Who is next?

Your fearful observer awoke one morning last week wondering when it will happen in Missouri.

It was the morning after the latest school shooting, this one in Florida, the seventh school shooting incident in the first forty-five days of the year.  As of the morning after the latest shooting, twenty people had been killed and thirty-four others had been wounded in those seven incidents.

Since the pace of school shootings began to pick up nationally in the 1980s there have been more than 350 school shootings in this country.

Three hundred.  And fifty.  Plus.

The escalation of shootings at schools is stunning.  Wikipedia has compiled a list of incidents at schools going back to Greencastle, Pennsylvania’s Enoch Brown School massacre in 1764, although that doesn’t quite fit today’s description of a school shooting because it was part of an Indian uprising against the British.  Only one of the ten people killed was shot.  The others were killed with “melee weapons,” as they are called.

The chart says there were twenty-eight incidents in the nineteenth century. The number jumped to 226 in the Twentieth Century (141 of them in the last three decades including the first mass shooting, 1999’s Littleton Colorado incident that killed fifteen—including the two suicidal shooters—and wounded twenty-one).

In the first seventeen years and two months of the Twenty-First Century there already have been 212 incidents that have made this list.

The Wikipedia list shows nine such shootings in Missouri since 1980. Eleven deaths, including four of the shooters.  Seven injuries.  Not all of the incidents are what we might think of as school shootings, namely students killing students.  The killing of three monks at Conception Abbey is on the list, for example.  Some involved only adults.  Missouri’s most recent incident was three years ago when a man was wounded in a school parking lot shooting, apparently by another adult.  The most recent student incident was in Joplin in 2006 when a student failed to kill a principal when his gun failed.

We hope we never have one of those horrific incidents in Missouri.  But we are sure we are not the only person in Missouri living in dread that it could happen here.

What is there to do about it? Opinions are strong on this issue and we will not wade into it here. Our focus will be on an important factor that can get lost in the discussion of school shootings and what should be done beyond the increasingly stale phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

The Associated Press the morning after the Florida incident described the suspect as, “An orphaned 19-year old with a troubled past and an AR-15 rifle…” and reported, “Students who knew him described him as a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him.”

Sooner or later someone is going to ask—some probably have by now—“Why didn’t somebody do something to head him off?” And some will wonder why he didn’t get help with mental health issues, sentiments frequently heard after incidents such as these.

Unanswerable questions.  A similar question might be, “How many school shooting incidents did NOT take place because our mental health people turned their clients in a better direction?”

Many years ago, one of my sometime-colleagues who sat next to me while we covered the legislature turned out to have murdered his wife a couple of years earlier. Who among us can honestly say that we can determine that the person next to us is so unstable that he or she is or can become a killer?

Can we, however, reduce the chances that something terrible might happen if we put more resources into a system that works to reduce those chances?

We wrote a column last year about a courageous and striking book we had read called, “No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America.” I suggested that anyone in the legislature who deals with health and mental health funding should have this book on their must-read list.  With the General Assembly in session, now—particularly as we ask questions in the wake of the Florida school shooting—it is time to renew that suggestion, not just for those dealing with mental health funding but for all of our lawmakers.

Discussions are underway at the Capitol of further reductions in the state’s ability to finance vital programs and services at a time when the organization, Mental Health America, has published its 2017 report on the state of mental health in this country.  It ranks each state and territory on fifteen categories to arrive at a ranking that “indicates lower prevalence of mental illness and higher access to care.”

Missouri’s overall ranking was 31st.   Seven criteria used to rank services to adults placed Missouri 36th. We were 24th in the “youth” category.

The study found that we are 23rd in the prevalence of mental illness.   But when it comes to access to mental health care, we are only 36th.

If one of these unspeakable tragedies caused by someone of noticeable “strange behavior” happens in our state, as has happened in Florida, how will we think about that 36th place ranking?  And should this situation, this possibility, this circumstance be part of those discussions?

We pray that Missourians never have to confront those questions.  Or the people of any other state.

Let all of us pray.

Maybe a little bigger government makes sense

But there are those who will say bigger government NEVER makes sense.  Don’t go off in a huff, though, if you’re one of them. Take a deep breath, let the blood pressure drop a notch or two, and consider the words of Governor Guy B. Park who told the legislature in his second (and last) biennial message on January 6, 1937:

When the boundaries of our counties were fixed by the Constitution of 1875 (editor’s note—that was the Constitution in effect in 1937), time and distance were the principal consideration. The boundaries were probably determined on the basis of how long it would take a resident to ride his horse from his home to the county seat, transact his business and get back in time to milk the cows.  As a matter of practical economy and common sense, it would be the better part of wisdom to materially increase the size, thereby reducing the number of counties. Should that be done, the local county government would be as close to the people in point of time as they were in 1875.  In order to accomplish this, an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary, and I recommend that you adopt a resolution submitting such an amendment to the people of the state.

Governors could make such suggestions in the days when the Constitution forbade them from seeking re-election.  And members of the legislature then, as now—particularly those from some of the counties likely to be affected—knew they would be greeted by pitchfork-carrying constituents if they went home after voting for such an idea.

Here we are, eighty-one years after Park’s speech and 157 years after Worth County became the last county created in our state, and we have twenty-five counties populated by fewer than ten-thousand people and six more who are just barely at ten-thousand.  That’s more than one-fourth of our counties, a lot of them in the sparsely-populated northern counties.  Seven counties have fewer than FIVE thousand residents. Worth County struggles to stay above two-thousand.

It’s been almost sixteen decades since Missouri honored some kind of hero or notable citizen or family member of an early settler by naming a county for them.   But we’ve had plenty of heroes since then, plenty of famous people who are better known than the people whose names adorn many of our counties.  Who was Dade after all?  Or Holt or Knox or Sullivan or Schuyler or, well, Worth?

Naturally, combining small counties or changing their names will generate a lot of hostility.  We’re a pretty territorial species.

But that doesn’t mean that Guy B. Park didn’t have a good point that has only gotten better.

(We wrote at some length about this more than two years ago when a longtime friend passed along a propose map of new counties.  If  you go back to Dec. 19, 2015, you’ll find that proposal along with some of the same musings in this column.  But maybe it is an idea worth bringing up more frequently than once every eighty-one years.)

Capitol credit

State Senate leader Ron Richard has had a goal for the State Capitol for a long time and he’s hoping his last year in the legislature is the year that goal is reached.  And it should be.

Richard loves the Capitol as the symbol of a state’s greatness and power, of its stability and beauty.  But he has watched as the Capitol has deteriorated during his almost sixteen-year career and how appropriations that have finally started providing some rehabilitation of the now century-old building are not nearly enough to get the job done.

He has seen the state struggle with meeting its budgetary responsibilities for education, health and mental health, social services—you name it.  And as the state has struggled to meet those responsibilities, the state’s greatest symbol has deteriorated.

Millions are being spent as a continuation of exterior restoration that has been underway for about three years.  Some critical problems in the basement have been attacked. But millions of dollars more are needed to do what needs to be done now and to meet the costs of ongoing expenses later.

Richard has been hoping to get a bill passed setting up a tax credit program that would encourage people and organizations to donate money to fix our Capitol.   He is the sponsor of one of two bills in the Missouri Senate addressing the problem.  While he could be putting the muscle of his position behind his own legislation he has decided to let Senator Dan Hegeman from the northwest Missouri community of Cosby carry the issue.  The bill already is out of committee and is ready for Senate debate. It started the week twenty-seventh on the debate list, a good position for early approval.

It’s Senate Bill 590 for those of you who keep score. It does two things.  It creates tax credits for people who donate to restoration and repair work at the Capitol complex, and it creates tax credits for those who want to contribute to restoration and repair work on other public buildings.

A lot of deep-pocket people and companies have representatives in the capitol hallways every day that Richard, Hegeman, and their colleagues on both side of the rotunda are meeting.  It would not be surprising if those hallway denizens carried word back to their employers that their workplace needs some help.  Some of the money raised can be used to increase general public awareness of the need for donations for which private citizen-donors would get credit on their state taxes.

Richard has several times shared this dream with your correspondent and it’s time the dream comes true.   Richard already has created a legacy as the only person in the almost-two century history of the state to serve as the leader of the House and the leader of the Senate.  But that accomplishment is more a legislative distinction.  Leaving behind a program that can raise money for the capitol’s upkeep is the more important thing.  It could be a legacy.

But times have changed a little since Ron Richard first established this goal.  Historic Tax Credits are not as popular as they once were.   The legislature established caps on those tax credits a few years ago—no more than an aggregate total of $140 million.  That cap drops to seventy-million dollars on July 1.  Local historic preservation organizations can point to buildings and districts in their communities that have benefitted from those tax credits.  Now, as the cap is cut in half, there could be two new causes trying to attract tax credit seekers.

Historic preservation tax credits aren’t very sexy.  Some lawmakers question whether they create enough new jobs to justify the reduction in state revenue that they produce.  Others with little interest in history might see little value in them to begin with.

But they ARE important.  They’re important for the towns where we live because they encourage us to think of how far we have come while making sites usable, even inhabitable.  They’re important for our capitol, a place intended to inspire those who visit and who serve there.  The fact that some who visit and who serve do not find the intended inspiration cannot be an excuse to let our capitol decline into a symbol of decisions not made, responsibilities not met, and needs not acknowledged.

Our capitol is better than that.  And the Richards dream and the Hegeman legislation is the best chance for our lawmakers to prove it so.   We hope they don’t miss the chance this year.