We can all agree, I hope, that Missouri faces a set of serious problems calling for legislative solution. Our highways are crumbling; our schools are underfunded and under-performing; our working poor lack basic health insurance.
So how did the Republican leadership open the second session of the 97th General Assembly on Wednesday? With a ginned-up demonstration in favor of union busting.
It may be a new year and a new session, but it’s the same old legislature. Last year at about this time, I gave way to a brief burst of optimism about the prospects for at least two of the most important issues, Medicaid expansion and a major bond issue to pay for critical repairs of highways and public buildings. We know how that turned out. This time I pledge, in a kind of belated New Year’s resolution, to maintain a realistic pessimism about the likelihood of anything worthwhile emerging from Jefferson City.
We won’t hear Gov. Jay Nixon’s State of the State speech until Jan. 21, but he has made clear that he wants to spend more money on education, higher and lower; tap into the lode of federal funds and good jobs that would come with Medicaid expansion; and do something about the deplorable level of ethics and the absence of any real rules on campaign donations.
Don’t bet on any of the three. It’s telling that the governor and the Republicans can’t even agree on how much money there will be to spend this year. It’s easier to justify not spending, of course, if you refuse to accept the state budget director’s revenue estimate.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will repeat that the most important opportunity House of Representatives Speaker Tim Jones and colleagues seem intent on missing is the extension of health care coverage to the 300,000 or so poor and near-poor Missourians who don’t have it. You might think that the prospect of good jobs and good health care, paid for with somebody else’s money, would appeal to conservative sensibility.
Wrong. Instead, we’re going to see another attempt, amply funded by Rex Sinquefield, to cut taxes for those who already benefit from some of the lowest tax rates in the country. Mr. Sinquefield also wants to weaken job protection for public school teachers, so we can expect that to make the Republican agenda.
That’s especially sad because it’s not as though there’s any shortage of good ideas. Our Boone County representatives have plenty.
The delegation’s senior member, Chris Kelly, says he’ll introduce a bill to expand Medicaid — knowing, I’m sure, that it’s doomed. He also will work toward a major bond issue to finance infrastructure upgrades throughout the state. Rep. Stephen Webber wants tax reform to generate revenue to address the $600 million shortfall in funding the K-12 foundation formula. Rep. John Wright wants to take the first steps toward extending early-childhood education to the neediest youngsters.
Caleb Rowden, who seems to be the more reasonable of the two Republicans in our House delegation, is proposing a modest ethics reform and promises to support Rep. Kelly’s bond issue.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who was elected as a moderate Republican but whose ambition for statewide office has led him rightward, offers a constitutional amendment that purports to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the defense of family. That might seem redundant, given the existing language that already protects weaponry used to defend oneself, one’s home or property. But in Missouri, there’s no such thing as too many gun rights.
Rep. Kelly is scheduled to speak to the Muleskinners Friday on “upcoming legislative session priorities.” I’ll probably go to listen despite the fact that it was his unwarranted optimism that misled me a year ago. Chris recognizes his inclination to be upbeat. He often quotes his wife to the effect that if he found a pile of horse manure under his Christmas tree, he’d go looking for the pony that must be nearby.
Maybe this year there will be a pony, but I’ll predict that we’re a lot more likely to be buried under the other stuff.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.