- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Kansas City Star, Aug. 4

Golf, Chiefs tickets, meals - how lobbyists woo Missouri lawmakers

Lobbyists spent almost $350,000 during the first six months of the year buying gifts for members of the Missouri General Assembly and their staffs.

Voters who want government free of improper influence should look at the gift list.

Golf. Tickets to Chiefs, Royals and Cardinals games. And meals: breakfasts, lunches, dinners.



Lobbyists’ spending on gifts actually declined this year, according to an analysis of the data by The Star. But that should be small comfort to voters who think lawmakers should make decisions on the merits, not over a fish sandwich with a lobbyist.

Concerned voters should pressure legislators to do next year what they failed to do this year: Prohibit lobbyists from buying any gifts for anyone who works in the General Assembly.

Many lawmakers have resisted that kind of ethics reform. They claim the gifts are so small as to be inconsequential, and since the gifts are disclosed, the chances for corruption are small.

Yet even small gifts buy lobbyists access that isn’t available to the ordinary citizen. Those small favors add up and increase public cynicism about influence-peddling in politics.

To its credit, the Missouri House passed a ban on most lobbyist gifts this year. But the bill repeatedly has died in the state Senate, where members have apparently grown accustomed to small favors from special interests.

Gifts to Kansas City-area senators include flowers, travel and lodging expenses, concert tickets and meals. No one can seriously argue those gifts and recreational outings are actually essential or even related to state business.

Gov. Eric Greitens isn’t blameless here. He proposed a ban on lobbyist gifts this year and made accusations of corruption a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.

Yet his own role in undisclosed dark money contributions to a political group gave state senators a ready-made excuse to duck ethics reform. Greitens can hardly call for an end to improper influence in the legislature while his friends take undisclosed checks to further his political career.

Perhaps the push for an ethics overhaul will accelerate next session - before lawmakers face voters. A gift ban should be part of a broader ethics reform effort that would also make it harder for lawmakers to turn into lobbyists when they leave office.

Ethics reform is hard. But it’s essential to the public’s confidence in state government.

We believe lawmakers should be paid more for what they do. They should also pay for their own fish sandwiches - and all of their expenses - instead of relying on special interests to do it for them.

____

The Joplin Globe, Aug. 3

Sex Trafficking: It happens in Joplin, too

Well before Christmas, several storefronts in Joplin, posing as legitimate massage therapy businesses, came under both our scrutiny and that of law enforcement.

Those businesses are now under investigation for possibly being part of a nationwide sex trafficking operation.

The way we found out about it was through a tip that directed us to Backpage.com, a classified advertising website. That’s where we found three former Joplin massage businesses had posted suggestive advertisements. Actually, they were more than just suggestive, but by themselves never proved any criminal activity. On Jan. 25, search warrants were issued in Joplin and law enforcement officials, including some from the FBI, participated in serving those warrants. No charges have been filed, and our continued follow-up calls have met with little information. Those businesses are now closed.

On Wednesday we learned that another Joplin business, no longer operating, was linked to massage businesses recently raided in Springfield.

Backpage is in the cross hairs of both Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and a bipartisan U.S. Senate subcommittee that includes Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., added his name to a group in introducing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers. The legislation would ensure that websites that are knowingly used to promote sex trafficking can be brought to justice.

This is an important step, but let’s not lose sight of the victims. In documents we received, investigating officers described the commonality of young girls from impoverished countries being brought to America to find work and a better life. They were promised jobs. But when they got here, they learned exactly what those jobs would be.

Sex slavery is not something that happens only somewhere else. It can happen here in Joplin. Law enforcement officials say that businesses operating under the guise of legitimacy are opening so quickly that it will in fact take new laws to fight the growing problem.

It will also take a community to report what it sees. After all, that’s what led to the investigation in Joplin.

____

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 5

Ferguson 3 years on. Moving forward in an era of tribal divisions

A scene from the Ferguson protests in August 2014. President Donald Trump has endorsed resuming a program of donating surplus military equipment to local police departments. (Post-Dispatch photo by J.B. Forbes)

In the three years since Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, perhaps the most significant date was last Nov. 8. Donald Trump was elected president, and Ferguson-inspired discussions about racial equity and abusive police practices took an abrupt turn.

Tribal divisions that manifested themselves after Aug. 9, 2014 - cops can do no wrong, cops can do no right - began to harden, and in some cases, became institutionalized.

The president himself on July 28 endorsed “rough” police tactics and the use of military equipment by police forces, two issues that inflamed the protests in Ferguson. “We have your backs 100 percent,” he told a law enforcement gathering on Long Island. “Not like the old days. Not like the old days.”

This is absurd. The percentage of Americans who told the Gallup organization that they had a great deal of respect for police officers rose 12 points in the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration. Numbers were up among whites and nonwhites alike.

Good cops know that black lives matter - and blue lives, too. They know the difference between a cop who shoots someone in a dangerous situation and a badly trained cop who panics. They know that streets can be policed effectively while protecting constitutional rights. This is not a zero-sum game.

At Ferguson Year 3, the national perspective matters. It matters more what happens closer to home. The St. Louis region and the state of Missouri have taken a few tentative steps to address the issues that erupted three years ago after being allowed to fester for decades. Other opportunities have been missed.

The Ferguson incident was, above all, a police shooting of an unarmed black man, with all the complications that entailed. But the second level was why Darren Wilson stopped Michael Brown for walking down the middle of the street in the first place.

Ferguson exposed the shameful collaboration between St. Louis County’s 81 municipal courts and its dozens of police departments. It wasn’t exactly a secret that small municipalities, no longer capable of funding basic services with tax dollars, were using ordinance violations to gin up operating revenue. This was a function of municipal fragmentation, St. Louis’ original sin.

Those targeted were most often minorities and poor people. It took Brown’s death, weeks of protests and national embarrassment to prompt change.

The Missouri Legislature responded admirably, passing Senate Bill 5 in 2015 to impose minimum standards on municipal courts and put a 20 percent cap on how much city revenue could be raised from court fines. In St. Louis County, the cap was set at 12.5 percent.

Twelve county municipalities protested that they were being unfairly singled out. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, leaving the cap at 20 percent statewide. The lost revenue caused two North County municipalities to merge and a handful of others to consolidate their police departments.

It was a start. The county’s municipal courts’ revenue dropped 53 percent in two years. Better police training standards helped. But the Supreme Court, bowing to pressure from traffic lawyers, refused to consolidate the municipal courts into a countywide system administered by full-time judges. A single system of justice should still be the goal.

The largest burden of change fell on Ferguson itself. The city of 21,000 is operating under a federal consent decree as are larger cities like Seattle, Cleveland and New Orleans, only with far fewer resources to meet Justice Department demands. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has talked about rolling back these consent decrees, sending exactly the wrong message to cities like Ferguson that have yet to fully implement the reforms they know they must undertake.

In June, at the most recent quarterly review by U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry, Ferguson’s city attorney reported that since August 2014, the city has waived $1.8 million in fines, dismissed or dropped about 39,000 municipal court cases and signed up 1,381 people to perform community service instead of paying fines.

The city’s budget, helped only slightly by the passage of a half-cent sales tax last year, has been stressed. Efforts to recruit and train additional police officers have been slowed. But a Justice Department lawyer told Perry that both sides were working together in good faith.

In April, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, who’d been at the center of controversy for most of his three-year term, was returned to office with 56 percent of the vote.

On the site of the burned-out QuikTrip that was ground zero for the 2014 protests now stands the Urban League’s and Salvation Army’s new community empowerment center. Centene Corp. built a service center employing 200 people on the north side of town. Ferguson-based Emerson Co. came through with a Ferguson Forward program aimed at education, job training and business development.

Money is tight, but it’s better in Ferguson now. Far from perfect, but better. As to the larger issues represented by the #Ferguson hashtag, progress is less evident. Most of the ambitious 189-point set of goals outlined by Gov. Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission remain just that - ambitious goals. The “Forward through Ferguson” report that the commission released in September 2015 remains an invaluable resource.

St. Louis’ long history of ignoring racial equity helped spawn the events of three years ago. Those programs won’t be fixed overnight, but if we continue to address them, however haltingly, progress is possible - no matter who’s in the White House.

_____

The Jefferson City News-Tribune, July 30

Seeking solutions to hospital’s closure

The announced closing of Fulton Medical Center shocked Mid-Missouri last week, but perhaps it shouldn’t have.

It’s not breaking news that rural hospitals are struggling across the U.S. Nearly three years ago, USA Today reported from 2010-14, 43 rural hospitals closed their doors and the pace was quickening.

Why? The question quickly leads to a partisan debate.

The Fulton mayor has suggested Missouri’s lack of Medicaid expansion was a contributing factor.

Others might point to Obamacare, which was designed to give Americans more access to health care. The USA Today story said “critics say the ACA is also accelerating the demise of rural outposts that cater to many of society’s most vulnerable. These hospitals treat some of the sickest and poorest patients - those least aware of how to stay healthy.

Hospital officials contend that the law’s penalties for having to re-admit patients soon after they’re released are impossible to avoid and create a crushing burden.”

Regardless of your political leaning, many would agree we aren’t being well-served in the area of health care by Congress and our federal government. Rural hospital closings such as this one may have been hastened by our federal government, but it’s up to us in Mid-Missouri to deal with the problem.

If nothing changes, Callaway County will be without a hospital by Sept. 22. The county has a population of about 45,000 - similar to Jefferson City.

What happens when someone in the county has a heart attack, stroke or gets in a bad vehicle wreck? They’ll have several choices for area hospitals, none of them good from a timing standpoint. All of the choices will be 30-60 minutes away.

In many medical emergencies, minutes can mean the difference between life and death. Medical experts say there can be a “golden hour” after heart attacks, strokes and some other emergencies. If treatment isn’t received within that time, it can mean the loss of brain tissue and heart muscle.

Add to the mix a prison, mental hospital and nuclear power plant, and it’s understandable why the news has Callaway residents even more on edge.

Thankfully, Callaway County officials aren’t waiting for the feds to solve the problem. The Fulton mayor, Callaway Chamber of Commerce, county government - which once owned the hospital - and others are working toward a solution.

We hope they succeed, and we hope other area hospitals are open to partnerships that could keep the Fulton Medical Center open.

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