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Columbia Missourian

GEORGE KENNEDY: It's hard to find optimism when politicians make poor choices

By George Kennedy
February 28, 2013 | 6:05 p.m. CST

It’s time, I’m afraid, to check in on the doings of our elected rulers in Jefferson City.

Fair warning: It’s not a pretty picture.

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You’ll recall that the legislative session began with several unusually glittering possibilities. Gov. Nixon presented a budget proposal that emphasized taking advantage of the new national health care law to expand coverage to 300,000 uninsured Missourians and use the new revenue — some directly from the feds and some freed up by shifting costs to Washington — to increase spending on education, higher and lower.

Then there were the proposals to take advantage of historically low interest rates and float big bond issues, one to fix Interstate 70 and our other crumbling roads, and another to tackle the backlog of building repairs and replacements at the university and elsewhere.

In a burst of enthusiasm a month ago, I suggested the possibility of a productive General Assembly. I guess I forgot who’s in charge.

Rep. Stephen Webber set me straight this week. “Some Republicans are so ideologically opposed to anything President Obama has touched that they’re willing to hurt our state,” he said.

Indeed. The Republican response to Medicaid expansion is a bill that would actually cut 44,000 children who are currently covered. The bill introduced this week is intended, according to its sponsor, to shift toward “market-based” health care. The problem with that, along with its absence of compassion, is that there is no free market in health care.

As Steven Brill has just demonstrated in Time magazine, the health care market is rigged in favor of the suppliers.

At least I wasn’t alone in being unduly optimistic. Chris Kelly, dean of Boone County’s legislative delegation, wrote in the latest Democratic newsletter, “If reason prevails, we will expand health care coverage in Missouri.” He quoted an anonymous Republican colleague as saying, “If facts matter, we will expand Medicaid.”

Facts? Reason? Ideology trumps them both.

It’s not only the poor and uninsured who’ll pay. As Chris pointed out, the cost to Boone County alone is likely to be $45 million – a $25 million loss from not participating and the $20 million in new revenue that we won’t be seeing. Also lost will be the budget boost the governor planned for the university.

A couple of weeks ago, when House Republicans rammed through a voter-suppression bill requiring photo identification that many elderly and minority citizens don’t have, Chris termed it “the single most immoral act I’ve ever seen in my time in the General Assembly.”

I’d submit that the refusal to expand Medicaid is in the running for that honor.

"But surely the bond issues are still likely," you say. It’s true that the bond issue for roads has won first-round approval in the House. And the bond for buildings has the House speaker as co-sponsor.

However, Stephen Webber reminded me that both will require Senate approval. Given the Senate rules that permit a handful of nay sayers to stymie legislation, and given the ideology-driven refusal of many Republicans to support anything that even looks like a tax increase, there’s no certainty that either bond issue will make it to the ballot this year.

Meanwhile, one of Stephen and Chris’s Republican colleagues has introduced a bill that would require that textbooks “covering any scientific theory of biological origin must devote equal treatment to evolution and intelligent design.” (That’s HB 291.)

Another would make it a crime for any legislator to introduce a gun control bill. That sponsor, Rep. Mike Leara, said he considers his bill a statement of principle. I hadn’t realized stupidity was a principle.

In fact, the gun toters’ reaction to even the mildest proposal for control has been so extreme that Chris wrote, “It would be best to do nothing with gun laws this session.”

No wonder that when I asked Stephen what it’s like to be in such a powerless minority, he replied, “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

So it is.

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.