The Retirement of a Shining Light
Late this summer, one of the shining lights for transparency in Missouri's state government retired. Under the administration of two Democratic governors, Linda Luebbering stood apart in providing access and information in ways I'm not sure some Republican legislators fully appreciated.
Luebbering was the budget director under Gov. Jay Nixon and previously under former Gov. Bob Holden. She had been an exception in Nixon's administration, which throttles access to government officials.
Her door always was open to reporters. If she did not have an immediate answer, she often picked up the phone to get it. Similar to Nixon's administration, Luebbering's first Democratic governor once stonewalled the legislature.
Holden's administration had been a near open door for reporters and legislators. But there was one exception. Holden's signature issue was an unsuccessful campaign for one the largest tax increases in the state's history.
To put pressure on the Republican-controlled legislature, Holden based his budget plan on large tax hikes and ordered administration officials to refuse to provide information to lawmakers on how to craft a smaller budget. That put lawmakers in a difficult position. They lacked enough staffers to craft an independent budget on their own.
The solution came from the director of the GOP Senate's budget staff who worked privately with lower-level agency officials to put together a spending plan behind Holden's back. I've always wondered if Luebbering acquiesced to that back-channel effort. After all, it happened under her watch. And years later when she returned as Nixon's budget director, she appointed that same GOP Senate budget director, Marty Drewel, as her top deputy.
Despite Luebbering's openness, I've been surprised at the hostility she occasionally encountered facing Republican members of the legislature's budget-writing committees. To her face, I've heard her essentially called a liar. Of course, she's not the only agency official to be chastised at a legislative committee hearing.
Last year, Revenue Department officials were blasted by members of a Senate committee for giving concealed weapon permit information to the federal government.
This summer, the state Health Department director was told at a legislative hearing, "I feel you're shirking your duties, ma’am." Granted, the Health Department had been less than forthcoming with information involving Planned Parenthood.
But it reminded me of concerns I've heard from a few former officials that these kinds of public attacks can reinforce reluctance by agency officials to collaborate with legislators.
They may have a point. Maybe it's a consequence of term limits.
Back when legislators held office for decades, lawmakers developed close working relationships with agency officials. Some legislators became what I termed "guardian angels" for agencies with staffers with whom they had close ties and friendships.
There were, however, a few legislators who embarked on personal vendettas against state government employees they did not like. A former House Appropriations chair, Jay Russell, threatened to cut $1 million from the state auditor's office unless an office secretary was fired.
Sen. Dick Webster went after one agency employee for years.
But those were exceptions to the near partnerships some legislators developed with agency officials.
There are two sides to this story. In a speech to the Senate shortly before her retirement, Sen. Luanne Ridgeway blamed agency officials for the deteriorated relationships. She charged agency directors ignored legislative information requests because they knew term-limited lawmakers would not be around long enough to extract a punishment.
Her frustration reminded me of the old adage that communication is supposed to be a two-way relationship.
As for Luebbering, I could not agree more with my colleague at the Post-Dispatch, Tony Messenger, who wrote this summer that her candor and assistance helped make our stories "more accurate and helpful."
I, and my journalism students, will miss Linda Luebbering for her passion and patience to help us better understand the state's budget.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.