News report: The Missouri State Senate this week approved a new optional slogan for our license plates — “Don’t Tread on Me,” a historical warning that has become a catch phrase of the radical right.
With three weeks left in the legislative session and the state’s major problems largely unaddressed, my question is this:
Has it occurred to you that our elected representatives appear to be operating in a parallel universe? The issues that engage them aren’t so obvious outside the marble halls of the Capitol. The problems we constituents face seem somehow to diminish in their world. Even the laws we’ve adopted by statewide referendum are just irritants to be undone.
For example, our elected representatives, or at least the dominant Republicans, are bravely facing the threat that our legal system will be infiltrated by Sharia law. That’s an issue in Somalia, I’ll grant you, but why is it one in Cole County?
That the real public defender system is underfunded and overburdened, and that this threatens many defendants’ rights to counsel and fair trials, goes unaddressed.
In the legislature, rampaging elk are a bigger worry than uninsured poor people. Overtaxed corporations get more sympathy than minimum-wage workers. Unions are blamed for the state’s difficulty in attracting new businesses rather than an undereducated work force and crumbling infrastructure.
Those minimum-wage workers? Never mind that three-quarters of the voters decreed a higher minimum, with regular adjustments to account for inflation. The state Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like that, so the Republican majority will substitute the wisdom of the chamber for the will of the people. The same influence is going to make it harder for victims of workplace discrimination to seek redress.
The legislators who see the puppy mill regulations we voters approved last year as a threat to agriculture also want to limit the legal remedies available to the neighbors damaged by effluent from the hog factories that have put most small producers out of business. Compromise brokered by the governor may save some of the dog breeder reforms, but prospects look dim for the hog factories’ neighbors.
Are our schools underfunded and our teachers underpaid? Our legislators respond by voting to divert tax money to private and religious schools and abolish teacher tenure.
Missouri ranks high where we should be low and vice versa. We’re still near the top in meth production, carbon dioxide emissions, teen smoking and obesity. Have you seen any legislative action addressing those? Neither have I.
We’re near the bottom in education funding, university faculty salaries and bridge safety. Same question. Same answer. (To be fair, there are a few voices of reason on the majority side of the aisle, most notably Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. He has found money to lessen the impact of cuts to education at all levels. Of course, his proposals have only made it through the Senate.)
The Human Development Index, which ranks states by a composite measure of health, income and education, has Missouri in the bottom half, a little ahead of Arkansas and Oklahoma but well behind Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. That report hasn’t reached the legislative majority, I suppose. Nor has the recent study that ranks us 49th in funding higher education.
And what are we to make of Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, who is so concerned about the federal deficit — and so unconcerned about the welfare of his constituents — that he held up federal money for unemployment benefits and for the public schools in a quixotic attempt to send a message to Washington? Fortunately for the unemployed and school children, even his fellow ideologues eventually abandoned him.
The ideology that is the foundation of the legislative fantasy world is the same that insists, in the absence of evidence, that we’ll somehow be better off if we eliminate the state income tax and replace it with a sales tax. Ideologues don’t have to worry that the switch would shift the tax burden from those most able to pay to those least able or that the sales tax figure proposed won’t come close to producing the same state revenue.
Elections have consequences, the winners like to say. We’re now facing the consequences of having elected an ideology-driven majority in our legislature. That majority spends its time and our money fighting phantom voter fraud and indulging the delusion that our president isn’t a citizen. The state’s real problems fester.
Sooner or later, most fantasies collide with reality. Collisions have consequences, too.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.