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.

Are you smarter than a third grader?

We wrote this a year ago and put it in storage until we needed it.  We noted the other day that Representative Dean Dohrman has introduced a bill requiring people wanting to graduate from college to score at least seventy percent on a civics test before they can get their diplomas. He says he hopes the bill spurs greater civic education in our colleges.

That has led us to dig out this piece:

Suppose you had to take a test to be a Missouri voter.  More important, suppose those wanting to hold public office, particularly the six statewide offices and legislative positions, had to pass this test. Be honest, now, those of you who have taken oaths of public office—How many of you would be where you are now if you had to match this third-grade requirement (We, personally, would be a little nervous if we had to do this)?

And for those who voted to elect these folks, could you have voted if you had to prove competence to deal with these issues?  It’s kind of a lengthy examination.  Extra paper will be allowed.

Explain the major purposes of the Missouri Constitution. Explain and give examples of how laws are made and changed within the state.

Examine how individual rights are protected within our state. Explain how governments balance individual rights with common good to solve local community or state issues.

Explain how the State of Missouri relies on responsible citizen participation and draw implications for how people should participate.

Describe the character traits and civic attitudes of influential Missourians. Identify and describe the historical significance of the individuals from Missouri who have made contributions to our state and nation.

Explain how the National Anthem symbolizes our nation. Recognize and explain the significance of the Gateway Arch and the Great Seal of Missouri and other symbols of our state.

Analyze peaceful resolution of disputes by the courts, or other legitimate authorities in Missouri. Take part in a constructive process or method for resolving conflicts.

Describe how authoritative decisions are made, enforced and interpreted by the state government across historical time periods and/or in current events.

Identify and explain the functions of the three branches of government in Missouri.

Describe the importance of the Louisiana Purchase and the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Evaluate the impact of westward expansion on the Native Americans in Missouri. Discuss issues of Missouri statehood.

Describe the migration of Native Americans to Missouri prior to European settlement in the state. Describe the discovery, exploration and early settlement of Missouri by European immigrants. Describe the reasons African peoples were enslaved and brought to Missouri.

Examine cultural interactions and conflicts among Native Americans, European immigrants and enslaved and free African-Americans in Missouri. Examine the changing roles of Native Americans, Immigrants, African Americans, women and others in Missouri history.

Examine changing cultural interactions and conflicts among Missourians after the Civil War.

Discuss the causes and consequences of the Dred Scott decision on Missouri and the nation.

Explain Missouri’s role in the Civil War, including the concept of a border state. Describe the consequences of the Civil War in Missouri including on education, transportation, and communication.

Compare and contrast private and public goods and services. Define natural, capital and human resources. Define economy. Explain supply and demand.

Conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis.

Define taxes and explain how taxes are generated and used.

Explain factors, past and present, that influence changes in our state’s economy.

Read and construct historical and current maps.

Name and locate major cities, rivers, regions, and states which border Missouri. Describe and use absolute location using a grid system.

Identify and compare physical geographic characteristics of Missouri. Describe human geographic characteristics of Missouri.

Describe how people of Missouri are affected by, depend on, adapt to and change their physical environments in the past and in the present.

Describe how changes in communication and transportation technologies affect people’s lives.

Identify regions in Missouri. Compare regions in Missouri. Compare the cultural characteristics of regions in Missouri. Explain how geography affected important events in Missouri history.

Research stories and songs that reflect the cultural history of Missouri.Describe how people in Missouri preserve their cultural heritage.

Identify facts and opinions in social studies’ topics. Identify point of view in social studies’ topics.

Present social studies’ research to an audience using appropriate sources.

Whew!!

How can anybody be expected to know all this stuff?  Aren’t you glad you’re not an immigrant seeking American citizenship? Actually, immigrants don’t have to go through all of this stuff.

But Missouri third-graders do.

What you’ve just read are most of the Missouri Department of Education’s grade level expectations for third grade social studies students and their teachers.  How well students perform under these guidelines determines how competent they are considered to be and, by reflection, how competent their teachers are.

The impetus for this goes back more than two decades, to 1996, when the Show-Me Standards were developed to gauge student performance.  The Show-Me Standards were replaced by the Missouri Learning Standards that were required by the legislature to be written because the legislature didn’t like the Obama Administration’s Common Core approach.  The MLS are pretty close to Common Core, though. The state education department says the standards “are relevant to the real world and reflect the knowledge and skills students need to achieve their goals.”  The department also says they work best when administrators, teachers, students and parents share the goals.

This state is big on “local control,” so the standards do not require local districts to closely adhere to them. Districts can still make their own decisions about textbooks and teaching strategies and curriculum. But they’re measured on a standard gauge.

Your observer/historian was chatting with another observer/historian in a local coffee shop a few days ago about these standards and we agreed on a regrettable fact about them.

These are standards for third graders.  The teaching of Missouri history used to be done in the fourth grade but the department has moved that teaching back to grade three now.

Consider this, then (we admitted it kind of scares us): Missourians went to the polls in November, 2016 and elected people who are in office today who have had little education in Missouri history since third or fourth grade and whose teaching in Missouri government was limited to elementary school or maybe a poli sci class in college.  State law requires American history and United States government courses in high school (but no world history or government studies is required in this undeniable era of globalization).

But there is also this:  Both of us believe it takes extraordinary people to turn written goals into personal learning for fifteen to thirty children of incredibly diverse personal and cultural backgrounds every day in our classrooms.  Our lamenting the fact that a lot can happen in the decade from the time one is an eight-year old third grader and when one is an eighteen-year old first-time voter is in no way intended as a swipe at the public education system.  Neither of us could confidently assume that today’s decisions and situations would be better if the study of yesterday’s decisions and situations were fresher in the minds of those who voted and those who were elected. But it would help, we thought, if learning and voting were closer together.

How would we cure that problem?  When we considered all the things our school systems have to do and all of the problems students bring to school with them, we have to confess neither of us is close to an intelligent solution.

But wouldn’t it be nice if all of us, voters, candidates, office-holders alike, had to be as smart as third graders?

The roads of the people

This might or might not be any comfort to the special task force that has recommended fuel tax increases to raise money to maintain our roads and bridges, and build new ones where necessary.  But it might add some context to their work.

A century ago, Governor Elliott Major made his farewell address to the General Assembly.  In his first year in office, 1913, he had issued a proclamation declaring there would be two “Good Roads Days” in Missouri.  By the time he left office, fifteen other states had held annual “Good Roads Days.”  Major thought those special occasions had helped push Missouri to making “more progress in the construction and maintenance of good roads in the last two years than it has in any period of ten years preceding.”

Now, there’s a goal for today’s Missourians!

A century ago, Governor Major thought Missouri’s dirt roads were the most important ones in the system.  Today we might refer to those roads, years from the time when they were dirt, as our farm-to-market roads. But Major’s point about the importance of those roads has a lot of validity today.

In some ways, his message in 1917 is pretty close to the message we could hearing this year—with some modern language.  Here’s what he told the legislature:

The public highways of the country have ever marked by distinct epochs its civilization, and agricultural and commercial progress. It has marked it in the life of Missouri and of the American Republic. Until the highways stand abreast our broadest civilization, we will not be living up to our best privileges and the highest standard we can maintain in our civic and commercial life. We need to continue the construction, improvement and maintenance of our dirt and our hard surface roads. The dirt road, however, is the most important of all the roads. It constitutes ninety per cent of the road mileage of the State, and will continue so to do for many years to come. It is the real road of the people and the great highway of commerce.

We are in favor of the construction and maintenance of macadam, rock, concrete and other high-grade roads because every road that is constructed and passes through a section of country that produces something is an internal improvement of inestimable value. While we favor the construction of these splendid traffic ways, yet these are not the roads which mean most to the whole people. It is the dirt road, representing the first leg of the journey and over which moves the traffic of the State that serves us most; the road which enables the producer to bring more products to the railway stations and to the first markets of the country; the road which enables him to double the size of the haul and make the transit in less time, save wear and tear on harness and wagons and the lives of horses; the road that would bring additional hundreds of  thousands of acres under cultivation; the road that would increase the value per acre of all the lands through which it passes; the road that will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in shrinkage in the delivery of live stock; the road that will increase the attendance in the public schools of the country; the road that will lessen that part of the cost of transportation which begins at the producers’ door; the road every tendency of which is to improve community life and make it better morally, civilly and commercially.

There are bad dirt roads and good dirt roads. Bad dirt roads are a liability, good dirt roads are an asset. Missouri can not afford bad dirt roads, but it can afford good dirt roads. The dirt roads reach out into country life like tentacles and over them are moved the products representing the real commerce of the country, and their improvement will mean more to the State and Nation than any other one internal achievement which can be brought about. We can not make all the roads in Missouri high-class roads, but we can make all the bad dirt roads good dirt roads, and in the meantime construct as many high grade roads as possible. ,

Missouri has 63,370 miles of unimproved dirt roads and 54,264 miles of improved dirt roads. We have 3,420 miles of gravel roads, and 1,417 miles of macadam roads. ‘We have 570 miles of sand clay roads, and 700 miles of roads made from chats. We have about 400 miles of patent surface and other miscellaneous roads, making the grand total in the commonwealth over 124,000 miles. Last year there was placed upon these highways betterments valued at approximately $8,000,000. Under the new inter-county-seat drag law, we have about 10,000 miles of inter-county-seat roads, regularly dragged by the State, and upon which during the biennial period the State will have expended more than $225,000 for this purpose, while the people themselves have placed thereon special betterments in the sum of $1,500,000. ‘

The general state road fund law (Article 5, Chapter 121, R. S. Mo. 1909) should be amended so the moneys going into that fund may be used, if necessary, in securing the moneys the federal government may wish to give, meet expenses of convicts when working on or building public roads, or used to meet other important and necessary contingencies which might arise in road construction. It goes without saying that the federal government will give special aid, but it may require the states or the people to expend dollar for dollar. Should this be true, then with the general state road fund statute amended, Missouri can be the first state to receive the federal moneys. It would be well if the committees on roads and highways would, in a limited way, revise the road laws. The laws upon the subject are too numerous and confusing, and this Legislature can render a good work in revising same.

And here we are a century later hoping we can have enough transportation funding to match available federal funds.  The total mileage in our transportation system would astonish Major and the legislators of 1917 and thousands of those miles are the former dirt roads that the counties used to drag.  The amount the state spends on the system might be greater than they could comprehend although still not enough.  Convicts no longer provide free labor to build our roads and although we have more than twenty-five thousand convicts, they would not be nearly enough to give us the system we need.

Roads remain today as they were in Major’s time, links “to improve community life and make it better morally, civilly and commercially.” The language might seem a bit expansive in this Twenty-first century, but the point is the same.  A good transportation system is essential for many different purposes.  And the funding to capitalize on that essentiality remains as vital today as it was when dirt roads were the people’s roads.

To paraphrase Governor Elliott Major: “Bad roads are a liability; good roads are an asset. Missouri cannot afford bad roads, but it can afford good roads.”  We’ll be waiting to see the strategy that will convince tight-fisted Missourians they can afford good roads—or alternately, that they can’t afford not to have good roads.

We’ll get around to it eventually. Maybe.

Let us not cast stones at Jefferson City for being a town that likes to talk about things for a long time before doing them.  This is, after all, a government town where many of its citizens spend their days in cubicles, and those citizens are masters at conducting meetings and talking about things and making reports and then putting the reports on shelves until they have another round of meetings.  You probably have heard of the new task force that studied state transportation needs and financing of them—five years after another task force studied state transportation needs and financing of them?

While doing some research at the State Historical Society the other day, I came across a newspaper article headlined, “Mrs. Jas. Houchin Starts Movement for $50,000.00     Y. M.C.A. in Jefferson City.”   It was October, 1915.

The organization of a Young Men’s Christian Association and the construction of a well-equipped building as its headquarters is the plan which Mrs. James A. Houchin has conceived and will carry out within the next year, probably within the next few months.

She already had put down five-thousand dollars on a lot.  “I believe the building should have a gymnasium and a swimming pool.  It will maintain a library, reading rooms and a basketball court,” she said.  She was impressed with the YMCA in Sedalia which had bedrooms on its third floor to rent to club members.

Mrs. Houchin died in 1924.  Jefferson City finally formed its “Y” in 1970.

-0-

We are still waiting on another idea, though.  The Daily Capital News on June 7, 1923 carried a letter on the front page from local lawyer and legislator A. T. Dumm saying it was time the people of the capital city built a convention hall.  Dumm was the president of the Commercial Club—which later was the Chamber of Commerce—and was a member of the state constitutional convention that had recently met.

Editor Capital News:  Responding to your request for a suggestion for the advancement and betterment of Jefferson City, I beg to suggest, for the consideration of your readers and the community, the idea of a convention hall. 

I think we have reached a point in our growth and population where we might confidently launch such an enterprise and that it is highly desirable if not absolutely necessary must be evident…

Jefferson City, like every other city of its class and consequence, must be prepared to meet the demands and requirements, not only of its own people, but of those who, through business or pleasure, become our guests. 

We pride ourselves on the fact that we are the capital of a great state, but we should have a personality and an individuality of our own and not be dependent upon the state for the means of hospitality and entertainment for our visitors.  Outside of the two great cities, we are fast becoming the convention city of the state, and our importance in this respect will increase with every passing year.

A Convention Hall, centrally located, built and paid for by our own people, for the free use of our people and those who come to the capital, would, in my opinion, result in a great increase of our civic pride and advertise us throughout the state more favorably and extensively than any other single factor except good streets in the city and good roads leading to the city.

His friends called him “Tom,” because of his middle name.  He died in 1930.

It took fifty-five years for Mrs. Houchin’s dream of a YMCA to materialize.  It’s now ninety-four years and still talking since Tom Dumm voiced his hope.

Waiting for the Nobel Prize

Today we want to recognize an important first step in re-shaping economic thinking so significantly that reducing or eliminating the national debt could be done easily, a concept so brilliant that—if appropriately expanded—could merit international recognition.

The tax bill recently approved by the House of Representatives in Washington proposes to tax graduate student tuition waivers.  For those of us who never got far enough in our higher education to be offered those waivers or who came along before they were widespread in higher education, here’s how they work:

A University tells a student pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate they will not have to pay tuition if they help teach or do research beneficial to the university.  The university pays those students a small stipend for their work so they can eat and pay their rent.

The House bill wants to consider the tuition waiver as income.   And to tax it.

It is a matter of considering money a person never has and does not spend as income and then levying an income tax on those never-had and unspent funds.   Think of the possibilities!

Paying a tax on the raise you did not get could provide millions of deficit-reducing dollars to the federal government.  Paying a tax on a stock dividend that did not materialize would add even more.  Considering the difference between what you wanted on a car trade-in and what the dealer gave you as income and taxing that amount would add to the deficit-reducing federal income.

Here’s one we thought of the other day when we went to Columbia where the gas price that day was nineteen cents less per gallon than the price in Jefferson City.  We used our grocery store gas rewards card to knock another forty cents a gallon off of the fuel we put in our tank.  Think how much the federal government could collect if it considered supermarket gas refunds as part of our personal income.

Soon the pre-holiday price reductions we are seeing in our stores will give way to the post-holiday sales prices.  If Congress were to take the simple step of taxing the hundreds of millions of dollars that are not spent because of those pre-and-post-holiday price reductions, the annual federal deficit could be eliminated and bites could be taken out of the total national debt.

The car companies are offering multi-thousand dollar incentives to clear their lots of 2017 models.  If Congress were to consider those price reductions as income and tax it, another important debt-reduction step could be taken.

Think of how much money is saved every single day by people who shop at the day-old bread counter at the grocery store.  It might seem like pennies for each loaf, but when applied nationally and for an entire year, taxing the savings on all of those loaves of day-old bread will add up to millions of dollars a year in tax collections.

Oh, and here’s a biggie.  An industry that decides to build a factory, a warehouse, or any other facility in a foreign country instead of in the United States because it can save millions of dollars in construction and operation costs:  If those savings were considered corporate income and taxed—even at the proposed lowered corporate tax rate—the economic benefit would be enormous.

And—oh, wait, there’s one more and it’s particularly appropriate at this time of year.  Further, it’s pretty comparable to the tuition waiver.   We are awash in online and catalog offers to provide customers with a benefit if the customer provides something of value to the merchant in return for which the merchant waives a fee or charge.  Give us money, says the merchant, and we will give you a sweater but we will waive the shipping charge.  Since the customer receives the benefit–a sweater—but spends no money to receive it, the shipping charge is thus income and can be taxed as such, just as a graduate student receives a benefit—an education—by providing something of value to the university (teaching or research assistance) but does not pay the equivalent of a “shipping charge” to get it and therefore faces paying income taxes on money never possessed or spent.

Think of the incredible benefits this economic philosophy of turning unspent dollars into taxable income could provide if applied widely, assuming the federal government doesn’t just increase spending to or beyond the amount of additional funds it would collect.  Congress could wipe out the national deficit and it could provide billions of dollars that could trickle down throughout America in programs and services beneficial to the poor, the hungry, the sick.

And to graduate students.

We’ll be watching for next year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize for Economics to see if this great advance is deservedly rewarded.

A 95-year old observation whose time might have come

We are four years away from the centennial of Missouri’s centennial.  Missouri’s bicentennial of statehood also will be the centennial of the Missouri Centennial Road Law.   Not everybody thought it was a good idea then. One editor C. G. Sagaser of the  Huntsville Herald might have been something of a seer when he wrote in his June 10, 1921 edition about an upcoming special session of the legislature that would decide how Missouri’s road system would materialize.

Momentum had been building for a decade to develop a system of hard-surface roads.  Voters in 1920 approved a $60 million dollar bond issue to finance those roads.  The legislature and the governor decided to wait until the summer of 1921 to make that decision.

Four days before the session began, Sagaser said, “Something is about to take place in Jefferson City which means more to Missouri than anything which has happened in the past half century…It is up to this special session to say whether this hard surface road building shall be postponed until road material prices have had an opportunity to decline, or whether we shall blindly proceed to hand out this $60,000,000 at once…”

Then there’s another proposition:  Do we want hard surface roads at all?  I certainly have my doubts about their desirability.  If the legislature will postpone any action on the road building program for two years, we shall then have an opportunity to more thoroughly study and acquaint ourselves with the history of hard surface roads in other states, which would assist us in arriving at a conclusion as to what kind of hard surface roads we want, if any at all. (We have added that emphasis for this entry.)

“…The professional politician does not desire a delay in the road building program, because it would give the people too much time to think things over…It has been a long time since Missouri had a state-wide system of hard surface roads, and we have all lived and been a very happy and cheerful race of people, therefore, we should easily be able to live two years longer without even thinking about hard surface roads.

“And when the machine politician talks about ‘hard surface roads,’ he means concrete roads. The hand of the cement trust is plainly visible. I expect the whole thing to terminate in a gigantic steal if it is put through.

“…I say frankly to the people of Missouri that a system of concrete roads will work havoc with us as a state.  In a few years they would become impassable, owing to our financial inability to maintain them.

  There may be states sufficiently wealthy to maintain a general system of concrete roads, but one thing is certain—Missouri is not included among such states.” 

The legislature met for several weeks in the hot and stuffy Capitol before finally compromising on a system of 1,500 miles of roads of a “higher type than claybound gravel” connecting the population centers.  But one-third of the bond money plus $6,000 a mile from the other two-thirds of the bond issue would be used for secondary roads important to farmers.

It was the kind of legislative compromise that used to be possible—an agreement nobody really liked but something that was acceptable.  The Centennial Road Law of 1921 was the beginning of our 32,000 mile state highway system.

But sure enough, as C. G. Sagaser noted ninety-five years ago, the specter of impassibility looms today owing to our financial inability to maintain them.

Our former press corps colleague, David Lieb of the Associated Press, wrote an excellent analysis earlier this week pointing out that our transportation department not only doesn’t have enough money to build roads and bridges, and make comprehensive repairs on our roads and bridges, it’s having to dip into its capital improvements budget to pay off the latest big bond issue approved several years ago to re-surface our deteriorating highways and replace hundreds of dangerous bridges.

A special committee has been looking for solutions in the interim between legislative sessions and a possible fix is expected to be put on the list of bills to consider next year.

The question then will be whether Sagaser is still right with another observation: “There may be states sufficiently wealthy to maintain a general system of concrete roads, but one thing is certain—Missouri is not included among such states.” 

Really?   Still?    Is Sagaser right after all, these ninety-five years later?

 

 

2017: A legislative anniversary that isn’t

This is the seventieth anniversary of the first meeting of Missouri’s Unicameral General Assembly.

Not.

We’ve lost track of the number of years somebody proposed reducing the size of our legislature, usually by doing something mathematical with the number of Senators.   For instance, having three House districts for each Senate district. Using current numbers, that system would cut the size of the House from 163 to 102.  There have been proposals to increase the membership of the Senate to 35, presumably to avoid tie votes, with three or four Representatives per Senate district, for a total House count of 105 to 140.

The proposals might have gotten through the Senate but not surprisingly have had zero chance to finding favor in the House.

There was a time, however, when Missouri came close to eliminating the entire Senate.  All 34 members.   AND cutting the size of the House by one-half to two-thirds!

Imagine Missouri joining Nebraska as the only states with unicameral, or one-house legislatures.

Nebraska’s capitol actually has two legislative chambers.  The Senate, which has a Speaker, meets in the George W. Norris Chamber. The other chamber, used for ceremonial purposes, is called the Warner Memorial Chamber and was used by the Nebraska Senate for a short time before the change to the one-house general assembly beginning in 1937.

Missouri was not among the twenty-some states that immediately started considering switching to one-house legislatures but we weren’t far behind.  The issue was being widely discussed by the spring of 1941.  But opponents feared putting the issue on the 1942 ballot would deflect interest away from another important amendment that would give legislators their first pay increase since the adoption of the Missouri Constitution of 1875.  Lawmakers were paid five dollars a day for the first seventy days of a legislative session and then only a dollar a day for each day afterward.  Supporters of the pay raise believed higher pay would attract better men for the legislature (few women had served by then). But one newspaper suggested the opposite, remarking, “The people might look upon this pay increase with favor if at the same time they had the opportunity to reduce the number of lawmakers by half.”

An organization of businessmen announced in the spring of ’42 that they would circulate petitions calling for a unicameral vote in November.  The constitutional amendment would hike salaries to as much as $150 a month with six dollars a day for each day on legislative business.

A petition drive led by former state Superintendent of Schools Charles A. Lee submitted about 85,000 signatures to the Secretary of State on July 1, calling for a one-house legislature of fifty to seventy-five members as of the 1945 session.

But the whole campaign blew up a few days later when Springfield Justice of the Peace Tom Burns, known as a “marryin’ justice,” and a colleague, Erwin A. Greenhaw, were charged with arranging to have thousands of signatures forged in a “signature mill” in Burns’ basement, paying women and girls three-dollars a day to fake signatures.  Lee’s committee had paid them more than $2,500 to gather signatures on the unicameral petitions. His group withdrew the petitions, which killed the drive for the vote in 1942.  Burns and Greenhaw were later convicted on petition forgery charges. Burns spent two years in the pen. Greenhaw was fined $500.

The incident led State Representative Edgar Keating of Kansas City to introduce a bill in the 1943 legislature  “In recent years the initiative petition has gone to the point of being a racket,” he said, a statement buttressed by the admission of Notary Public Lee Weaver, who said he notarized many of the petitions without ever seeing the person who supposedly circulated them, admitting he had done the same thing for Burns and Greenhaw in the 1936 petition campaign that took the state’s conservation department out of politics.

The House passed the bill on February 25, by a vote of 112-0 with 38 members absent.  The strong vote made no difference to the Senate, which sent the bill to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee where it was never heard from again.

The issue returned in the long session of 1943-44 but was killed in a House committee when five rural members outvoted the two representatives from St. Louis city.  The amendment was similar to an amendment being circulated in a petition backed by a group called “Crusaders for Missouri.”

By now, a constitutional convention was underway, too.  A convention committee endorsed keeping the bicameral system, forcing delegate Stanford Lee Morton of Clayton to withdraw his unicameral proposal and plan to offer it in resolution form to the entire convention later. He wanted voters to have a choice when they voted on the proposed constitution but that idea was opposed by Con-Con President Robert E. Blake, an anti-New Deal Democrat from Webster Groves, and other delegates who wanted to send the proposed document to the vote as a single piece.  Morton had wanted an 81-member unicameral legislature with one Republican and one Democrat from each of the thirty-four senatorial districts and thirteen at-large members elected in partisan elections each of the state’s then-thirteen congressional districts.

When the Crusaders of Missouri submitted their petitions, Secretary of State Gregory Stockard ruled they were one day too late.  But the State Supreme Court said Stockard was mistaken and had to accept them.  This time there was no skullduggery and the petitions were found to have enough signatures to make the November ballot. The Crusaders plan called for a legislature of fifty to seventy-five members with a total payroll of $90,000 a year, the lawmakers elected in standard partisan elections to serve two-year terms. The 1945 legislature would decide the size of the new General Assembly, which would meet for the first time in 1947.

But the proposed state constitution got in the way.

The Missouri Supreme Court on September 27, 1944 guaranteed Missourians would get to vote on a unicameral legislature when it refused to review a Cole County Circuit Court ordering the issue to the November 7 ballot.

However, the convention voted the next day to send the proposed constitution to voters with a two-house general assembly retained.  And just before the convention adjourned with delegates singing one verse of “America” and a prayer that was the second verse of the song, the delegates set February 27, 1945 for voters to decide if Missouri would have its first new constitution in seventy years, a document 11,000 words shorter than the 1875 document that had been amended sixty times.

The Crusaders of Missouri decided to give up their campaign a week after that. The group said it feared its proposal would interfere with the adoption of the constitution.  Plus, adoption of a unicameral legislature in November would become meaningless if voters adopted the constitution with a two-house legislature in February.  The Crusaders asked Stockard to withdraw their plan from the November ballot.  But Stockard couldn’t do it.  Once on the ballot, it stays on the ballot, he said.

The Crusaders decided they would quit campaigning at that point.

On November 7, almost 365,000 Missourians voted for a unicameral legislature, only about 13-hundred fewer than approved calling the constitutional convention.  But 402,000 “no” votes were cast.  The unicameral proposition failed by just 37-thousand votes even though supporters had not campaigned for the last four weeks before the election. The plan carried St. Louis city and county and almost carried Jackson County. Outstate Missouri defeated it by 118,000 votes.

Missourians approved the new constitution in February, 312,032-185,658.  More than fifty-thousand fewer Missourians voted “yes” for the entire constitution than voted for the unicameral general assembly proposal.

A unicameral bill was introduced in the 1945 session but it was killed in a House committee with Miller County Representative Lucien Mace commenting, “It would take some of the power from the country and give it to the cities.”

The Sikeston Herald commented in its May 19th edition, “While the two-house system of government in Missouri may be cumbersome at times, it is believed in the capitol to be the best system yet devised to keep any section of the state from being the balance of power.”

Sikeston, of course, is part of rural Missouri.

And that is why 34 Senators and 163 Representatives still meet each year in Jefferson City.  And why we are not celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Missouri Unicameral this year.

Journalism I

It’s not as if we haven’t been called names before. It’s not the first time that those in power wish reporters weren’t telling people what they’re really up to.  Or thinking about.

Criticisms or attacks from those who wish we weren’t so bothersome to them are not new nor will they ever go away. And what they say about us is sometimes not nearly so scathing as some of the things we say about ourselves.

We have accumulated through the years some of the noble things said about our profession and some of the criticisms leveled at it, internally and externally.  From time to time we will share them with you because we know that journalists have responsibilities and obligations of which they need at times to be reminded. We live in a world of kicks in the butt and occasional pats on the head and we are glad to toil in a nation that allows, if not encourages, both.  Here is a sample of the things said about those of us who do a job that is essential, regardless of whether you agree with what we say and write.

“Controversy? You can’t be any kind of reporter worthy of the name and avoid controversy completely. You can’t be a good reporter and not be fairly regularly involved in some kind of controversy. And I don’t think you can be a great reporter and avoid controversy very often, because one of the roles a good journalist plays is to tell the tough truths as well as the easy truths. And the tough truths will lead you to controversy, and even a search for the tough truths will cost you something. Please don’t make this play or read as any complaint, it’s trying to explain this goes with the territory if you’re a journalist of integrity. That if you start out a journalist or if you reach a point in journalism where you say, ‘Listen, I’m just not going not touch anything that could possibly be controversial,’ then you ought to get out.”

—Dan Rather, Staff, May 5, 2001

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer, The Snark Handbook

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism. I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”

—Walter Williams, founder of the nation’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri (1908), The Journalist’s Creed (partial)

“Journalism is unlike any other craft. It most closely resembles show business. There’s an undeniable element of ego in journalism, and an equally undeniable element of self-sacrifice. Performers know the show must go on. Journalists know the paper has to come out on time.”

—Donald L. Ferguson, Opportunities in Journalism Careers

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“There is a line I would often share when I was a newspaper reporter talking to people who complained that we only reported ‘bad news.’ I would tell them: ‘It’s not news when a plane lands safely.’ And it’s not. ‘Everybody lived happily ever after’ is a great ending, but if they lived happily the whole time you wouldn’t bother reading.”

—Rick Polito, newhope360, January 20, 2016

 

“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.

Citizens do not think through the meaning of a free press.  Too many regard it merely as a profitable privilege of publishers, instead of the right of all the people and the chief institution of representative government.  A free press is that privilege of citizenship which makes governmental dictatorship impossible.  When editors fight for the liberty to speak and write, they fight for the greatest of all human rights under government.  He is not thoughtful who cannot see that democracy cannot exist except through the maintenance of a channel through which information can flow freely from the center of government to all the people and through which praise and criticism can flow freely from the people to the center.

—American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1938

So the journalist, the reporter, flourishes in this climate of scorn and principle. And your correspondent cannot think of anything he would rather be doing with his life than living in that climate.

We’ll let you inside that climate from time to time in the future.

 

0000

The founders and the 501(c)(4)s

We honor fifty-six men today who were unafraid of being known although they knew their lives were at risk and an enemy was nearby. We should ask ourselves today how poorly we are keeping faith with them.

Your observer is intrigued by the idea advanced by some that people giving large sums of money to organizations that influence political decisions should be protected while the people on my quiet street who might give twenty dollars to a campaign cannot hide.

The issue came up late in the regular legislative session when some senators defending a colleague who was personally attacked by a dark money political action committee tried to pass a bill requiring such committees to disclose their donors.  Regular campaign committees have to list their donors in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  But the Super PACs, as they’re called, are formed for people who don’t want anybody to know who they are or how much they give. And these organizations appear to attract big-money donations that can finance anonymous personal attacks on other individuals in the political system or influence leaders to see things their ways.

Defenders of the dark money organizations say the secret organizations are necessary to protect donors from political retaliation.  It’s a freedom of speech matter, they say; these people would not be free to express their political positions if they had to do so publicly.

That’s kind of hard for the twenty-dollar donor who lives next door to understand.  How is it that somebody who lives in a big mansion can afford MORE freedom of speech than the people who live on my street in nice but modest homes can afford?  Are not we all equal under the First Amendment?

Apparently not in today’s political climate.  Twenty dollars donated to a candidate or a cause requires your name be on a list that your neighbors of differing political beliefs can see.  And if the candidate you support makes irresponsible claims, you can be held partly responsible.  On the other hand, if your candidate shows inspirational leadership, you can take some of the credit.

It takes courage to donate twenty dollars in the sunshine.  Cowardice lurks in the dark where much bigger donations flow. Our nation was not born in such cowardice.

Let us ponder how different our nation would be today if fifty-six men in 1776 anonymously issued a broadside accusing King George III of all kinds of awful things. Suppose the accusations carried the tag line, “Paid for by Citizens for Free Colonies,” an eighteenth century Super PAC that was not required to file any reports showing who was behind the attack.

But they didn’t do it.  Various sources estimating the wealth of those 56 signers show Oliver Wolcott, John Witherspoon, George Walton, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams were estimated to be worth 100 British Pounds in 1776.  University of Wyoming professor Eric Nye, on his Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website, calculates those five men would be worth $16,358 today.  On the other end, Charles Carroll III of Carrollton, Maryland and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania were worth 110,000 British Pounds in 1776 (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.asp), which Nye calculates would be just short of $18 million today.  John Hancock of Massachusetts, whose signature is the boldest, was the third wealthiest at about $12.8 million in today’s money.

Five men who were well below today’s poverty level were joined by men who could buy my entire neighborhood in speaking freely to absolute power.  And they knew full well what “political retaliation” could await them.

Fifty-six men who knew they were risking the noose or the firing squad were unafraid to let it be known what they were supporting politically. They were unafraid to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Our founders had the courage to proclaim their positions in the most public manner of their times. We became a nation because rich men and poor men, those living in privilege and those living in poverty, alike shared the personal courage to speak freely and openly.

What kind of people have we become that some of us are so afraid of “political retaliation” that is so mild compared to what our founders risked? What kind of people have we become that we will tolerate the argument that freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize those we elect, as well as the freedom to support those we select, should place those who can afford to attack from the darkness into a protected status?

Dare we continue to tolerate the noise from unknown voices in that darkness, and their defenders, and allow them to overcome the quiet sound of quill pens writing signatures on our founding document if we are to consider ourselves true descendants of those fifty-six men who had the courage to stand in the light?