COLUMN: A failed year in Jefferson City

Thursday, May 13, 2010 | 5:29 p.m. CDT; updated 11:36 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 14, 2010

With just one day left in the 2010 legislative session, it’s an open question whether this has been the least productive ever. The competition for that label is pretty stiff. Remember last year?

We need a little more time – maybe another 24 hours – for a definitive answer, but it’s already clear that the list of missteps and missed opportunities will be a lot longer than the honor roll of achievement.

Let’s begin with the most basic constitutional requirement, to pass a balanced budget. David Lieb of the Associated Press examined the document sent to the governor last week and concluded that it is actually a compendium of unrealistically optimistic assumptions and transparent tricks. Almost certainly, line item vetoes and further cuts to already slashed services will be needed.

Everybody in Jefferson City knew when the session began that money would be in short supply. Everybody in Jefferson City also agreed that trust in government was equally elusive. So ethics reform was a top priority of legislative leaders and Gov. Nixon. With broad agreement on the necessity, what could possibly go wrong?

Here’s the Missourian’s summary of the bill that emerged at the last minute:

“The conference committee version strips from the bill limits on lobbyist gifts to legislators, limits on how much any one person can contribute to a political campaign, a prohibition on legislators taking money from other legislators for campaign consulting and a waiting period before a state official could become a lobbyist after leaving office.”

In other words, no real reform. (The bill does, however, include a provision that gives every legislator a key to the Capitol dome.)

The refusal to reform extended to an especially cynical refusal by the Republican leadership even to vote on Rep. Mary Still’s persistent proposal to impose some limits on predatory payday loan companies.  The only hearing it got was a one-sided farce presided over by a representative who’s a lender himself.

In the Senate, aversion to cleaning up killed a proposed requirement of plumbing codes for counties with state parks on lakes or streams. To no avail, Sen. Kurt Shaefer pointed out the obvious: “We’re going to continue to result in sewage flowing out and ending up somewhere it shouldn’t end up and making people sick.”

Yes, we are.

What we, or our elected representatives, are not going to do is anything to address the lack of revenue that requires such actions as gutting the popular and successful Parents as Teachers program. Rep. Chris Kelly’s eminently sensible idea of an $800 million bond issue for infrastructure construction never got a hearing.

Other states we think of as conservative haven’t been quite so tight-fisted or short-sighted. In Kansas, for example, the just-concluded legislative session produced a 1 cent sales tax increase that, as the Kansas City Star reported, headed off deep cuts in education and social services.

And even in South Carolina, where Strom Thurmond is still revered and Mark Sanford is still in office, the legislature has overridden a veto by Gov. Sanford and passed a 50-cent cigarette tax increase that will raise $135 million this year.

Guess which state is left with the lowest cigarette tax in the nation? Got it in one, I’ll bet.

With everything else it did and failed to do, the action that assures infamy for this General Assembly is its placing on the ballot a clearly unconstitutional attempt to exempt Missourians from mandated coverage under the new national health care law.

Even the Kansas legislature refused to do that. Enough said.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.




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Ellis Smith May 14, 2010 | 6:53 a.m.

Person #1: "They didn't accomplish much at this year's Missouri legislative session."

Person #2: "Yes, isn't it wonderful!" We're drowning in unenforced laws and regulations as it is."

(Report Comment)
William (Bill) Manion May 14, 2010 | 11:34 a.m.

I moved back to Missouri after 20 years in Oklahoma. I used to hear much about Oklahoma being "backward", big jokes on OKies, etc. After 5 years in Missouri, I am ready to move back to a state that has the guts to make changes that are necessary. The Oklahoma no smoking ban statewide was a real eye opener to many. Now the jokes are coming from Oklahoma toward Missouri. Yes, Oklahoma has many backward areas but they have legislators with some guts to make hard decision changes.

(Report Comment)

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