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January 8, 2019

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 1

Editorial: Old problems and a few new ones await Legislature’s action in 2019

Missouri’s highways are crumbling. Its most vulnerable citizens lack health care access. And local court systems are running debtor-jail schemes that abuse the rights of poor defendants.

These are just some of the top-priority issues that Missouri lawmakers must address in the 2019 legislative session. Others include opioid-prescription monitoring, internet sales taxes and a troublesome little phone app that just won’t go away even though it’s great at making public records disappear.

Missouri’s dilapidated transportation infrastructure is the product of years of legislative neglect. Our state has one of the lowest fuel taxes in America at 17 cents a gallon, which lawmakers have refused for two decades to raise. Drive our highways to feel the results.

So organizers this year steered a fuel-tax increase onto the Nov. 6 ballot — containing, unfortunately, a convoluted funding plan and confusing ballot language. Its defeat may well have been the result of that confusion and not a rejection of the solid underlying idea of modernizing the fuel tax rate to fix and modernize our roads.

The conundrum for legislators is that the voters have spoken. They’d rather have crummy roads than pay a few cents more for gasoline. State lawmakers should respect the will of the people and not try to override the Nov. 6 vote by approving their own fuel tax hike. But they should try to come up with better ballot language for a new referendum to raise the fuel tax for infrastructure improvements.

They should offer it as soon as possible, written in clear language and stripped of any confusing side issues. Gov. Mike Parson and legislative leaders in both parties recognize the need for some kind of improved funding mechanism and should unite behind a new referendum. And this time, the voters of Missouri should get it right.

Missouri’s health care situation is even more politically fraught, entangled with entrenched partisanship and bullheaded ideology. It’s time for ruling Republicans to set that aside and serve their constituents — including the poorest and sickest.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 was designed to include a state-by-state expansion of Medicaid, the federal government’s health care program for the poor. In Missouri, that would extend health care coverage to as many as 300,000 citizens, aid our struggling hospitals and pump billions of dollars into the state’s economy.

But because of the ACA’s unofficial nickname — “Obamacare” — Republicans in 14 states, including Missouri, are still saying “thanks but no thanks” eight years later to extra federal dollars that would help fund health care for the uninsured.

As those Republicans continue their stubborn stand, the ground has shifted under them. Polls show Americans now see health care access as a fundamental right. A Republican Congress has been unable to repeal Obamacare, and the GOP was decimated nationally on Nov. 6 in House races that hinged largely on health care.

By continuing this fight, Missouri Republicans are denying Missouri’s poorest citizens a basic right they would have in most other states. Enough. The Legislature and governor should, at long last, expand Medicaid.

That promises to be a heavy lift. A much easier one should be ending the shameful practice in too many rural Missouri court systems of squeezing poor defendants for profit and jailing them for their poverty.

Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger has charted the practice for months in a series of columns exposing a Dickensian system of debtors jails. People who are arrested and tried for minor offenses are charged for their jail time. If they can’t pay, they are sometimes jailed again, racking up still more expenses.

No one is suggesting that people who break the law, even in minor ways, shouldn’t face consequences — but they shouldn’t face repeated jail stays and years of indebtedness for misdemeanor offenses. Bipartisan legislation has been filed to end the practice. Residents from the state’s Republican-dominated rural districts are the ones suffering most from this abusive system, which means that legislators from rural Missouri should be leading this charge.

Another slam-dunk should be approval of a statewide prescription drug monitoring program of the kind Parson has been calling for.

Despite the growing cost of opioid addiction, Missouri remains the only state without a statewide system to adequately prevent “doctor shopping” and other practices used to obtain often-lethal doses of opium-derived painkillers. Concerns about privacy have prevented approval of such a system in the past, but with term limits forcing out the main legislative opponents to a statewide database, the issue can be addressed anew with a strong likelihood of passage. Parson should have full legislative support on this.

Among other 2019 agenda items:

. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year opens the way for states to tax internet sales, even when the seller has no physical presence in the state. For small Missouri brick-and-mortar businesses, it’s a matter of basic fairness. The roughly $200 million a year Missouri could realize sweetens the deal. The Legislature should tax internet sales.

. The phone app Confide, which erases text messages after they’re exchanged, was a controversy at the start of 2018 when it was revealed then-Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff were using it for official business. In effect, it meant they were complicit in the destruction of public records they were required to retain. Additional revelations about Confide’s use in other offices have since arisen. Public records are public records regardless of format; this modern version of disappearing ink should be banned by law from all government communications.

. The tax paid on income earned in St. Louis is an important part of the city’s budget, provided largely by people who live outside city limits but use and enjoy the city’s amenities. The latest effort to kill the earnings tax is especially galling, as it’s coming from a legislator who doesn’t even live in the city, state Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. With all due respect, senator, please butt out.

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Rural areas are being left behind

The drive from St. Joseph to Jefferson City covers 220 miles, with small portions of the journey crossing Missouri’s cities and suburbs. No matter the route, most of this drive goes through rolling hills and fields broken up by silos and the occasional water tower.

Current political rhetoric fixates on suburban swing districts, so it’s easy for policymakers to forget that most of the counties in the state don’t look much like St. Louis or Kansas City. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that half of the population is rural in more than 1,800 American counties.

Characteristics that make small town and rural America so endearing — the modesty and resiliency of its residents — wind up being a huge political liability in this day and age.

As state legislatures convene across the country and a new Congress is sworn in, rural Americans need to shed their customary reserve and make a loud and clear statement to elected officials: We are being left behind.

Ten years after the 2008 recession, national economic data obscures a recovery that has been unevenly distributed across rural and urban areas. The Economic Innovation Group coined the phrase “ruralization of distress.” Its data shows that while national prosperity increased since 2008, the number of rural Americans living in what’s considered an economically distressed zip code also increased by nearly 1 million.

Last year, companies like Apple and Amazon showed a preference to create jobs in larger cities. Small towns that used to rely on a single manufacturer or two have little chance to compete with the talent pool in coastal areas or tech hubs like Austin, Texas.

Northwest Missouri isn’t immune to the challenges.

In our part of the state, the population is older and less affluent than in the rest of Missouri. The average hourly wage in every Northwest Missouri county lagged behind the state average, from $21.36 in Buchanan County to $11.67 in Worth County. Ten of 14 Northwest Missouri counties are projected to lose population or remain stagnant between 2000 and 2030, led by Gentry County with a 30 percent drop and Holt County with an expected 23 percent loss of population.

There is no easy fix, but initiatives like Great Northwest Day at the Capitol provide an important voice for our region in Jefferson City. Advocates for this area outlined key issues for moving rural communities forward, including high-speed broadband access, transportation infrastructure and workforce development.

It’s tough to reverse decades of decline. More than anything, those who participate in Great Northwest Day need to make sure state lawmakers don’t forget the wide expanse of the state that exists north of Interstate 70.

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