JEFFERSON CITY - It's nearly noon on the final day of the legislative session. The 6 p.m deadline for passing legislation approaches and one of the session's major issues still hangs in the balance.
With the support of some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, a $498 million tax increase to pay for transportation projects has made it to a final judgement day. The last step would be approval from the voters in August, but what matters now is the actions of the Missouri General Assembly.
As the minutes pass, the flurry of activity grows and the bill inches closer to its ultimate destiny. In the middle of it all are two cousins from Shannon County--Rep. Don Koller and Sen. Danny Staples.
Sitting in his office, Koller is acutely aware of what's happening with the bill, which he and Sen. Morris Westfall, R-Halfway, have crafted and maneuvered through the legislative process all session long. After 18 years as a Representative, term limits will end Koller's career in the House this December. He said 15 of those years have been spent on this legislation. Despite the uncertainty, Koller seems unphased.
"It's typical government," said Koller, chair of the House Transportation Committee. "It's hard to keep from getting flustered a little bit."
Earlier in the week, Staples had a similar heir of contentment. With a cigarette in hand, the former chair and current ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee reflected on his 26 years in the General Assembly, the last 20 of which were in the Senate. Term limits prevent Staples from seeking re-election as well, but he said that's not what's ending this segment of his career.
"If I could run again, I wouldn't," Staples said.
Koller doesn't have any brothers and said that Staples, who is eight years his elder, was like a brother when the two were growing up.
"He was kind of my hero because he drank beer and had a driver's license and I didn't," Koller said.
The two live 14 miles from each other now, and see each other daily.
"Don's one of my favorite people, as well as my cousin," Staples said.
They continue a bond that was built during weekly Sunday visits when the two were children. Koller's family would go to the Staples', who owned a grocery store that kept open on the weekend. Koller recalls getting sick on the ride home from those visits, the victim of dusty, unpaved roads and too many Cracker Jacks from the store. Today, Koller is a key player in a plan to make Missouri roads smooth, while he and wife Pat own a grocery store of their own.
In two years Koller hopes to follow in his older cousin's footsteps when he plans to run for the Missouri Senate. That means hitting the campaign trail again.
"It's much more fun to me to run for the office than to hold the office," Koller said.
Staples also has fond memories of his past elections and said some of the best days were those after each of his five victories. That's illustrated by his deviation from his original plan. When former Congressman Richard Ichord told Staples he should make his first run for the House during a fishing trip on the Currant River, his plan was to stay for six years. One quarter of a century later Staples is still there.
But over the course of his career not all of the days were pleasant. Staples' staff said it's not difficult to identify those bad days.
"We always know when not to talk to him," said Diane Levery, who handles constituent relations for Staples. "All we have to do is look at him."
Staples concedes that there's heartbreak in his job, but said it's outweighed by the rewards.
"If I had it to do over again, yeah, I would because we've had a good ride," he said. "I feel like we've made a difference."
With his time in the Senate winding down, Staples said he has been offered several jobs but hasn't decided on anything yet. What's certain are his plans to play golf, which he became addicted to four years ago, and go on trips in his RV.
It's the end of the day now, and with less than an hour left in his last regular legislative session, the proposal that had been 15 years in the making for Koller passes. A four-cent gas and one-half cent sales tax increase will go before the voters this August.
Moments after the session ends, Gov. Bob Holden interrupts his end-of-session press conference to recognize the man who made transportation his mission. Koller, still beaming from the victory, steps in front of the cameras and gives a statewide audience the first pitch for a "yes" vote.
"It's hard to come up here and propose the largest tax increase in the history of the state of Missouri," Koller told reporters. "But ladies and gentlemen it's the right thing to do."