A month into their session, Missouri’s legislators haven’t done much but talk. Considering what they’re saying, that’s probably for the best. What’s worrisome is that at least some of the rhetoric is likely to result in action we, if not they, will have cause to regret.
The most important case in point was highlighted by Rep. Chris Kelly in Tuesday’s Missourian. Chris, as you know, has been promoting for more than a year now an $800 million bond issue to build or repair much-needed facilities on campuses throughout the state. Last year the House passed the proposal, which was and still is co-sponsored by Rep. Steve Tilley, the Republican floor leader. Parliamentary stalling killed it in the Senate.
This year, with the need greater, the construction industry hungrier and the interest rate lower, leaders of both House and Senate are saying no. Chris doesn’t understand their reasoning. Neither do I. In his essay, he demolishes their arguments. But barring a legislative miracle, the bond issue is as dead as the brains of its executioners.
There’s more, much more.
Take, for instance, the House bill that would address a possible shortfall in the governor’s budget by requiring him to play the lottery. Reading Ben Wieder’s report in Tuesday’s paper, I assumed it was just a joke until I got to the part where Republican heavyweights said they support the bill. Then I quit laughing. (The bill’s sponsor. Rep. Mark Parkinson, told Ben he doesn’t play the lottery. “I think it’s a self-imposed tax on stupidity,” he said. Exactly.)
Meanwhile, the budget ax is poised to fall on those least able to defend themselves. Last week the House Appropriations Committee for Health, Mental Health and Social services proposed that funding be slashed for a range of programs that help the state’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. The Missourian reported that Sunday.
The committee wants to cut half the funding for domestic violence shelters, such as The Shelter in Columbia, which currently serve 40,000 women and children statewide and already had to turn away 9,000 more last year. Also cut would be $9.5 million from the health centers that serve the poor, including the Family Health Center of Boone County. Not even the pregnancy crisis centers that provide alternatives to abortion would be spared.
Listening to the Republican leadership, you’d never know it was the federal stimulus funding that has staved off such draconian reductions so far. The balanced budget amendment they’re urging Congress to support would have made that assistance more difficult if not impossible to provide. Of course, nobody said consistency was a virtue in partisan politics.
They appear unable to solve our state’s problems, but some legislators don’t hesitate to wander beyond their competence. Sen. Bill Stouffer, who is running for the Republican nomination to oppose Congressman Ike Skelton, is sponsoring a resolution urging Congress to keep the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy the president and his top military advisers want to end. He’s also pushing another resolution opposing the “cap and trade” approach to slowing global warming.
Partisanship also got the better of Boone County’s Sen. Kurt Shaefer when he criticized Gov. Nixon for using $23 million in federal money to save the old railroad bridge at Boonville instead of a new cancer hospital in Columbia. A spokesman for the governor had to point out that the money was designated specifically for railroad projects.
Our state is facing hard times. Urgent needs outrun available resources. So far, the legislative response looks from here to be short-sighted, partisan and ideological. The likelihood that our rulers’ actions will speak even louder than their words doesn’t give us much room for optimism.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.