GEORGE KENNEDY: Closing the gap between rhetoric and reality will be a challenge

Thursday, January 19, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Here we go again. If you thought last year’s legislative session was bitter and unproductive, this year’s is likely to make 2011 seem like the good old days.

That's the only thing we can take for granted after Gov. Jay Nixon and the Republican respondents to his State of the State speech talked past each other Tuesday night.

Oh, they used a lot of the same words, the most repeated being "jobs." But their rhetoric left little room for optimism that they’ll reach agreement on actually creating any.

In fact, the governor's proposed budget includes job cuts and another major reduction in funding for higher education. Our own Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who chairs the Senate budget committee, immediately declared that "unacceptable."

About the only thing the governor and legislative leaders agree on is their refusal even to consider the only way to avoid draconian cuts. Of course, that would be an increase in our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax or joining the ranks of states that tax Internet commerce.

Gov. Nixon does favor the trimming of tax credits. We saw how that turned out in 2011, as Republican legislators in the House and Senate squabbled among themselves in a special session that will be remembered for what it didn’t accomplish.

To be fair, I’m sure the Republicans would agree with one thing the governor said: "We're all Missourians first." Shared values cut across party lines, he added. I took that to mean that he thinks we’re content with being a low-tax, low-service state. It would certainly appear that most of us are.

The Post-Dispatch in an editorial summarized our ranking. We’re 47th in tax burden, which leads to being 42nd in funding higher education, 37th in supporting lower education, 46th in teacher salaries and 50th in pay for state employees.

Those numbers call into question another of the governor’s assertions. He said, "The good people of Missouri never give up or give in." 

Despite the temptation to do both, Boone County’s representatives persist. Except for Sen. Schaefer, they're all Democrats, which means they're powerless. That reality hasn't discouraged them from fantasizing about raising the tobacco tax and levying a sales tax on purchases made online.

Gov. Nixon emphasized the importance of higher education and urged funding for scholarships. Rhetoric gave way to reality, however, in the 12.5 percent cut he proposed for the institutions the scholarship recipients will attend. For the university’s four campuses, the hit would be more than $55 million.

Rep. Chris Kelly told the Missourian, "You have to ask yourself, where’s the line between access and quality?" He added that "having accessibility to institutions of decreasing quality is not a benefit."

The governor said he expects university budget builders to cover the cuts by increased efficiency and decreased overhead. A reasonable translation would be bigger classes and more nonregular faculty to teach them. Or, as he put it, public universities will have to "change their business model."

Gov. Nixon concluded his speech with the ritual request that God bless us all. I realized that closing the gap between rhetoric and reality probably would require divine intervention. Let us pray.

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

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John Schultz January 19, 2012 | 12:55 p.m.

Doesn't the Supreme Court decision from ages ago saying that mail order companies cannot be required to collect sales taxes for states in which they do not have physical operations preclude the state from requiring the same of Internet vendors?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 20, 2012 | 5:53 a.m.

I'm reminded of a Victorian parable called "Who Will Bell The Cat." A house cat, allowed outside, was preying on all the cute little animals found there. The animals were in total agreement that to stop the cat's predations it would be necessary to "bell" the cat (that is, put a bell around the cat's neck, so the cat couldn't stage a surprise attack).

But who would bell the cat? There were no volunteers (we can't possibly guess why).

Given the present legislative situation there seems to be agreement that the funding situation for higher eduction is insufficient and getting worse.

But who will bell the cat? Who, George?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 20, 2012 | 6:09 p.m.

One more bite at the apple, George:

I've lived in Columbia for more than 20 years, and am used to seeing articles by university educators, active and retired, about how we need more funding for public higher education. I agree, but what I haven't seen, here or in other state news media, is any indication of serious outrage on the part of Missouri taxpayers as a whole.

Why IS that? Does anyone know? More importantly, has anyone tried to find out?

I will bet you that if an outcry should come from a broad range of Missouri taxpayers, somebody in Jefferson City will pay attention. In fact the two political parties will vie to be able to take credit that they did something.

(Report Comment)

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