You’ve seen the television ad. Gov. Jay Nixon, touting his successes as he seeks re-election, ambles toward the camera and tells us that here in Missouri, “We’re doing things differently.”
Missouri’s different, all right, though I doubt the governor had these differences in mind:
- We’re different from the 46 states that provide more state support to local school districts.
- We’re different from the 43 states that provide more state funding for higher education.
- We’re different from all the other 49 states that levy higher cigarette taxes.
- We’re different from the 42 states that had higher economic growth last year.
You get the point. Gov. Nixon was bragging that Missouri politicians of both parties, under the benevolent leadership of himself, get along better than in other, more rancorous, environments. He and the Republican-controlled legislature balance the budget while cutting taxes, he said.
What the campaign ads don’t say, but the numbers reveal, is the price Missourians pay for this bipartisan race to the bottom.
The Missourian reprinted Wednesday an editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that quoted a report from the Missouri Budget Project, a nonpartisan think tank devoted to studying social welfare issues and related budgetary impacts. Most of the numbers I’m using come from that report. You can read it for yourself at mobudget.org.
The past decade has not been good for the state’s revenue or the institutions that depend on it. The immediate future doesn’t look much better. “Moreover,” the report points out, “once revenue is adjusted for inflation, the state will not achieve FY2008 levels of purchasing power until FY2029.”
One result of Missouri’s bipartisan penury is that the foundation formula funding public schools is now $336 million below the level required by law. Eighty percent of the state’s school districts have had to cut staffs. Being 47th in state support must look better in Jeff City than it does in the actual schools.
(Of course, here in the state’s education capital, the citizens have stepped in where the state has failed. We approved a 40-cent tax levy increase and a $50 million bond issue in April. The Columbia schools have rehired laid-off teachers.)
I’ve written before about the pressure on the university and the changes pressure has produced – more students paying higher tuition and taught by increasing numbers of part-time and nonregular faculty.
The Budget Project report also notes that state support for the four main scholarship funds intended to boost college enrollment has declined by $10 million since 2008. It’s no surprise then that in 2010, 64 percent of Missouri college graduates had student loan debt averaging $22,372. By comparison, in the brighter days of 2000, 55 percent of graduates carried debt averaging $13,792.
We don’t do any better on public health than on public education. About one in eight Missourians is uninsured. When they follow Mitt Romney’s advice and seek treatment in emergency rooms, the uncompensated costs came to nearly $600 million in 2006, the last year for which the Budget Project has figures.
Mental health gets even less help. The Budget Project quotes another study that estimates that 40 percent of serious mental health issues in Missouri go untreated, at an economic cost of $2.5 billion annually. You can guess who eventually pays.
As you know, there is one statewide revenue-generating measure on the November ballot. That’s the proposed increase in cigarette tax from the nation’s lowest 17 cents to 90 cents a pack. The take from that is estimated to be between $283 million and $423 million. Half would go to the public schools, 30 percent to higher education and 20 percent to programs aimed at stopping smoking.
Gov. Nixon has said that a tax increase isn’t the way to fund education, but he hasn’t come out for or against the ballot measure. His opponent, St. Louis businessman Dave Spence, is against any tax increase, any time, for any purpose.
I was joking a while back when I described us Missourians as poor, ignorant and proud of it. These figures and this campaign suggest that the joke’s on us.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.