Missouri’s 2016 session of the General Assembly began this week with promises and optimism.
Citizens will see a “historic” level of cooperation between the House and Senate, leaders said. Badly needed ethics reforms are going to get done. Money for transportation improvements will be a high priority. It’s a new day.
Let’s hope so. Last year’s session ended in scandal and disgrace, with the state’s major needs largely ignored.
Indeed, the two new chamber leaders, House Speaker Todd Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, seem eager to get to work.
Richardson already has referred a passel of ethics bills to a committee. Smartly, he wants major reforms considered in separate bills, instead of being grouped together and lessening the prospects for passage.
But with the session just days old, the familiar nonsense already has begun.
Rep. Bart Korman, a Republican from Montgomery County, introduced a bill that would require lobbyists who have sex with a lawmaker or a lawmaker’s staffer to disclose the activity to the Missouri Ethics Commission. His bill defines sexual relations as a “gift,” like a free dinner or tickets to a ball game.
Ridiculous proposals like these pop up too frequently in bill filings, making the legislature the object of ridicule on the Internet and on TV comedy hours.
And the feel-good speeches had barely ended before Richard and other senators resolved to banish reporters from the press table on the Senate floor, apparently for tweeting overheard conversations among senators.
Kansas City officials are regarding the session with trepidation. Four bills have been filed to do away with the earnings tax in the city and St. Louis.
The move would deprive Kansas City of a decades-old revenue source that is expected this fiscal year to provide almost 40 percent of the city’s general fund. It was initiated by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia who is campaigning for the GOP nomination for attorney general.
Schaefer’s bill fits with the agenda of his largest donor, St. Louis investment banker Rex Sinquefield. Schaefer’s campaign has benefited from $750,000 in contributions from Sinquefield, who has long opposed the earnings taxes of Missouri’s two largest cities.
In the House, bills to eliminate the earnings tax have been filed by Keith English, an independent from Florissant, as well as Republicans Kirk Mathews of southwest St. Louis County and Shamed Dogan of St. Louis.
The bills are an insult to Kansas City voters, who will go to the polls in April to decide whether to renew the earnings tax here. The bills filed by Schaefer and the House members expose state lawmakers who are trying to aggressively usurp local control from Missouri communities.
A more positive measure deserves speedy passage this year.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Solon, a Blue Springs Republican, would give Kansas City better tools to track down and require compliance from out-of-town landlords who blight neighborhoods with decrepit properties.
Many of these people flagrantly ignore a 2001 law requiring limited liability corporations to file an affidavit listing the name of at least one person responsible for property purchased in Kansas City. Solon’s bill would enable a circuit court to order the affidavit, making it easier for city officials to locate bad landlords and demand compliance with codes.
The measure easily passed the House last year but fell victim to end-of-session Senate gridlock.
Like all of Missouri, Kansas City would benefit greatly if lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon would muster the political courage to find a revenue source for the state’s shrinking highway fund. Many lawmakers see a day coming when the state will have to take money from the general fund to pay for essential road maintenance, leaving even less for education, health care and services to help families become more self-sufficient.
The most operative plan is a 2-cent gas tax increase, which could be enacted without a public vote. But even that might be too much in an election year.
Much more probable, unfortunately, are attempts to harass legal abortion providers and bully the state’s public universities. Bills to those effects would guarantee another poisonous session.
A serious discussion on ethics reform must include limits on lobbyist gifts, a prohibition on lawmakers leaving public office and promptly becoming lobbyists, and a ban on lawmakers and staffers from acting as political consultants.
But those are the easy fixes. Missouri also needs legislation requiring disclosure of the people who give large amounts of money to entities that masquerade as nonprofits but which exist solely to influence elections.
The state also must cap campaign contributions. The ability of candidates to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from operatives like Sinquefield has distorted the legislature’s priorities and given rise to destructive measures like the attack on the earnings tax.
Without structural campaign finance and ethics reforms, any new day in Missouri is going to look a lot like the old day. And that would be grim.