The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


September 17, 2012

Phill Brooks, guest columnist: Campaigns missing the mark

Nearly every election season, I am surprised at the disconnect between what politicians are debating versus the real issues that have been at the center of attention for government leaders.

Even issues that dominated the legislative session just a few months earlier usually appear forgotten when the campaign season begins.

Let me highlight the top issues in Missouri’s state government that likely will be at the forefront of attention for the next few years.

Education: The state’s formula for allocating state funds among Missouri’s public schools is broken.

The formula is based on an assumption that the legislature will appropriate a minimum amount of funds. But for the last couple of years, the state has not been able to meet that required amount. And so, the Education Department has had to create its own formula without any clear legal authority about dividing up the pie between rich and poor school districts.

Compounding the funding issue is the loss of accreditation for the school districts in Missouri’s two largest metropolitan cities.

Transportation: The state’s highway funding problems go back years. A few years ago, maintenance problems became so severe the Transportation Department borrowed a bundle of money for improvements. But in a remarkable show of candor, the Transportation Department director at the time, Pete Rahn, later acknowledged his department did not have enough money to maintain the repairs and improvements those bonds had funded.

One solution proposed by the Transportation Department is to convert much of Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City into a toll road. The department’s approach might not even require voter approval, just the legislature’s.

Should Missourians face tolls without voter approval? If not tolls, what should the state be doing to deal with the growing traffic on the interstates? I’ve not heard much debate on those issues this campaign season.

Criminal Sentencing: With little fanfare, at least so far, there’s been a quiet effort to lay the groundwork for a major reorganization of sentencing standards for Missouri criminals. The legislature created a joint committee on sentencing that has just announced an exhaustive set of hearings.

One proposal has been to lower sentences for first-time, non-violent offenders. Another has been to ease mandatory minimum sentences that are locking away increasing numbers of people with no hope of ever getting released.

One of the major goals is to cut the rising costs of Missouri’s prison system.

Health Care: Unless the new federal health care law is repealed, Missouri will face a couple of politically difficult questions. One will be whether to expand Medicaid to cover lower-income Missourians who will be required to purchase health insurance but may not be able to afford it.

The second question will be whether Missouri wants to create its own health insurance exchange. That’s a Web-based service for providing consumer-friendly information on health insurance plans. If the state does not operate an exchange, the federal government will impose its own on Missouri.

Tax Credits: Tax credits for real estate developers, business expansion, special interests and various other activities dominated both this year’s regular legislative session as well as the failed special session in 2011.

Remember debate on business tax breaks during the “China Hub” special session? I’ve not heard that term used in any of the campaigns.

The governor recently reappointed his commission on cutting back tax credits that cost the state well more than $600 million each year, but the issue has yet to catch on as a campaign issue.

Legislative Reform: Legislative term limits have had a debilitating effect on Missouri’s General Assembly. Yet, I’ve not read of any major candidate proposing a solution. Nor do I hear much discussion from the candidates on how to deal with the growing influence of well-financed special interests nor on how to bridge the widening partisan gap in both Missouri’s legislature and in Congress.

From my perspective, these are among some of the most important issues your government leaders will face in 2013, and beyond. Yet, I’m not very optimistic you’ll hear much from our candidates on these issues.

Is it because the nature of campaigns has changed? Is it because we reporters have changed how we cover campaigns? Is it because Missouri voters expect less from political campaigns? Is it because many of these issues are politically dangerous?

I’m not sure why. But, as a broadcast reporter, I must confess that I suspect a contributing factor is the growing importance of TV and video advertising in political campaigns. It is a format that more readily lends itself to pretty pictures of limited substance.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri Statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the Statehouse press corps. He is the Statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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