JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
Missouri recently lost a man who had been one of the state’s tax leaders of decades past. Bob Van Ark died March 20 at age 83. Van Ark did not hold public office. He had never been a politician. Yet he and colleague Bob Knuth were among the most influential leaders in Missouri public policy on state tax issues for about three decades starting in the 1960s.
The two men were leaders of the Missouri Public Expenditure Survey, which was founded in 1940 as a private think tank on revenue issues.
The organization was business-financed and focused on business issues. However, it was quite different from traditional business lobbying associations.
Although they did lobby, Van Ark and Knuth spent much of their time gathering information and conducting detailed analyses about a variety of revenue issues, some ranging far beyond matters of immediate concern to business.
One of their major issues was problems with the tax assessment process. They spoke out about the conservation sales tax ballot issue, warning about the dangers of earmarked taxes.
I still recall Knuth’s impassioned arguments that an earmarked tax was bad fiscal policy because it prevented the Legislature from adjusting expenditures to address changing needs in the state’s budget.
That streak of independence in their studies earned them a tremendous level of respect from legislators of both parties. It also earned them the trust of reporters. They won us over because of the depth of information they collected, the sophistication of their studies and, most importantly, their avoidance of “spin” and their dedication to accuracy.
In research for this column, I was reminded of that commitment to accuracy when I discovered a 1972 Vernon County newspaper story about the organization’s continuing review of problems with the state’s property assessment system.
The Nevada Daily Mail had found a mistake in the Vernon County information. It was just one county in a statewide study, but when the newspaper contacted Knuth, he promptly offered an apology to the county residents.
Knuth and Van Ark were not the only outside financial experts who became information resources for the state. One was Ed Robb, a professor of accounting at the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri. He specialized in government financial issues.
His tax collection projections were treated as almost gospel by the legislature. For a while, his predictions had more credence among some legislators than the estimates of the state’s budget office.
Another influential revenue analyst was Jim Moody. He had been a state budget director and Office of Administration commissioner before becoming a lobbyist. While lobbying for business clients, he also wrote an insightful report about the lasting budget problems arising from the Hancock Amendment.
Moody continues to this day as a lobbyist. Robb, after retiring from the university, served in the Missouri House for four years; he died in 2011. Knuth retired to Florida.
The old Missouri Public Expenditure Survey was renamed the Taxpayers Research Institute of Missouri and then absorbed by the lobbying organization Associated Industries. The other organization, the Missouri Budget Project, has a definite pro-tax slant that is in direct contrast with the views of a Republican-dominated General Assembly.
Neither organization, however, enjoys the respect, influence and visibility of the Missouri Public Expenditure Survey.
I’ve often wondered these last couple of years how the benefit of the advice and insight of those two revenue wizards would have affected the state government’s current debate about cutting income taxes. I think the tax debate has suffered from their absence.
There is a need for clarity in the conflicting arguments as to whether tax cuts will grow the state’s economy, hurt state services or both.
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 Warren Hearnes.