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Columbia Missourian

Candidates agree Missouri's mental health care needs more attention

By Spencer Willems
October 16, 2008 | 11:18 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Inadequate funding for mental health care proved a more salient issue than heavyweight topics such as the economy and tax policy at a voter forum Thursday night.

Education also came up frequently throughout the evening's sparring, highlighting a number of shared values by candidates who differed greatly in how they'd pursue those values.

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The Columbia League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women hosted seven candidates from three different Boone County races at the Columbia Public Library.

The candidates for Boone County administrator spoke first. Residents heard their prepared marks and put them on the spot about issues that mattered to them.

John Sullivan is the Republican running for an office where many see practicality as more important than partisanship. He noted that whoever becomes the county administrator will be responsible for nearly 400 residents who are unable to take care of themselves.

"This race is about life and death," Sullivan said. "It's about where children get placed after their parents died unexpectedly."

Both Sullivan and his Democratic opponent, Cathy Richards, touted their education and past professional positions in order to gain support.

Richards pointed out that most of those taken care of by the county administrator suffer from mental illness, something she has worked with in her pursuit of a master's degree in counseling. Both candidates expressed a personal devotion to the cause of their campaign.

"It's a complex job, and I do take it seriously," Richards said. "I do because I like and love people."

Sullivan was the first of the evening to point out Missouri's failure to provide adequate mental health care.

"The greatest challenge to this job is the very fact that as a society we have not completely and adequately funded the needs of those who are mentally ill," Sullivan said. "The services that we need for the mentally ill are fragmented ... it's not a comprehensive program."

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, and his Democratic opponent, former legislator Chris Kelly, exchanged subtle chidings over each other's policies but agreed on mental health care issues.

Kelly thinks that adequate attention and funding for Missouri mental health has lost out to excessive and rigid earmarks to state conservation, among other state programs. "Think about, for a moment, that we have the best birds and bunnies but the worst mental health in America," Kelly said.

"The well-reasoned people in the appropriations process make the decisions on the states' greatest need ... rather than make a decision on the basis of who has the prettier mascot," Kelly said.

Robb agreed with Kelly on the inefficiency of earmarking funds for programs rather than assessing spending needs item by item. He also mentioned that funding for mental health has increased over the past few years, though not by as much as people would like.

"We're in the process of adding money" to mental health programs, Robb said. "But if we want to put more money into higher education or K-12, there's only so many dollars and it's a matter, then, of higher priorities."

Education funding did take priority at the forum, particularly on the issue of whether the state should supply tax-credit tuition scholarships to students from failing public schools.

Kurt Schaefer, the Republican challenger to Democratic state Sen. Chuck Graham, said he'd leave nothing off the table when it comes to fixing Missouri's failing public schools.

"When you go to St. Louis or Kansas City and you look at a 10-year-old girl or boy and you say, 'You are being held in a failing system, but sorry, there's nothing we can do about' ... that is unacceptable," Schaefer said.

"There has to be some mechanism for those families to have some form of choice."

Libertarian candidate Christopher Dwyer agreed, in part, with Schaefer.

"I am for vouchers, but I'm not for tax credits," Schaefer said. "I want to do away with the income tax and replace it with a consumption or a fair tax."

Graham was clear about his position.

I am "opposed to tuition tax credits," Graham said. "You don't make the public schools better by starving them."

Graham also called into question the motives of Rex Sinquefield, the St. Louis businessman who has been funding candidates who support such tuition tax credits. Sinquefield, through his various political action committees, has given more than $25,000 to Robb's campaign.