By Phill Brooks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
During the past few weeks I’ve been wondering whether the phrase “the law of unintended consequences” will become a signature of the 2013 session of Missouri’s General Assembly.
The phrase is widely used phrase among public policy analysts to describe how a well-meaning initiative can have adverse consequences that had not been realized in the rush to implement it.
Some of the major issues before this year’s legislative session involve fixing the messes caused by laws passed years earlier.
For example, some half-dozen years ago, the Legislature put a cap on how much businesses could be assessed to fund a program that provides health care coverage for workers re-injured on the job. The consequence of that cap has been to effectively bankrupt the Second Injury Fund, leaving thousands of injured workers without coverage and the state facing a massive lawsuit.
So now lawmakers are trying to fix the mess.
They’re also trying to fix tax credits. While originally intended as relatively limited incentives for various benevolent activities, tax credits have ballooned to the point that they now cost the state more than half a billion dollars each year in lost revenue claimed by various developers and business interests.
It’s not just real estate developers who have benefited from the tax credits. Take the tax credit for adoptions. It was designed to assist families to adopt needy Missouri children. But the law was not restricted to Missouri adoptions. So for several years a number of Missouri parents have gotten thousands of dollars in tax credits for foreign adoptions that do nothing to address the needs of Missouri children without permanent families.
Fixing that was one of the first two bills sent to the governor for the 2013 legislative session.
Easing sentences for first-time, nonviolent offenders is a major issue in this year’s session. It comes in response to the costly growth in the state’s prison population, which was an unintended consequence of the anti-crime wave that swept through the Legislature years ago and led to longer mandatory sentences.
It’s been my experience watching this process over the decades that unintended consequences often arise when there is a rush to pass something without full debate and with too little time provided for legislative staff to examine the legislation.
That might be happening this year with the massive restructuring of the state’s tax system. The Missouri Senate passed the bill even though its own staff could not determine whether the tax cuts would cost the state $244 million or $431 million by the 2016 budget year.
The margin of uncertainty — nearly $200 million — is not pocket change.
It would not be the first time that a rush to cut taxes caused financial problems for future legislators. Gov. Mel Carnahan’s call to eliminate the sales tax on groceries in 1997 led to financial problems for the state that continue to this day.
A few people had warned that the high growth in tax collections, which prompted the tax cut, would not continue. But not many listened. How could lawmakers reject the idea of a tax cut offered by a Democratic governor? The tax cut won easy approval.
Just a few years later, a former state budget director, Jim Moody, warned that the state had cut its tax base so deeply as to be unable to assure ongoing support for the current level of services during lean economic years.
There is no better vindication of Moody’s prediction than the state’s failure to meet its own funding goals for reducing the vast disparity among school districts in per-student spending.
The state now is hundreds of millions of dollars below its goal for education. No fix to that mess has advanced in this year’s legislative session.
Legislative term limits play a role in all of this. Few legislators have enough years in the Statehouse to have seen firsthand the unintended consequences of seemingly simple proposals.
But then, the biggest unintended consequences I’ve seen in my time covering this place come from that Carnahan tax cut and limits on future tax increases. Those came well before voter adoption of legislative term limits.
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.