April 18, 2014

Capitol Watch: All’s fair in love and lobbying

Someone needs to tell lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas that their job is to promote the welfare of their state and its citizens, not to level every playing field that a lobbyist or contributor claims is tilted.
Fantasy veto pen

While the Kansas Legislature cools its heels, Gov. Sam Brownback’s staff is busy reviewing its work. Here are our top two candidates for a veto:

• House Bill 2506, the school financing legislation. It strips due process from teachers, takes money from at-risk students and creates a host of new problems without presenting any lasting solutions for the state’s chronic underfunding of schools.

• House Bill 2553, the so-called health care compact. It could potentially enable Kansas to opt out of all federal health care programs, including Medicare, and devise its own programs with block grant funding. Let’s just say that Kansas has its hands full right now and doesn’t exactly have a structure in place to run big, complex programs like health insurance for older people. Besides, isn’t the goal to have smaller state government?

Unfortunately, Brownback has already signed our third pick, an extortion-like attempt to tie funding for the state court system to a strike against the Supreme Court’s administrative authority. The bill adds badly needed court funding, but strips the Supreme Court of the authority to set budgets and appoint chief judges for district courts. It appears to undercut a 1972 constitutional amendment. And beyond that, funding for Kansas courts should never be tied to a political vendetta against the Supreme Court judges, which is certainly what this looks like.

Meet me in the lobby

Meanwhile, the Missouri General Assembly was busy passing bills that ought to be vetoed, most notably another imprudent income tax cut.

But the one measure that has the potential to fundamentally improve Missouri government appears to be stuck. That would be ethics reform.

The Senate temporarily set aside debate on a bill that would require legislators to reimburse lobbyists for most gifts and also set waiting periods before ex-lawmakers could register as lobbyists or work as paid political consultants.

Debate was snagged by an amendment from Democrats to also limit campaign contributions. Most Republicans don’t want that. In their view, the ability for St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield and other wealthy Missourians to drop six-figure sums into campaigns for issues and candidates is merely a version of free speech.

A House committee also steered clear of capping campaign contributions, but it did limit lobbyist gifts to $50 for any particular occasion and $750 in a three-month period.

Caleb Jones, a Republican from Columbia, addressed the idea of whether lawmakers should accept any gifts. “I think there is a very good philosophical argument that they shouldn’t, and I think a lot of the public believes they shouldn’t,” he said. “That being said, I don’t know if we could pass the bill outright banning them.”

At least Jones was being candid. Lawmakers do love their perks.

Unsavory tax break

Who knew Missouri bakeries and pizza parlors were an oppressed minority? They are, according to the Missouri House, which took action this week to correct the injustice.

Members voted to create a new sales tax exemption on the utilities used by food establishments. The bill’s sponsor, Craig Redmon, said it was brought to his attention — by a lobbyist, of course — that places like convenience stores, restaurants and even doughnut shops were being taxed doubly, on the utilities they pay and again on their sales. Other manufacturers enjoy a tax exemption on utilities used in the processing of products, Redmon pointed out.

There’s a big question about whether a tax credit meant to help manufacturers keep good-paying jobs in Missouri should extend to bakeries and fast-food joints. But almost no one asked it. The vote was 134-12, with little discussion.

Really, people should be shouting about this bill. The Department of Revenue estimates it could cost the state between $4 million and $20 million annually. That’s money Missouri desperately needs for schools and services.

Someone needs to tell lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas, which is considering a big tax break for health clubs, that their job is to promote the welfare of their state and its citizens, not to level every playing field that a lobbyist or contributor claims is tilted.

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