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Recent Missouri Editorials

January 22, 2019

The Columbia Daily Tribune, Jan. 18

Tribune’s View: Gov. Parson’s budget gambit

Let’s hope March comes in like a lion and keeps roaring through June. Otherwise it could prove problematic for Gov. Mike Parson’s budget.

Parson’s proposed budget that would take effect July 1 will spend $400 million of an expected $516 million surplus when the current fiscal year ends. The $30.1 billion overall spending plan is based on expectations that general revenue will increase 1.7 percent this year. It then forecasts 2 percent growth during the 2020 fiscal year, ending with a $116 million surplus.

But if this year’s revenue forecast comes up short, it’s even more likely next year’s projection will, too.

March is key because that’s when Missourians who owe state taxes will begin making payments and general revenue coffers will see a surge of money. But March could be less of a surge and more of a flutter through the end of the fiscal year.

Yet to be seen is how the impact of Missouri’s state income tax withholding error will play out. The error first attracted major headlines in November when revenue collection fell way short compared to November 2017. As the Tribune first reported, the under-publicized tax withholding error was to blame.

Lawmakers are proposing a plan that would allow taxpayers who owe the state to extend the April payment deadline into June without accruing penalties because of the Missouri Department of Revenue’s gaffe. We hope this idea gains traction. It only seems fair considering the state created this mess and hundreds of thousands of Missourians will pay for it, figuratively and literally. The state should still be able to collect what is owed before the fiscal year ends.

Parson’s budget is ambitious, calling for an extra $61.4 million for K-12 education, $10 million more for transportation reimbursements to those same schools, and an added $30 million for state workers to receive a cost-of-living increase.

Higher education isn’t getting an increase under the current plan, but it’s not having funds taken away, either. Some may view that as a victory, of sorts.

If revenue projections come up short, higher ed may get the ax, and if that happens University of Missouri officials will be sent scrambling late in the fiscal year to figure out how to make up for the difference.

One way would be to enact more cuts. The other would be to invoke a new state law allowing tuition increases to exceed inflation when the state cuts funding. The difficulty there, however, is that UM wants to increase enrollment and a large tuition increase could stunt that growth.

Parson’s proposal will evolve as it works its way through the House, Senate, and then a conference committee made up of both bodies. Each will shuffle money around based on their priorities, so everything Parson wants could change. Regardless, we expect the budget process to be smoother this year than last, when friction between lawmakers and then-Gov. Eric Greitens was apparent from the start of the legislative session.

Parson, a former state lawmaker, has more experience than his predecessor when it comes to diplomacy. He’s already ahead of Greitens by not burning bridges among his own party. But if revenue projections come up short it won’t really matter, and the final weeks of the session will be focused on whose budget gets put on chopping block and by how much.


The St. Joseph News-Press, Jan. 17

State failed in its promises on prison

Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to close a maximum-security prison in Cameron shows just how much has changed in the state of Missouri.

The governor declared in his state-of-the-state address, “I am not interested in building more prisons.”

Contrast that sentiment, which won applause on both sides of the aisle, with an earlier state-of-the-state speech that outlined plans to build two more prisons in Missouri. “We need to do our job and make sure we have a padlocked cell to put these dangerous prisoners in,” Gov. Mel Carnahan told the Legislature in 1995.

We assume that remark generated a few hand claps, back in the day.

The state vows to close Crossroads without employee layoffs and with no prisoner releases into the community, with many staff members given a chance to transfer to the Western Missouri Correctional Center, also located in Cameron. This should come as a relief to Cameron residents, but it shouldn’t absolve the state of responsibility for problems preceding the recommended closure.

In short, the state failed to deliver on many of the promised benefits of bringing hundreds of prison jobs to a city.

Prisons used to be considered economic-development plums. In St. Joseph, the decision to build two state prisons in Cameron led some to envy the clout that former House Speaker Bob Griffin was able to wield in the state capital.

Now, prisons are beset with staffing shortages, high turnover and low morale, which came to a head last spring in an inmate riot.

The Department of Corrections acknowledges up to 800 open positions statewide, which is why the state could close a facility without laying off employees. Crossroads has the capacity to employ 390, though state officials don’t disclose the actual headcount for security reasons.

Last year, a jury awarded Missouri corrections officers $113 million in a class-action lawsuit claiming that the state failed to pay prison employees for work performed before and after their shifts. An attorney for corrections officers called prison guards a “forgotten police force” that got “ripped off.”

Certainly, Parson has good reason to suggest the closing of Crossroads, including the savings from 377 eliminated positions and the overall need to reduce the cost of incarceration. Looking back, it was a mistake to try to build two large prisons in a fairly small community.

But the problems in Missouri’s prisons, and in particular the staffing challenges, festered for years and only recently gained attention because of the riot, lawsuits and budget realities.

State officials shouldn’t believe all these problems will just go away with one prison consolidation.


The Kansas City Star, Jan. 20

Texting while driving can kill. Why is it still allowed on Missouri roads?

In 2015, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. If you text and drive, your next message may be your last.

Admit it. At some point, nearly all of us have done it. You know you shouldn’t, but if you just fire off a quick text message from behind the wheel, it’s no big deal, right?

Every day, Missourians attempt the death-defying feat of texting while driving. And for most, there are no consequences for putting others’ safety at risk.

Even though the dangers of using a cellphone, tablet or GPS device while driving are well known, many remain convinced that they can type and steer simultaneously at high speeds.

Incredibly, Missouri lawmakers haven’t acted to put a stop to this. That needs to change this year.

Sure, the state has a law that prohibits anyone under 21 from operating a motor vehicle while texting or talking on hand-held mobile devices. But it’s indefensible that Missouri legislators haven’t imposed the same no-brainer restrictions on drivers of all ages.

Missouri is one of only three states without a no-texting law for all drivers. Kansas banned texting while driving for all eight years ago.

Missouri is the only state that allows adults to text and drive — but not teens. Why? Because some lawmakers believe a ban would infringe on civil liberties.

Of course, that flawed argument has been rejected by other states, which wisely have made public safety their priority.

“When you choose to text and drive, you’re not only putting your own life at risk you’re putting the lives of everyone around you at risk as well,” said Heidi Geisbuhler, director of legislative affairs for the Missouri State Medical Association. The MSMA advocates to ban texting while driving. “At a certain point, it doesn’t involve your own personal liberty.”

Several measures failed to move in the General Assembly last year. But this year, Missouri lawmakers should finally follow the lead of nearly every other state and take the very uncontroversial step of prohibiting texting from behind the wheel.

Fortunately, state Sen. Wayne Wallingford, a Republican from Cape Girardeau, has introduced Senate Bill 15, which would essentially ban texting for all drivers. Guilty parties would face a $50 fine, and the penalty would double in a work or school zone.

The bill was read last week, and Wallingford expects a second reading in the not-so-distant future.

Distracted driving is not limited to young people. Approximately 70 percent of drivers in Missouri who were using cellphones at the time of a traffic crash were 22 years of age or older, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. And a driver is 23 times more likely to be in a critical incident when they are texting and driving.

Since 2014, cellphone-related crashes in Missouri have increased by 35 percent, with nearly 2,600 crashes in 2017. At least 100 people died from distracted driving the previous year.

“Freedom comes with responsibility,” Wallingford said. “Safety is paramount.”

Over in the Missouri House, Greg Razer, a Democratic state representative from Kansas City, has introduced House Bill 211 to address the problem. The fines would be identical to the punishment proposed by Wallingford. The bill has been read twice and is waiting to be assigned to committee.

Razer correctly notes that an all-ages ban in Missouri is long overdue.

“We’re all guilty of it,” Razer said. “It’s a habit we’ve all learned. We need to unlearn it.”

That indisputable fact — and the need for a ban on texting while driving — should be two things that all Missouri lawmakers can agree on.

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