- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Jefferson City News-Tribune, May 11

Bring fairness to municipal court fines:

Municipal court reform is more than a Ferguson issue; it is a fairness issue.

Missouri lawmakers approved and sent to the governor a bill that would limit the powers and revenues of municipal courts.

Concerns about municipal court abuses were prompted - or, more correctly, revived - by civil rights turmoil in Ferguson following the fatal shooting of an unarmed, black man by a white police officer.

The measure before the governor essentially builds on a 1995 law - known as the “Macks Creek” law, referencing a speed trap in the Lake of the Ozarks area community - that prevented Missouri municipalities from retaining more than 30 percent of total revenue from traffic fines. Any excess goes to the state.

The new proposal would lower the maximum revenue percentage from fines and fees to 20 percent for most cities. Among other provisions, fines for minor traffic violations would be capped at $300.

The state law includes restrictions specifically for St. Louis area cities, which has prompted claims of unequal treatment by officials there.

We understand the equity argument, although we must note a U.S. Department of Justice investigation identified abuse in those locations. Among them was the finding that, between 2012-14 in Ferguson, 93 percent of all arrests and 85 percent of all vehicle stops involved black people, who make up two-thirds of the population.

In addition, Ferguson’s percentage of revenue from municipal court is in the range of 10 times greater than Jefferson City’s 2.8 percent.

In a column in Sunday’s News Tribune, state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, called the measure “a sweeping municipal court reform bill to crack down on taxation by citation.”

That’s an apt description. Taxation by citation is unfair to all motorists, but is acutely detrimental to poor people.

Municipal courts exist to promote public safety by discouraging and punishing traffic offenders. They do not exist to pad local coffers by gouging residents.

Episodes in Ferguson and elsewhere indicate the time has come to transform conflict to cooperation between cities and residents, and between public servants and the people they serve.

We encourage Gov. Jay Nixon to sign this bill as a matter of fundamental fairness.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 11

Lawmakers should fix Missouri’s social services, not affix blame:

The Missouri Legislature, having systematically gutted the state’s Department of Social Services, now says it’s operating so poorly that there’s no way it should be given the extra responsibility of running an expanded Medicaid program.

The hypocrisy is staggering.

The Legislature will adjourn Friday. For the third straight year, it will have failed to extend Medicaid health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. This is costing the state about $1.5 billion a year in federal health care dollars, to say nothing of the jobs that money would pay for, never mind the well-being of adults in households earning up to 138 percent of poverty level - about $27,700 for a family of three.

Estimates from researchers at Harvard and the City University of New York are that 700 Missourians a year will have died prematurely because of the failure to expand Medicaid. If the Legislature fails to act again next year, the total number of premature deaths will reach 2,800. This is not quite as many as died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In the two previous years, legislative leaders have mostly blamed this failure on the first three syllables in “Obamacare.” This year there’s a new wrinkle: Blame the problems at the DSS.

“There doesn’t seem to be any progress or remedial action taken on fixing the problem we have in service,” House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, told the Post-Dispatch’s Jordan Shapiro. “Why would we add more (eligible people) if we can’t take care of the current ones?”

In a rational world, the proper response would be: Fix the problems. Then people who need help are taken care of. In Jefferson City, the response is to cut budgets, whack jobs, make things worse and then say, “Look how horrible things are.”

The social services department, which administers the Medicaid program, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other safety-net programs, is a mess. It’s been that way for decades. But rather than fix it, lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats alike - have treated it at best with benign neglect and at worse with outright hostility.

Poor people, you know. Welfare cheats.

Federal auditors last month reported that DSS had overbilled the federal government by $34 million and had failed to file for rebates from drug manufacturers.

Waiting times for certification for various programs have mounted, apparently causing some applicants to just give up. The feds say Missouri has overbilled for treating people with developmental disabilities and passed out $27 million in benefits to dead people.

Nearly all of these problems are paperwork issues, and the paperwork involved in social services is substantial. Somehow other states seem to manage it. Not Missouri.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has boasted about the number of state jobs he’s cut since taking office in 2009, bears a lot of the blame. As demand for services increased, the number of people charged with providing those services decreased by about 1,200.

Mr. Nixon “reorganized” the department, hiring outside contractors to run phone and data processing centers. Another outside contractor may be hired to verify the eligibility of applicants for programs.

Outsourcing would make sense if it made things run more smoothly. It hasn’t. However, outside contractors can make campaign contributions.

Consider Centene Corp. of Clayton, which employs 10 lobbyists and which last year donated more than $325,000 to Missouri politicians. Centene makes its money managing health care programs for 23 state governments.

In Missouri, Centene is among three firms providing managed care services for Medicaid patients in 53 counties and the city of St. Louis. Patients who want services have to see providers who have contracted with Centene or two other managed care companies.

Centene has long yearned to expand to the rest of the state, even in counties where there aren’t many health care providers and where doctors might be reluctant to accept the managed care companies’ terms. Rather than getting a lawmaker to sponsor a bill and have it vetted in a set of hearings, Centene persuaded state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, to slip the change into this year’s appropriations bill for the Department of Social Services. Mr. Nixon signed the bill last week. Mr. Schaefer is planning to run for attorney general next year, apparently on a help-the-rich, soak-the-poor platform.

It’s a sweet deal for Centene, but not quite so sweet as it might have been. A last-minute change required the managed care providers to pay doctors who aren’t members of their networks.

The managed care firms got 200,000 new customers. The state might save a few bucks, but DSS says managed care doesn’t work too well with Missouri Medicaid patients, and besides, the federal government pays most of the $1.2 billion that Missouri spends on Medicaid managed care.

Meanwhile, the budget bill cut social service programs 4 percent to 6 percent across the board and reduced spending by $40 million. Oh, and the bill eliminated 76 more social services jobs. That ought to improve things.


The Kansas City Star, May 8

Plan for new downtown Kansas City hotel looks promising:

Kansas City’s fast-reviving downtown is closer to notching a huge victory with the scheduled announcement on Monday that a new 800-room Hyatt hotel could open in 2018.

The long-sought proposal has two major points in its favor based on what’s known about it now.

It’s in an excellent location, and taxpayer-backed debt for the project is limited.

The hotel would sit just outside the downtown loop, between 16th Street and Interstate 670 to the north, and between Wyandotte Street and Baltimore Avenue. That would place the structure just across from Bartle Hall’s Grand Ballroom and just down the street from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It would be one block off the new streetcar line and a walkable distance from the Power & Light District, Sprint Center and plenty of businesses in the burgeoning Crossroads Arts District to the south.

Hotel patrons could walk out the door and minutes later be watching a performance in the magnificent Kauffman center. “We really want to push the arts connection of this hotel,” said Mike Burke, a lawyer and arts advocate who’s also a member of the firm working with out-of-town private investors to push the project forward.

“This is the right-sized hotel for this market,” said Ronnie Burt, Visit KC president and CEO. He said the hotel would help Kansas City retain conventions and attract larger ones in the future. “This is a game changer for us in Kansas City,” he said.

The financing for the project deserves plenty of attention. As sketched out by City Manager Troy Schulte, it’s more reasonable than other, long-rumored hotel deals that would have asked city taxpayers to guarantee much of the bonds issued to pay for the projects.

Schulte said the city’s only direct financing would be $2 million annually for 25 years. And the money to do that is available: The city in the next year will finish paying for debt used to upgrade Kemper Arena in the mid-1990s.

Schulte made the good point that city financing for the hotel would not reduce or divert money for other crucial public services such as better public safety and tearing down abandoned housing. The $2 million would come from convention and visitor taxes that have to be used for convention-oriented purposes.

The city would provide land, which Schulte estimated is worth $13 million, for the project.

Stumbling blocks also exist.

Promoters want to put the project on a tight timetable, allowing the current City Council to approve the deal before members leave office July 31. Before then, the project would need to get through a few oversight agencies. The hotel’s backers plan to ask for a 100 percent tax increment financing plan that would divert all future sales and earnings taxes from City Hall back into the project. The hotel also wants to put in place an extra 1-cent sales tax on the site.

And the hotel operator wants to be the exclusive provider of catering for the Bartle ballroom for 15 years, which could get push-back from current providers.

The public will deserve answers over how much private investment is being poured into the project - and from whom. Legitimate questions over how a new 800-room structure might affect other convention hotels in town could pop up, too.

Advocates, led by Mayor Sly James, must be prepared to answer these questions openly and with detail that will help the public determine if this is truly a good deal for the city’s future.


Joplin Globe, May 8

Water resources will be the battle of the future:

How did we get here?

How did we get to a place where the world’s most precious resource - fresh water - is treated with disdain? Our rivers and streams in Southwest Missouri, like the rest of the country, have become open sewers, overloaded with dangerous bacteria and heavy metals.

- Spring River and its tributaries are so loaded with bacteria that they are unsafe for bodily contact much of the time. In fact, more than 82 of the 136 miles of Spring River in Southwest Missouri are listed as impaired because of E. coli. More than 70 of 82 miles of the North Fork are impaired, as are 41 of the 80 miles of Shoal Creek.

- Other major tributaries in the Spring River watershed, including Center Creek and Turkey Creek, are impaired because of lead, zinc, cadmium and various chemicals.

- State departments of health have issued advisories warning at-risk populations, such as pregnant mothers, to limit their consumption of certain species of fish from some of the streams and rivers in the watershed. It makes you wonder if you should eat anything at all out of the rivers.

- There are more than 660 legal permits for authorized discharges in the watershed, including those for municipal, agrichemical and industrial sites.

So we can’t fish our rivers, swim in them or even wade them.

Good thing we don’t drink from them.

Oh, that’s right. We do.

There are more than 100 drinking water systems in the Spring River watershed, and while most of these are groundwater systems, other communities - Joplin included - rely largely on surface water. And you can bet that that surface contamination is filtering through the rocks and into the groundwater.

We’re not the only ones depending on clean water, either. Our rivers and streams are home to numerous threatened and endangered species. The Neosho mucket, a freshwater mussel, has been eliminated from much of its range, for example. There is only one place left in the world where it is reproducing at a rate that can sustain the population - in the Spring River north of Joplin.

But talk to some folks about the importance of eliminating water pollution, of river conservation and endangered species and you risk being branded a wild-eyed environmentalist.

A plan outlining voluntary measures to improve water quality throughout the Spring River watershed should soon be complete, but the operative word here is “voluntary.” We hope it’s enough. It may not be. For too long, too many people have treated water with casual indifference, a resource to be traded away today to subsidize our cost of doing business in the region and to subsidize our way of life. Let the river bear away our sins. How willing we will be to take steps now - voluntarily - remains to be seen.

There’s little doubt that water will be the resource fight of the 21st century. Before it’s done, it could make the world’s political, legal and actual fighting over oil look like kindergarten scuffles. We are about to find out, if we don’t know it already, that water may be the most precious, the most valuable thing we have. Let’s hope we don’t have to learn it the hard way.

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