- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jefferson City News-Tribune, Feb. 1

State pay raise conundrum:

A vote by Missouri senators to block pay raises for legislators and state elected officials prompts a number of questions, including a hypothetical one - where would the state get the money?

Much criticism of the proposal was comparative in nature. Mid-Missouri lawmakers complained about the proposal last year, shortly after it was released.

But, after Gov. Jay Nixon unveiled a $26 million budget that omitted any pay hikes for state workers, a number of legislators amplified their objections, raising the consensus expectation they invariably would block an increase for themselves to avoid appearing selfish, uncaring and unfair.

That expectation diminished Wednesday after two Democratic senators - Maria Chappelle-Nadal, University City, and Jason Holsman, Kansas City - filibustered in favor of the raises for officials and legislators.

The issue re-emerged in the Senate on Thursday and the pay hike eventually was blocked by a 31-3 vote. The tally followed House rejection on a 133-15 vote.

A two-thirds vote in each chamber before Feb. 1 is required to block any pay raises recommended for lawmakers and state elected officials.

The recommendations are submitted every two years by the Missouri Citizen’s Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials, established by a constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters in 1994.

Last year, the commission recommended an 11 percent increase for legislators and pay hikes ranging from 8-10 percent for six statewide elected officials.

The panel said: “. the elected officials of our state in the executive and legislative branches should now be given due compensation for their commitment to public service.”

We question whether, or if, the commission took into account the state’s financial picture or the lack of raises for rank-and-file employees.

Missouri taxpayers, particularly state employees, dodged a proverbial bullet last week.

Most legislators were compelled to reject the pay raise to avoid public criticism and scorn.

But if this episode provides a lesson, it is that a lone filibuster that stretches beyond the deadline may preclude an opt-out vote. The result is lawmakers would receive a pay raise without ever voting for one.

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St. Joseph News-Press, Feb. 1

Aqueduct not best solution for Kansas:

The idea of a 360-mile aqueduct to pump Missouri River water to western Kansas is so outlandish, it would be easy to dismiss. If only Kansas officials wouldn’t continue to resurrect it.

The Kansas Water Authority accepted a report on the aqueduct on Thursday. The study was an update on a proposal first floated in 1982. The fact that the project is still alive after more than 30 years is enough to put Northeast Kansans on edge.

For good reason. The plan calls for building a reservoir near White Cloud. More than a lake, it would cover 13,000 acres of Doniphan County - disrupting farmland and potential Indian burial sites.

That’s just the start. From there, a concrete channel would be constructed across the state to carry the water catty-corner across Kansas to the southwest. The cost in 1982 was $4.4 billion; that figures to about $10.3 billion today.

Other states aren’t willing to concede Kansas’ right to siphon off the Missouri River. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon even called it out in his State of the State address, describing the aqueduct as a “hare-brained idea” and stating plainly: “We can’t let that happen.”

We understand the urgency that has promoted Kansas officials to consider any and every suggestion. The Ogallala Aquifer is being dangerously depleted and western Kansas relies heavily on irrigation to survive.

Options are limited. While the reservoir system on the upper Missouri River has provided water to communities and provided flood control, the disastrous flood of 2011, however, does not inspire our confidence in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and makes us very wary of the aqueduct proposal.

Kansas lawmakers continue to evaluate a 50-year plan for managing the state’s water resources. Long-term sustainable solutions such as conservation, water reuse and drought-resistant crops are the primary focus.

These ideas aren’t as exciting as the aqueduct, but they are likely the only feasible way to manage water needs for the long term.

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The Kansas City Star, Jan. 29

Missouri should manage aircraft fleet more efficiently:

The state of Missouri owns 14 planes and five helicopters. It spends about $3.3 million a year to operate the fleet, and employs 16 pilots at an added annual cost of $1.5 million.

A new report by state auditor Tom Schweich makes a strong case for saving money by paring down the state’s fleet of aircraft and consolidating operations. Gov. Jay Nixon should follow up with an analysis of how that could work.

The passenger fleet was used at capacity only 10 percent of the time, or 51 business days in 2012 and 2013. Schweich’s audit sensibly proposes that better scheduling among the fleet’s primary users - Nixon’s office, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the state Department of Conservation - could enable the state to get by with fewer aircraft.

In addition, the state paid $183,638 for charter flights over the two-year period, ending Dec. 31, 2013, the report notes. Most of those flights were to transport members of the citizen commissions that oversee the departments of conservation and transportation. Often they flew on days when state-owned planes were available.

Those are important volunteer assignments and would be unattractive to busy people if they knew they’d have to spend hours on the road driving to meetings, as the audit suggests. But it makes sense to use state planes when available, and the highways for shorter distances.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 26

Missouri ethics bill gets silent treatment:

The first hearing on an ethics bill in the 2015 Missouri Legislature was telling more for what wasn’t said than what was.

Last Thursday, as lawmakers were rushing to get out of town, Sen. Ron Richard’s rules and ethics committee held a hearing on the Joplin Republican’s Senate Bill 11.

The bill is hardly a cure-all to the many areas of legislative ethics law that need fixing in Missouri - as Mr. Richard acknowledged - but it is a reasonable starting point for discussion. It says something that an ethics bill sponsored by the majority floor leader of the Senate received an early airing. It said that in one of the two Capitol chambers, at least, some people want to do something about Missouri’s weakest-in-the-nation ethics laws.

Among other things, the bill would establish a two-year waiting period before lawmakers could become lobbyists, similar to the federal law governing U.S. senators. The bill would require much more disclosure among lobbyists. For instance, it would limit the rampant practice of reporting meals bought for entire committees instead of the individual lawmakers who accepted them. It would stop the practice of allowing lobbyists to obscure their clients by claiming to be lobbying for another lobbying firm. And it would ban the practice of sitting lawmakers also working as political consultants at the same time, as former Speaker of the House Rod Jetton did.

Mr. Richard described his bill as a “small attempt” to make progress on the need for ethics reform in the Legislature. “When we get these things too heavy, it appears we can’t get anything passed,” he told his fellow senators as the hearing opened. Then this happened:

Not a single senator asked a question.

Nobody testified for the bill.

The only testimony came from lobbyist Mike Reid, who represents an association of lobbyists. Mr. Reid, a former director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, indicated that generally speaking, lobbyists have no issue with increased transparency measures.

Indeed, while they don’t like to discuss ethics matters publicly, for fear of running afoul of lawmakers, many lobbyists will tell you privately that they have no problem with changing the rules, as long as they are clear enough that everybody has to follow them.

But the fact that no lawmakers had questions, and only one lobbyist had anything to say about the bill, speaks volumes about why the best road to ethics reform probably doesn’t run through the Legislature. It will take a ballot initiative.

Lawmakers in a state that has no cap on lobbyists’ gifts, no cap on campaign donations and few other ethics rules that are common in other states don’t like to talk about it. They’re not comfortable talking about the lack of limits. They don’t like to talk about how they get around the few rules that actually exist.

Around the same time as Mr. Richard was discussing his bill, the chairman of the House utility committee scheduled a public meeting at the Jefferson City Country Club. This is common in the House. It is rare, if not unheard of, in the Senate.

This is the kind of meeting targeted by Mr. Richard’s bill, where lobbyists pay for a dinner for lawmakers under the auspices of doing the public’s business, and none of the individual members of the committee show up in ethics reports.

New Speaker of the House John Diehl, a Town and Country Republican, said last year on McGraw Milhaven’s KTRS radio show that he didn’t like the practice and would “put an end to it” as speaker.

But as of Monday, two House committees had scheduled country club hearings. Rep. Bart Korman, R-High Hill, has scheduled a telecommunications committee meeting Tuesday. Rep. Lyndall Fraker, R-Marshfield, will hold his utility committee meeting there on Wednesday.

No doubt, the vittles will be provided by the very corporations those committees regulate.

No members of either committee will have their names show up next to any steak dinners paid for by lobbyists as a result of these outside-the-Capitol hearings.

Citizens know instinctively that this arrangement stinks to high heaven. Lobbyists pay for the right to spend time with lawmakers before their bills are heard, away from the prying eyes and ears of the public, in locations chosen to discourage public participation in the bill-making process.

It’s why, if a constitutional amendment strengthening ethics laws makes it to the November 2016 ballot, it will pass overwhelmingly.

On Friday, after Mr. Fraker’s meeting was posted, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, called such meetings “unbelievable,” in a series of Twitter posts, noting that such arrangements would be illegal in Congress.

Ms. McCaskill has committed to getting an ethics proposal on the ballot.

An ethics hearing with no testimony and the country-club tastes of Missouri House members are just the latest evidence of how badly such an effort is needed.

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