Usually, at this time of year, we can contemplate the end of the legislative session and console ourselves with the thought that, however disappointing it was, it could have been worse. This year, I’m not sure how it could have been.
The combination of opportunities missed, problems not addressed and unconstitutional pandering is a trifecta of disaster for a state that’s already burdened with underfunded education, crumbling infrastructure and inadequate social services.
The right-wing ideologists who control both houses of the legislature have served the interests of Rex Sinquefield and the gun lobby while spurning the needs of most of their constituents. As I write on Thursday, they have 24 hours to do further damage.
The single biggest and most painful failure was the Republicans’ refusal even to seriously consider the Medicaid expansion that would have provided medical insurance to a quarter-million low-income Missouri residents, strengthened rural hospitals and added thousands of good jobs.
This refusal came despite the almost unprecedented broad base of support for the expansion that brought together unions and the Chamber of Commerce, health care providers and recipients, insurers and insured. The rationale offered, that we shouldn’t accept 100 percent federal funding for two years because we can’t trust our government to keep its promises beyond that, was specious. The real reason, clearly enough, was the right wing’s visceral opposition to anything emerging from the Obama administration.
Our Sen. Kurt Schaefer, whose hospital-heavy constituency stood to benefit more than most, was among the more vocal opponents.
While ideology explains that missed opportunity, incompetence seems the most plausible explanation for another. That was the idea, long supported by Rep. Chris Kelly and adopted by the Republican speaker of the House, to take advantage of historically low interest rates by selling $1 billion in bonds to pay for construction of badly needed public buildings and repairs of other facilities, including state parks.
The House passed a bill to put the question to a vote of the people, but the Senate was apparently so busy with legislation purporting to nullify federal laws and protecting the ability of factory farms and puppy mills to mistreat animals free of outside interference that its leaders couldn’t find time to consider it. Maybe next year, the majority leader said.
No wonder Chris had a heart attack.
There was time and motivation for both houses to pass and send to Gov. Jay Nixon a bill cutting personal and corporate income taxes. This has been a goal of St. Louis billionaire and generous Republican contributor Rex Sinquefield, who famously celebrated a similar action to our west by declaring that a Kansas-like economic tsunamiwould sweep across the Midwest. Perhaps Mr. Sinquefield and his acolytes in Jefferson City have failed to notice that a national credit rating agency has lowered the Kansas rating because the state now seems unable to meet its obligations.
The legislators’ own researchers estimate that the tax cuts would reduce state revenue by $692 million a year. The nonpartisan Missouri Budget Project puts the eventual cost at $817 million annually. This in a state that at current tax rates can’t fully fund the foundation formula for K-12 education and ranks near the bottom in its support of higher education.
Pure cynicism motivated the passage in both houses of the elimination of a small tax credit for low-income renters, with much of the money redirected to a program for handicapped children. As the Post-Dispatch reported, “Legislative leaders admitted the budget maneuvering was meant to keep Nixon from vetoing the tax credit repeal….”
He vetoed it anyway, explaining that he had been willing to accept the move only in the context of broad reform of the total tax credit program, which now costs the state hundreds of millions every year.
Those of us who aren’t Rex Sinquefield, or factory farmers, or Second Amendment absolutists can only hope that his first veto of the season won’t be his last.
I’ve never been Jay Nixon’s biggest fan. He strikes me as a big man who doesn’t have big ideas. He does have, however, the demonstrated ability to say No. This year, with this legislature, that’s some comfort.
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.