The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 12, 2013

Kevin Wilson, guest columnist: Good intentions not always best

By Kevin Wilson
Special to The Globe

NEOSHO, Mo. — I’m sure anyone reading this column has heard of the term “unintended consequences.”

Usually that refers to something bad that comes out of something most people thought was a pretty good idea. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in a legislative body — at every level of government. I know some of you might find it hard to believe but even I have been guilty of proposing or voting for bills that have had unintended consequences.

Usually, the law or ordinance sounds good on the surface and the person proposing it has all the best intentions, but then somewhere down the line you realize that maybe you should have thought this thing out a little more.

Such is the case with a couple of proposals that are floating around the Missouri capital this year. I don’t know where they are in the priority list but in case they rise to the top I want to at least let you know my thoughts on them.

First off is the idea that we should reduce the number of legislators that serve in the state general assembly. Sounds good doesn’t it? At 163 members in the House, Missouri has an unusually high number of representatives when compared with most other states. I don’t know how they decided on that number. I have to admit that when I first got to Jefferson City I thought that we could get by with a smaller number. Surely it would make sense to reduce the number and save some money.

Here is where unintended consequences enter the picture and changed my mind. Some districts in the rural areas of the state already cover as many as six counties and huge geographic areas.

I know how hard it was to get to the events I needed to with just two counties and a district that stretched about 50 miles from one end to the other. I can only imagine what it’s like in northern Missouri.

The House of Representatives at both the federal and state levels are set up to be the “people’s body” because the districts are smaller and can be more responsive to constituent issues than the larger senatorial districts. It’s true that senators usually have more staff but most times people want to interact with their elected representatives and not a staff member. Reducing the number of representatives would mean that a lot of residents might not have that opportunity just because of the logistics of a much larger district.

The other unintended, or maybe intended (depending on who is proposing the reduction), consequence is the fact that reducing the number of representatives would swing more power to the urban areas of the state at the expense of the rural areas. Now, that’s not to say that the urban folks don’t have the best interests of the state at heart. But, the reality is that issues affecting urban areas and rural areas are not always the same. And, even common issues are not always viewed in the same way.

I am always for reducing government spending wherever possible, but while there would be some savings in reducing the number of legislators, I personally don’t think that the savings would be good for the state overall. I know that there are a whole lot of other areas that should be cut before we consider this proposal.

The other idea that is being floated is to reduce the number of days in a legislative session. Again, the thought is that money could be saved, and besides, there is a lot of wasted time in Jefferson City. That’s true on both accounts, but, again, I don’t think that the savings would outweigh the negatives.

I know that I hate wasting time. But, you have to understand that while some committees don’t have a lot to do, other committees are busy hearing bills constantly. My last year, I chaired two committees and we dealt with the huge issues of health insurance for autism and ethics in government. I didn’t have hardly a moment to breathe.

And, while some bills are pretty simple to decide, others require a lot of discussion and deliberation to get everything covered. Remember that this column is about unintended consequences, and if you reduce the number of days in session then you shorten the amount of time that is spent on working out the bugs in bills. My colleagues in Jefferson City, for the most part, wanted to know what was in a bill before they voted on it, and less time in session makes that harder to do.

So, there you have it — my take on a couple of well intentioned ideas that could have negative unintended consequences. Some of you probably have a different take on these issues but at least I hope that I have given you something to think about if you ever have to decide on these constitutional issues.

Kevin Wilson, a former state representative, lives in Neosho.