The Missouri legislature is back in full swing, and bills of all sorts are making their way through committee hearings.
Every politician (and commentator) worth their own salt has a compulsion, and even an obligation, to chime in to support (or lambast) big new projects.
That might be an entertaining exercise, but we have some glaring problems in our state. Some tasks our state government is charged with but are obviously broken, leaving us Missourians worse off.
First is the condition of our state highway program — no surprise to any engaged citizen. The most obvious problem is our state fuel tax has been eroded by inflation the last 25 years. For several years, this was covered up by debt spending and drawing down reserve funds. The bottom then dropped out, which led to upheaval in the MoDOT bureaucracy.
The logical response might seem to readjust the fuel tax to 1990s levels and index it for inflation going forward, but there is no political will for that. Because of the Hancock Amendment any significant tax increase has to go before voters (not a bad thing), but many legislators feel even sending it to voters makes them seem in favor of big government tax increases.
Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, is sponsoring a very modest 2-cent increase that even sunsets. No telling if even this will get the votes.
The real long-term answers should include restoring the fuel tax some, instituting tolls on all interstate-type highways (particularly, if not only, for big semitrucks) and/or giving the lettered highways back to local road districts. Optional is looking at public-private partnerships to manage 21st-century highways.
However, all of these have interest groups ready to kill any such solution. Therefore, our highway program continues to be perhaps the most glaring example of government failure.
Another broken tax program is the internet-purchases loophole in our sales tax regime. This should have been addressed years ago, but the feds and states have piddled around for too long. Since even closing a tax loophole is seen as a tax increase, a bill to fix it includes a revenue-neutral provision where the income tax would be adjusted to counteract the taxpayer burden, as the Missourian reported last week.
Keep it simple — close the internet sales tax loophole this session and move on.
While politicians propose pet projects galore, a more pressing matter is that our state simply pay its existing expenses. However, the state prison system has not been reimbursing county jails for the full cost of holding state prisoners. The state has racked up a debt of $35 million, pinching county sheriff departments, causing some to lay off employees.
The Missouri Constitution lists as our state’s No. 1 appropriations priority as paying “interest on outstanding obligations of the state” (Article III, Section 36). Although I didn’t read about any interest payments or that the county jails even agreed to a loan, it should be urgent for our state to pay the principal due on its obligations.
The state needs to reimburse what it owes immediately, not just the $22 million the governor proposes this year. Have a solution for reliable future reimbursement payments by the end of this session.
The primary reason government was invented was for public safety. Law enforcement, balanced with the rights of the accused and the dignity of victims — those are values we all hold dear.
However, a shocking story came out in recent years that biological evidence submitted by victims of a suspected sexual assault via a “rape kit” were not being processed in a timely manner, if at all. The legislature responded some, but as a concerned citizen I am not convinced this is fully resolved.
While a proposal to subsidize feminine hygiene products gets promoted, we can be reminded of the shocking account that female inmates in our state prison system were not provided these necessities so had to scrounge around for homemade ones instead. Budgets might be tight, but there are surely a thousand things that could have been cut before this.
Meanwhile, it’s encouraging to read about some potential fixes in the works, like a bill to allow police officers to be able to live outside the city limits of the community they serve, or allow school buses and city buses to find efficiencies by sharing resources, or that the new medical marijuana program that is already being decried as too restrictive.
Before our legislature proposes to cut taxes, expand Medicare and/or approve a new style of personalized license plates, they should first focus their efforts on fixing the roads, fixing the internet-sales tax loophole, pay what is owed to county jails and otherwise attend to what is clearly broken.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on KOPN/89.5 FM.