The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

February 10, 2014

Phill Brooks, columnist: State lacks radical ideas

— A recent suggestion raised during Senate debate on restructuring the higher education funding system made me realize how rare it is for Missouri government leaders to restructure the basic services of government to better fit modern times.

On a major level, a radical restructuring of state services has been accomplished only once in four decades. And interestingly, it included the issue raised in that Senate debate.

Senate Appropriations Chair Kurt Schaefer suggested that rather than a funding formula, it might be a better approach to restructure the entire higher education system.

The Columbia Republican argued that partial consolidation of the competing higher education institutions could save money by reduced administrative overhead, reduced duplication of programs and reduced competition among schools for state funds. I’ve not heard that kind of suggestion for a single, or two-tier, education system like California in decades. And it caused me to wonder why this kind of radical idea so often is unsuccessful.

Just four years ago, the Senate’s top leader launched a “Rebooting Government” initiative that involved an extensive review of how major state services could be restructured.

That vision of Sen. Charlie Shields accomplished little except for a lingering “Rebooting Government” page on the Senate’s website.

A few decades earlier, Missouri’s secretary of state endorsed a constitutional convention to restructure state government. Almost no attention was paid to James Kirkpatrick’s endorsement of the issue that is put on the ballot every 20 years.

Years later, House Speaker Catherine Hanaway suggested giving the governor’s administration budget authority to fundamentally restructure state programs. The idea of a GOP-controlled legislature giving that kind of power to a Democratic administration easily was scuttled by the Legislature.

These are but a few of the radical ideas that have died on the vine. It’s not as if our state is not facing questions that suggest the need for radical answers.

What about a highway system that transportation officials warn they no longer can afford?

What about the state’s failure to maintain an accredited education system for urban-area children?

What about finding a better approach for the state’s welfare system? After passage of President Bill Clinton’s welfare-to-work federal program, some Missouri legislators suggested merging the state’s unemployment and work force systems with welfare programs to put a greater focus on helping those on welfare move into productive jobs. Nothing happened on that idea.

What about consolidating the separate and somewhat competing departments of education and higher education? The Senate passed that idea in 2010, but it died in the House. Supporters argued the current structural separation made no sense in the modern educational environment with public schools offering college-level courses, the growth of vocational schools, community colleges and online programs.

As for the one time I saw a fundamental structural change in Missouri government, it was the complete reorganization of state government’s executive branch in the early 1970s. Hundreds of independent programs were consolidated into the department structure we have today.

It started under the administration of Gov. Warren Hearnes with creation of an outside, non-governmental commission to come up with recommendations. It was nicknamed the “Little Hoover Commission” because it had the same governmental reorganization objectives of President Harry Truman’s Hoover Commission.

The state commission’s report led to a constitutional amendment that was implemented by Hearnes’ successor, Kit Bond.

Now, however, term limits make that kind of long-term reorganization more difficult.

Just four years after the launch of “Rebooting Government,” Shields, along with more than one-half of his colleagues, has left the Senate.

Interestingly, one of the major Little Hoover Commission recommendations that failed was for the creation of a single governing board over all of the state’s colleges and universities. It was killed after intense lobbying by higher education institutions, particularly the University of Missouri.

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 MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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