It has been about a month since the Missouri General Assembly adjourned its 2021 regular session. While we wait for the legislators to reconvene to finish the crucial work they’ve left undone, I’m inviting you to consider a few little-known facts about our legislature and then answer an important question.
(At least, I didn’t know these facts, and I try to pay attention. The friends I’ve asked haven’t been much better informed.)
• Did you know we have 197 legislators? That’s 163 representatives and 34 senators.
• Did you know we pay each of them $35,915 a year, plus $121 for every day they’re actually in session, plus a nice pension they can start drawing at age 55?
Not bad for a less-than-full-time job, wouldn’t you say?
This year we’ll wind up spending more than $7 million on our legislators, not to mention the salaries of the staffers who do the heavy lifting and all the associated costs of governance.
The important question, then, is this: Are we getting our money’s worth?
For me, the answer is clear: We’re not. Not even close.
Missouri is one of 22 states in which Republicans enjoy what’s known as a “government trifecta.” That means they hold majorities in both houses of the legislature as well as the governorship. So when Columbia’s own Caleb Rowden, majority leader in the Senate, claims credit for the session’s accomplishments, he also must be accepting responsibility.
His Republicans are responsible for maintaining Missouri’s ranking of 49th among the 50 states in the share of support of public education provided by the state. The local share ranks fourth. The Republicans did manage to pass a tax credit that will make it easier for parents with resources to move their kids to private schools.
University funding remains such that the main campus here in Columbia is combining departments, closing buildings and reducing faculty and staff. But legislation adopted means that all our universities will now be able to shift more of the costs to students and parents by imposing higher tuition.
To be fair, the Republican super-majority did finally agree to raise our lowest-in-the-nation gasoline tax to start paying for desperately needed road and bridge improvements. We’re also no longer the only state that doesn’t monitor prescription drug usage.
The GOP love affair with guns didn’t cool. A bill was passed that purports to punish any police department with the temerity to attempt enforcement of any federal gun control regulation that isn’t on the state’s books. That, of course, is almost certainly unconstitutional. Lawsuit to come.
Lawsuits have already been filed challenging the legislators’ failure to follow the will of their constituents expressed in last year’s referendum calling for expansion of Medicaid coverage — 90% federally funded — to cover another quarter of a million low-income Missourians. Never mind that the state’s fiscal condition is healthier than it has been for years, thanks largely to federal pandemic relief grants.
And that brings us back to the work left undone. There will have to be another session, with those $121 per diem payments, to pass a tax on medical providers that is necessary for continued federal Medicaid funding.
Past legislatures have handled that must-pass bill as a matter of routine. This year, however, two of Sen. Rowden’s colleagues have insisted on attaching unrelated anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood amendments. Just how that gets resolved remains to be seen. If it isn’t, and soon, Gov. Mike Parson promises budget cutbacks starting with education funding.
You can see, I hope, why Sen. Rowden is so proud of all he and his fellow Republicans have accomplished so far this year.
Looking at his website, I learned that before he went into politics and after he dropped out of MU, Sen. Rowden made his living as a writer and singer of Christian songs. He must have been good. The website says he performed in 45 states and sold thousands of records.
Too bad he didn’t stick with that.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes an occasional column for the Missourian.