The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


March 31, 2014

Phill Brooks, columnist: It’s time to tackle lingering Missouri issues

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — If you sense that Missouri government has become unable to resolve major state problems, take a look at the agenda facing your state lawmakers after they returned from their spring break.

It’s a laundry list of lingering problems that have plagued the state for years without resolution:

• Finding solutions for unaccredited urban schools.

• Fixing the state’s broken school-funding system.

• Addressing the ballooning loss of state revenue from tax credits to real estate developers.

• Revising the state’s antiquated criminal code.

• Imposing restrictions on special interest money in politics.

• Addressing the Transportation Department’s warning of insufficient funds to maintain state highways.

That list does not include other long-term problems that appear abandoned, such as septic-tank pollution at state beaches and municipal bond issue questions arising from the default of bonds floated by Moberly for a Chinese business adventure called Mamtek.

In my decades covering this place, I cannot recall a period when so many major problems have remained unresolved for so many years.

Part of the problem, clearly, is legislative term limits. Lawmakers are getting forced out of office or making their plans to move well before many of them have developed the understanding and skills to draft complicated legislation and then navigate it through the process.

Some legislators say Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration has not helped ease these term-limit problems. They complain that agency experts in Nixon’s administration refuse to communicate openly and work with legislators in addressing the state’s problems.

Further, unlike many prior governors, Nixon avoids presenting specific proposals. Instead, Nixon talks about broad ideas, leaving it up to the Legislature to draft specific solutions.

While legislative bodies are adept at refining proposals, I have found that they are not well suited for initiating broad packages on complicated issues involving competing outside forces.

In Nixon’s defense, while he was successful in winning legislative approval for the Boeing tax cut package last fall, the other few times he has tried to work with legislators on specific plans have led to embarrassing failures.

Legislative leaders could not deliver the votes for the China hub package worked out with the governor a few years ago.

And this year, that compromise plan on tax cuts hit a brick wall of Senate opposition amid charges the governor could not be trusted to stick to the deal.

I need to end this column with an apology to the Senate’s president pro tem, Tom Dempsey. My last column focused on the useless bills that get filed by legislators.

As an example, I cited the last bill filed in the Senate by Dempsey who declared he hoped to do nothing with the bill. It implied a criticism of Dempsey that I did not intend.

Dempsey’s bill dealt with the thorny issue of resolving urban school problems for which the Senate already had passed a plan. The St. Charles Republican told me his motive for filing a duplicate bill was to assure a legislative vehicle remained in case that initial Senate plan got derailed.

As Dempsey kindly reminded me, keeping options open is one of the various reasons for the filing of seemingly dead-end bills.

The problems facing metro-area schools are of such magnitude that assuring there is a fallback plan to get something done this year hardly is frivolous.

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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