By Tim Curtis and Travis Zimpfer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The hearing for SJR 39 could have been a madhouse, especially when it started hours late and was attended by more media outlets than members of the committee, including the ex officio members who showed up. But that almost everyone walked away from the biggest hearing of the session feeling like they were heard reflects well on the committee, and its chairman, has come to define the 2016 session.
Throughout the session, the House Emerging Issues Committee has been asked to handle big bill after big bill, including SJR 39, the earnings tax, the beer bill, Real ID, Uber regulations and medical marijuana. All of those bills, with the exception of SJR 39 which was still pending as of Tuesday night, passed out of the committee.
While the different pieces of legislation have been mired in controversy, the committee and its chair, Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, have drawn plaudits from leadership and both sides of the aisle.
“Elijah has worked tirelessly on a range on difficult issues,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “He and his committee deserve a ton of credit for their work this session.”
Emerging Issues wasn’t even around two years ago, but when the House moved to the two-tier committee system, the committee was created to handle the bulk of the legislation that General Laws used to deal with.
“Before we went to a two-tiered system, this was General Laws and I think that’s always been the place where fairly high profile stuff goes to be vetted and amended and moved forward. And I think Emerging Issues in its first two years has been that place,” Haahr says about his committee. “We’ve handled, I would argue, all or most of the high-profile big-ticket items this year.”
Haahr, the committee’s first chair, has drawn praise from members of his committee no matter which side of the aisle their loyalties belong to, including Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, the ranking minority member, and Rep. Ron Hicks, R-St. Peters.
LaFaver noted that while Haahr belongs to the supermajority, he does not rule over the committee with an iron fist and takes care to make sure that any member who wants to be heard has their say.
“The voices of everybody are heard on that committee as opposed to, ‘is the Democratic voice heard or is the Republican voice heard’,” LaFaver said. “To me, it has appeared Elijah doesn’t really approach things from a bipartisan standpoint, but he’s approached it from a nonpartisan standpoint of gaining input from members and understanding that folks bring unique insights from all walks of life.”
LaFaver also believes that Haahr has deftly handled debate on the myriad of complex and topical issues that pass through the committee, doing so with an impartiality that respects both sides of those controversial bills.
“For a two-term guy to thread the needle like he has so well on some of these things has really been impressive,” he said. “You don’t often see someone like Elijah that truly has the convictions and support of the conservative right… but with the understanding of governing, not necessarily to the center, but to the functioning majority. And I think that’s a unique aspect in many lawmakers, but particularly in two-term lawmakers.”
Haahr said that is something he has explicitly tried to do with SJR 39, committing to hear out all sides so that everyone can feel like they’ve been heard.
“I’ve said with SJR 39 from the beginning, whatever result we come to as a committee, someone will be upset, but we hope that they are ok with the process,” Haahr said. “We have done everything we can to keep the process above board. The goal was to thoroughly vet the bill, to not rush the bill and not bury it. That has been our goal from day one and I hope everyone is happy with that. Whatever goodwill we have, I assume that some of it will evaporate as soon as we actually take the vote on the bill, but for now, we seem to be in a good place where people are appreciative of the process we used.”
Hicks also pointed to his governance of the SJR 39 hearing in Emerging Issues. While the hearing lasted for four-and-a-half hours to almost midnight, Hicks said he was impressed with how well Haahr controlled the room despite the resolution being one of the most contentious of the year.
“We had 13 different national reporters in there, not to mention… all the House reporters, all the local reporters. That could have been a free for all.” Hicks said. “That thing could have turned into a riot in a way. It could have went bad in that committee. He held the glue on that.”
Hicks also commended Haahr for allowing the hearing to go even longer in an informal setting to give those who had not had an opportunity to speak during the official hearing a chance to have their voices heard. Hicks, LaFaver, Haahr, and a few other members of the committee all stayed late to hear further testimony with LaFaver presiding.
Through all the issues and all the sides he’s had to juggle, Haahr has also kept an eye on the Senate, especially when Senate bills come through the committee, to make sure those Senators have been respected.
“We’ve tried to keep an active conversation with the Senators on their particular legislation,” he said. “If there’s concerns that we’ve heard or things that need to be tweaked, we’ve tried to keep them in the loop early on on that.”
Through it all, Haahr has earned the respect of LaFaver, who says their ability to craft a strong working relationship has helped set the tone for the committee.
“I think it’s helped to show people that big topics and big issues can move through the process, they can be present and discussed in a way that is professional and statesmanly,” he said.
“I wish there were more like him on both sides of the aisle.”
It appears as though Haahr’s fellow Republicans agree. They held a caucus meeting after SJR 39 didn’t pass the committee. Haahr received a standing ovation.