WHAT OTHERS SAY: Medicaid expansion, bond issue are key legislative priorities

Monday, January 7, 2013 | 11:33 a.m. CST

Four years ago, before the 2009 Missouri Legislature got to work, the state’s big three leaders stood together on the steps of the Supreme Court building and talked jobs.

There was Gov.-elect Jay Nixon, a Democrat preparing for his first term; incoming Speaker of the House Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican; and Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, the president pro tem of the Senate.

The three leaders said they shared a common goal of passing a jobs bill in their first term together. They promised to keep lines of communication open.

They did pass an economic development bill. But not that many jobs materialized.

Since those halcyon days of bipartisan cooperation, it’s been rare to see the governor and legislative leaders of the opposite party together, let alone reading from the same script.

As the 2013 legislative session opens on Wednesday, it’s time for that to change.

Mr. Nixon is in his second term. He’s got nothing to lose.

The new Senate president pro tem, Tom Dempsey of St. Charles, is a legislative veteran in the mold of Mr. Shields, a serious man who understands his job is to govern, not simply allow his august body to slither into the basement of political gamesmanship.

Whether new Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, knows what “serious governance” means is an open question. But we know this about the man: He’s ambitious, and if he wants to accomplish something meaningful for Missouri, he’ll follow the lead of the former speaker, Mr. Richard, who said before that 2009 session: “I’m happy to get along. The times warrant partnership.”

As before, the key area of agreement between Missouri’s leaders of different parties is that one word: jobs.

But passing a meaningful jobs bill will be more difficult than it was even four years ago.

Tax credits, the centerpiece of Missouri’s jobs strategy for decades, have rightfully lost their luster in both parties. They cost the state $629 million last year, to the great benefit of well-connected developers, lobbyists and lawyers. But new jobs continue to lag, and growth is stagnant at best.

All of that has starved Missouri of revenue needed to invest in its citizens and its infrastructure. Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to agree on the problem, if not the solution.

But in today’s political environment, the very idea of Democrats and Republicans working together seems almost anathema. A single photo op can trigger a primary attack, and the jobs lawmakers worry most about are their own.

But there are two very substantial economic development proposals on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session that already have at least some bipartisan support and would do more for the economy than any bill in recent memory.

The first is the Medicaid expansion proposal set forth in the Affordable Care Act. The second is a bond issue proposed by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, that would pay for a building and infrastructure boom in the state worth $1 billion or more.

Both proposals would create tremendous investment across the state, in cities and rural areas. Both are supported by both Democrats and Republicans and clear, indisputable economic data.

Mr. Nixon, Mr. Dempsey and Mr. Jones should work together to make sure both of these legitimate jobs bills are passed this year.

Passing the Medicaid expansion will be difficult. Too many Missouri Republicans have committed themselves to opposing “Obamacare” no matter the cost or its obvious benefits.

Here it will take the help of people in Mr. Shields’ former line of work — rural hospital administration — to close the deal. The expansion of Medicaid to cover adults who are barely above the federal poverty line is not only the morally right thing to do, it will lead to literally billions of dollars in investment, more than 90 percent from the federal government, in the state’s health care facilities.

Patients win. Doctors win. Hospitals (in cities and small towns) win. Those of us with insurance win by having to spend less of our money covering those without insurance. All Missouri has to do is say yes.

The bond issue, on the other hand, should be an easy lift. Missouri always has invested in its roads and state buildings by selling bonds, and the bonds from the last investment nearly three decades ago have been paid off. Interest rates are lower than they’ve ever been. This is an easy sell to Missourians who are taking advantage of low interest rates by refinancing their mortgages.

Money is cheap and the state has equity and the finest credit rating available. It’s time to invest in its future. The benefit of the bond issue proposal for skittish Republicans is that all they have to do is decide where to spend the money (universities? highways? both?) and put it on the ballot. The voters have the final say.

There will be a lot of noise over the five months of the legislative session and plenty of time for the two parties to take their jabs at each other. There will be lots of opportunity for lawmakers to set up whatever electoral advantage they think they have for 2014 or 2016.

But in these two legitimate economic development proposals, there is room for bipartisan agreement, rural-urban cooperation, and accomplishment of a scope the legislature hasn’t reached in years. These are the two big opportunities facing the Missouri legislature in 2013. It will take some strong political cooperation among Mr. Nixon, Mr. Dempsey and Mr. Jones to get both bills across the finish line.

It’s time to get to work.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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