Amid a steady drip of news about oversized campaign contributions, lobbyist influence and agendas drafted for special interests, many Missourians have stopped believing the GOP-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon can work together for the good of the state.
But the public deserves better. And legislators should demand more of themselves.
The Missouri General Assembly, which begins its 2015 session on Wednesday, could gain a measure of respect with an honest attempt to fix a few big problems. Here are three achievements that would make a huge difference.
Cleaning up the Capitol’s money-grubbing culture would be the legislature’s most significant achievement. But the people best positioned to lessen the influence of money are the ones who depend on it the most.
Republican John Diehl, the new House speaker, has been a prolific fundraiser, scoring millions of dollars for GOP candidates as a way to consolidate power for himself. Other legislators from both parties already have declared their intentions to run for statewide office in 2016 and are in the hunt for large campaign contributions, which are uncapped by Missouri law.
Likewise, the lawmakers who would have to limit lobbyist gifts are the same ones who enjoy those free meals and trips, tickets to sporting events and other perks.
Though some lawmakers have filed ethics-related bills, few of those would really stem the flood of special interest money into politics. Serious reforms would limit campaign donations and lobbyist gifts, prohibit lawmakers from moving directly into lobbying jobs and ban legislators and staffers from working as campaign consultants.
If the legislature can’t get those things done, reformers should shift to a citizens’ ballot initiative.
Tax credit reform
The legislature wrapped up its 2014 session by doling out tax credits, heedless of the damage those favors to special interests would inflict on the budget.
The favors highlighted how undisciplined the legislature has become about tax credits. The state forfeits well over half a billion dollars a year through more than 60 tax-credit programs.
Missouri needs a revamped strategy for tax credits. Some programs should be capped or done away with to make room for newer, more productive incentives. A 2010 commission studied the issue and made useful recommendations, but the legislature hasn’t mustered the political will to act on them.
It is hypocritical and unseemly for a legislature whose members regularly begrudge aid to low-income Missourians to dole out corporate welfare so haphazardly.
A great goal for the session would be a tax-credit program that is smaller and smarter.
The word from the Capitol is that expanding Medicaid eligibility is a nonstarter. Legislative leaders aren’t interested, and a contingent of senators would block any bill that tries to make health care accessible to poor Missourians. No sense even talking about it.
Nonsense. About 200,000 citizens either earn too much to qualify for the state’s stingy Medicaid limits or too little to receive assistance through the federal health insurance exchange. The state is forfeiting millions of federal dollars by not expanding Medicaid eligibility.
The resistance comes from conservative Republicans who despise everything about President Barack Obama’s health care law. They use the excuse that “Medicaid is a broken system.”
Well, if that’s the case, reform it. Some serious proposals have been proposed to demand more accountability from recipients while expanding eligibility.
Legislators should talk about those ideas — every chance they get.