- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Columbia Daily Tribune, May 17

Legislative revelations:

We always learn a good deal about accomplishments - or not - in the final days and hours of each year’s legislative session. With no more time to waste posturing and postponing, a number of bills reach final disposition as the owl begins to hoot at midnight.

Of course, there is no owl in the Capitol, and midnight came at 6 p.m. Friday, but in the late innings several decisions became clear.

Abortion. It was obvious all along that lawmakers would pass an onerous additional restriction on the constitutional right of women to choose abortion. And so they did, increasing the waiting time from 24 to 72 hours after a woman sees her doctor before the procedure can be performed. Conservatives contend they are protecting the rights of the unborn, but in fact they continue to go as far as possible in the direction of de facto prohibition. This year’s bill contains other hurdles, in all a package of obstruction that might threaten the bill’s constitutional status and draw a veto from Gov. Jay Nixon. Supporters seem to have a veto-proof majority. At the end of the day, Missouri is likely to become one of only three states with a 72-hour waiting period, putting us in rare and disappointing company.

The bill declares “life begins at conception” and that abortion will terminate “the life of a unique living human being.” These are controversial statements better suited for philosophical rather than legal context. Millions of people believe in the concepts expressed in this bill, and millions do not. Better for believers to preach at individual women than officially mandate what action they should take. Is this latest hurdle in the way of abortion choice too high to meet constitutional standards?

Transportation sales tax. It was a hard decision, but lawmakers finally did the right thing in deciding to ask voters to approve a statewide three-quarter-cent sales tax for transportation expected to produce some $540 million each year, with 10 percent remitted to city and county governments.

The need is desperate, but the fix was not obvious. Traditional motor fuel taxes have run out of gas, so to speak, as increasing efficiency and conservation restrict revenue production. Raising the state’s 17-cent-per-gallon tax is a losing proposition. The sales tax is the only alternative. It produces the most revenue, including quite a bit from visitors using the state’s roads and bridges.

But city leaders have reason to worry as overall sales tax rates keep rising. Sales taxes are the primary revenue source for cities, and local leaders wonder when taxpayers will say “enough.”

Medicaid. As expected, Medicaid expansion failed. The coup de grace was delivered by a GOP filibuster. Full health care coverage for low-income people will come sooner or later as part of comprehensive reform, but not yet in the reddest states, like our own.

___

The Kansas City Star, May 17

Missouri session ends high on the hog, low on progress:

Behind the curtain: The just-completed 2014 session of the Missouri General Assembly brought into sharp focus the undue influence that wealthy donors and outside groups bring to bear on lawmaking.

Consider the controversial income tax cut, which was passed despite a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and once fully phased in will cost Missouri at least $600 million a year.

It’s a baby step toward the income-tax-free state envisioned by Rex Sinquefield, the multimillionaire and prolific campaign donor from St. Louis. Also, income tax cuts are a priority for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group which seeks to influence state legislatures.

Another example is the session-long struggle to fix Missouri’s problematic law allowing students to transfer out of unaccredited school districts at a burdensome cost to the sending district. A powerful lobbying team in Missouri, generously funded by Sinquefield, insisted that any remedy include an option for students to transfer to private schools at taxpayer expense.

And that’s what happened. A bill passed Thursday opens the door to vouchers in Jackson County and other areas, while doing little to help struggling school districts and students. Essentially, it is more about meeting Sinquefield’s “school choice” agenda than strengthening public schools.

Missed opportunities: Despite more talk of ethics reform, Missouri remains the only state to allow both unlimited campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts.

As the session neared its close, lawmakers unabashedly feasted on three 200-pound hogs, carved up and served just outside of the Senate chamber, courtesy of livestock producer Murphy Brown LLC of Princeton, Mo. Its parent company, Smithfield Foods, became part of a Chinese conglomerate thanks to a law passed last session allowing foreign ownership of Missouri farmland.

While eager to accept pork, cooked and otherwise, lawmakers turned a cold shoulder on 300,000 low-income adults who would gain medical and financial security through an expansion of Medicaid, as called for in the Affordable Care Act. The callous disregard of these people, most pronounced in the Senate, is a stain on Missouri.

The good news: Bipartisanship may be on life support, but it still has a pulse. Two lawyers, Democratic Sen. Jolie Justus of Kansas City and Republican Rep. Stanley Cox of Sedalia, collaborated on a massive overhaul of Missouri’s criminal code. In the works for years, the revision should result in a more fair and efficient system of defining crimes and meting out punishment.

Other positive actions include a law sponsored by Rep. Sheila Solon of Blue Springs and Sen. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City, North, to make oral chemotherapy drugs more affordable for patients; and a measure making felons convicted of drug crimes eligible for food stamps.

In the category of disasters avoided, Democrats managed to block the passage of a law requiring voters to produce a government-issued photo ID. Two union-busting efforts - favored causes of the American Legislative Exchange Council - came to naught. And disarray among Republicans holstered a foolish effort to nullify federal gun laws.

And the bad: But Democrats had to accept passage of a vile anti-abortion bill, requiring women to wait three days between seeing a doctor and obtaining the procedure.

And they were unable to stop Republicans from placing a sham early voting law on the ballot, in a blatant attempt to sabotage a citizens’ initiative calling for a generous early voting period.

Another ballot issue that will be debated extensively is a proposal to raise the state sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to pay for road and transit improvements. Missouri’s roads certainly need work, but helping the wealthy with income tax cuts while simultaneously asking for a regressive sales tax increase is terrible tax policy.

The 2014 legislative session will resonate in Missouri for years to come. It featured some big bills. And, unfortunately, too many bad ones.

___

Washington Missourian, May 17

Rising electric rates:

The price you pay for electricity is going to increase. At least that’s if Ameren Missouri has anything to say about it.

The utility announced it will seek another rate hike this July. That is in addition to a request it has already filed with the Public Service Commission for a monthly fuel adjustment surcharge increase of 66 cents.

It hasn’t disclosed the exact amount of the rate increase yet but company officials are making the case for more revenue in a more aggressive public relations campaign then we’ve seen in a while.

Ameren lobbyists and PR specialists are reaching out to media outlets, Chambers of Commerce, and service clubs across Missouri to explain why they need more revenue. They are pressing the flesh and telling their story to anyone who will give them an audience. The once quiet utility is now speaking louder.

It’s not an easy sell. Who wants to pay higher utility bills?

Plus, if granted, it would mark the sixth time Ameren was allowed a rate hike since 2007. The most recent was a $263 million rate increase that the PSC approved in December of 2012 that went into effect in January of last year. Since 2007, the utility’s rates have risen by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Moreover, the effort to seek yet another rate hike comes after Ameren posted profits of $47 million in the first quarter of this year compared to first quarter earnings of $40 million in 2013.

If profits are surging, why the need for more money?

Ameren officials say they need more revenue to reinvest in an aging power infrastructure that is outdated and increasingly inefficient. They need a modern power grid if they are going to remain compliant with EPA regulations.

In the past, they point out, our state’s growth rate provided the incremental revenue necessary to keep up with upgrades to the power infrastructure. That growth isn’t there anymore.

Ameren officials compare it to the problem with our state’s transportation infrastructure. You can only wait so long before roads and bridges have to be replaced. They say they have a tougher argument when it comes to upgrades to the power grid because it is largely unseen to the general public. It may be out of sight, for the public, but it is a different ballgame when you are the entity responsible for keeping the lights on.

Ameren executives said they spent $600 million last year on upgrading its infrastructure but it’s not enough. According to officials, $27.7 million has been spent on improvement projects in the greater Franklin County area from 2011 through this year.

They have invested heavily to improve reliability of the local electric grid while cutting power plant pollution. Officials say they have cut corporate expenses and are aggressively trimming costs wherever they can.

But they argue there is another $1 billion that needs to be invested in its transmission and distribution infrastructure across the state which is not reflected in current rates. Like our state’s transportation infrastructure problem, the problem is substantial and cannot be fully resolved with existing revenue streams.

They also point out that its first quarter profits are a result of the unusually harsh winter which drove higher electric and natural gas sales volumes.

Ameren officials acknowledge any time rates are raised it creates a hardship on consumers, especially on lower income consumers.

But they argue that even with the proposed increase, Ameren’s rates would be 24 percent below the national average and cheapest among investor-owned utilities in the state.

That’s a persuasive argument for any company to make even if we don’t care to hear it.

Our guess is that our electric rates are headed higher.

___

St. Joseph News-Press, May 17

Inmate labor makes sense:

Sometimes the best ideas are old ones.

We admit to surprise that, until recently, local authorities were not taking advantage of inmate labor to improve the appearance of Buchanan County. We’re sure variations of this program have been tried in the past, and we wish the best for this new effort.

As much as we can see the public benefit of drawing on this captive labor force, this new county initiative only works if there is something in it for the prisoners. Thanks to a partnership of law enforcement and the courts, there is.

Sheriff Mike Strong, Judge Keith Marquart and Judge Ronald Taylor worked with Western District Commissioner Ron Hook in developing the program that rewards select nonviolent inmates serving time for lower-level offenses. There are several benefits:

- The inmates get exercise, fresh air outside the walls of the jail, and the chance to prove - to themselves and others - they are capable of making positive contributions to the community.

- They also can have their sentences reduced if they remain in good standing after 30 days in the program. And a shorter sentence gives them a chance to return to their families and their employment sooner than otherwise possible.

- The county benefits from finding a way to at least slightly reduce jail management costs and ease jail overcrowding. In addition, taxpayers find roadsides cleaner without an additional expense for the work.

A report from three weeks of the pilot program noted four inmates picked up 238 bags of litter, 34 bags of aluminum cans and 101 tires. Recycling cans and scrap metal raised enough money to pay for the expense of trash bags and other supplies.

As long as the safety of the public can be ensured, and supervision costs are reasonable, this is a pilot program that should be made permanent.

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