proposed changing the makeup of the House and the Senate,” he said. “The problem is these people are not going to vote to put themselves out of office.”
The exterior work should be done in time for Inauguration Day in 2021, which is also the year of the state’s bicentennial.
Samuel King is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelKingNews