$40 million for what?

Saturday, January 19, 2002

KENNETT, Mo. -- Missourians will spend some $40 million this year for a General Assembly that, at first glance, appears to be alive, kicking and even promising to remove some of the obstacles facing the citizens of our great state.

But, as has happened so often in past years, appearances can be deceiving.

The assumption of a problem-solving legislature has proved about as fallacious as a dime-store promise -- and twice as disappointing.

It's almost as if we have 197 men and women spending five months in our state capital who suddenly forget why they're there, despite a multitude of promises during campaigns to resolve Missouri's dilemmas quickly, quietly and without rancor.

But a funny thing happens when these good folks start to tackle one of several nagging challenges that have been thrust upon them by past neglect and indifference. Strangely enough, they start considering every item but the important ones. We soon find our elected representatives and senators quibbling over trifles, presumably carrying out their constitutional responsibilities by avoiding even serious discussions about what's troubling our state's citizens.

There's no way to measure this, but I suspect the top priority of a sizable majority of members this year will be the creation of a job opportunity for themselves, faced as they are with the prospect of being term-limited out of office with no place to go but back home.

There's considerable evidence that this scouting for new political venues is the first order of business for those House members who will become ineligible for another two years under the limited-term amendment.

And there will be more than passing thought given by members of the Senate as to whether they want to seek another job in the House of Representatives or whether they will be able to line up gubernatorial support for another position on the executive side of state government. The latter will probably be viewed as the preferable tactic, given the reluctance of godfathers to relinquish power.

Much of this maneuvering, planning and promoting is Mickey Mouse stuff and totally undeserving of the amount of publicity the press insists on giving it. Too many reporters seem fascinated with whether Rep. X is going to opt for a seat in the other chamber or if Sen. Y is going to be the next director of some bureau across the street.

At the risk of being irreverent, who cares except the politician facing walking papers?

Without putting too fine a line on it, Missourians really have only three or four issues they would like resolved, and the number hasn't changed for the past several years because the people's representatives haven't moved an inch toward their resolution.

So there won't be any misunderstanding about the legislative agenda for 2002, let me list them, not necessarily in their order of importance since they're all important and, more to the point, they're restraining the state's progress.

Although there's no doubt these unresolved issues will be mentioned at the start of the session, let's compile a list so no one is in the dark at the end of May:

Unresolved Issue No. 1: Continuation of existing services that have been found effective and helpful to everyday, ordinary citizens.

These household services include health-care programs, public assistance projects mandated by Washington and protection and maintenance of public-health safeguards. There is fat to be found in some of these budgets since past legislative vision has hardly been 20-20, as witness the addition of as many as 300 administrative workers in the mental health department. Some of these budgets can be trimmed -- if our lawmakers will only look for them.

Unresolved Issue No. 2: Missouri is spending record amounts for K-12 and higher education, a top priority that seems to have escaped many states, so there's no reason to think it hasn't gotten past our General Assembly. A huge amount is now being spent on non-academic projects that should be transferred to classrooms at every level. Let's make sure every education dollar spent goes for that purpose rather than extraneous bureaucratic exercises. Lawmakers might be surprised at the savings they can find which can be used for programs that count.

Unresolved Issue No. 3: Our highways are a mess, primarily because the state has agreed to take on maintenance and building chores of routes that properly fall under county and municipal jurisdictions. Missouri is spending an increasing amount of money on non-highway projects, from rapid transit to Amtrak stations, while its revenue is being depleted by transfers to other agencies. This isn't the way any state improves its transportation system, which in Missouri's case is a multibillion-dollar investment that has been allowed to deteriorate to almost unrecoverable depths.

Unresolved Issue No. 4: Instead of asking taxpayers to pick up shortfalls with new taxes, the state would be more responsible if it asked citizens to forgo tax refunds that serve to reduce state services and the ability to handle such temporary emergencies as the present recession. It should also closely examine the numbers and amounts of tax credits granted to firms that seek ways to defray capital costs. They're today's version of Ronald Reagan's welfare queens.

Unresolved Issue No. 5: Stop building athletic arenas for special-interest groups. This insanity closely resembles an obscene gesture to hard-working Missourians who should be at the top of state government's priority list, not the bottom.

Final note: Stop the incessant job hunting and do the work you were hired to do. Otherwise, pack your bags and head for home and let somebody else do the job you promised Missourians you would do.

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News and Editorial Service.

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