The Washington commentariat regularly bemoans the failure of Congress to get much done. As Missouri’s 97th General Assembly is demonstrating in its closing hours, however, the public good is sometimes better served by inaction.
Consider what our legislators have perpetrated and what they haven’t, with one day to go in the session.
The signature achievement of the Republican majority, of course, is the income tax cut enacted over Governor Nixon’s veto (with the essential help of a renegade Democrat). It doesn’t look like much of a cut – only half a percentage point on incomes over $9,000. But coupled with the passage this week of a sales tax increase for roads, the net effect is a shift of the tax burden from a modestly progressive levy on incomes to a strongly regressive tax on necessities.
When (and if) the income tax cut is fully implemented, the best estimate is that it will reduce state revenues by something like $800 million. This in a state that is already among the lowest-taxed and lowest-served in the nation. And the higher your income, the greater your benefit. That was the intent, of course.
I submit that this was an action none of us needed and most of us will regret.
As for roads, nobody disputes the need for more funding. It’s just too bad that the majority chose not to require those who actually use the roads the most to pay for their upkeep. At least, the public will get a chance to vote on the sales tax.
A little earlier, disagreement among the Republicans prevented a couple of actions that would have been both stupid and futile. One was the effort that advanced to the hearing stage of impeaching the governor. His most egregious sin, it appeared, was to grant legally married same-sex couples the right to assert that status when paying Missouri taxes. Fortunately for the reputation of the state, the idea of impeachment turned out to be too preposterous for even the legislative leadership.
The other charge down a blind alley was the clearly unconstitutional effort to “nullify” federal gun regulations and penalize officers who seek to enforce them. As I write on Thursday, disagreement between nullifiers in the House and Senate appeared to have thwarted another triumph of ideology over history and common sense.
A rare deal between the ruling GOP and the ragged remnant of Democrats headed off two other ideology-driven proposals. One would have weakened further the already diminished ability of unions to improve pay and working conditions. The other would have imposed a requirement for photo ID for voting, a requirement that would have penalized disproportionately the elderly and Democratic-leaning minorities.
As part of the trade, Republicans were able to erect another impediment to women’s ability to control their own bodies. Barring a veto, we’ll be only the second state (South Dakota is the other) to impose a three-day waiting period for abortions with no exception for cases of rape or incest. Previous restrictions on freedom had already forced all but one abortion provider from the state and required a 24-hour wait, as do 25 other states.
Still, inaction isn’t always preferable. The greatest failure of this General Assembly, one that will damage both the economy of the state and the health of its citizens, was the refusal to accept millions of federal dollars and extend health insurance to thousands of the poorest and sickest Missourians.
The rationale offered was that the national government can’t be trusted to pick up its share of the cost. The real reason, I’m pretty sure, was the same ideology that drove the income tax cut. You might call it trickle-down democracy. Take care of the people at the top, and those at the bottom will somehow take care of themselves. Unfair? Inhumane? Never mind.
Never mind as well the fact that Missouri remains the only state with neither any limits on campaign contributions nor any restrictions on legislators as lobbyists.
Instead, let’s just heave a sigh of relief that the 97th General Assembly, bad as it was, could have been worse.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Missourian. He writes a weekly column.