Recently, I’ve read several Letters to the Editor in the News Tribune debating the source of rights. Some have argued that government grants us our rights. Others have opined that our rights are gifts from God. This debate goes to the heart of the American identity. For proof that our Founders believed rights were natural and not subject to bureaucratic or political whim, look to the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration does not say that we are “afforded” certain rights by government. Those who believe that fundamental “rights” are like government entitlements put government before God. But our country was founded on the belief that there are some areas into which government must not intrude.
On Thursday, the House passed legislation regarding the fundamental right to religious freedom. House Bill 104 creates the Student Freedom of Association Act, which would prohibit state colleges and universities from discriminating against student religious groups based on the group’s insistence that leadership or members comply with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
For two days, the opposition twisted its talking points and pretzeled the debate to make the bill about repulsive or objectionable beliefs. The opponents completely miss the point. For example, the ACLU has often assigned black or Jewish lawyers to defend the KKK in First Amendment lawsuits. Does that mean those lawyers support the KKK’s repulsive beliefs? Of course not.
Our First Amendment rights to religion, speech, assembly, and association, endowed by our Creator, are not subject to government approval. The First Amendment is designed not just to protect popular or politically correct religious beliefs or speech. It is designed to protect all religious beliefs and speech – even repulsive ones.
Voting to further protect students’ rights to freedom of religious association is not an endorsement of any particular religion. Instead, it’s a vote to provide further support to a fundamental right. Whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Pentecostal, atheist, or any other religious persuasion, no Missourian should be discriminated against for exercising their rights to religious association.
Seeking a Better Path on Tax Policy
On Thursday, the House also passed Senate Bill 149, which creates a narrow new tax exemption for data storage and processing facilities in the state. I voted no because the bill takes the wrong approach to economic development in our state.
On tax policy, we have two potential paths.
The first is the path of tax credits and exemptions. Here, government plays central-planner where politicians pick and bureaucrats track the businesses they deem worthy of special tax status. Those businesses and industries savvy enough to hire lobbyists and lawyers know how to reduce their tax liability through this process.
A bi-partisan cast of politicians stroll down this path, where they are positions to disperse taxpayer money to favored groups. The first path appeals to the “fatal conceit” that politicians are smart enough to predict growth industries and plan the economy.
This path also involves the alleged creation of jobs you can see and things you can touch. You can see the new data center being built. You can hold an Internet server in your hands. And when businesses take advantage of the special tax breaks, you can almost always find a politician ready to take credit regardless of whether the credit made any difference in the decision.
The second choice is the path of lower tax rates for all Missourians. But the second path has drawbacks for politicians. It does not afford the possibility of claiming credit with the opening of a new factory. Nor does it allow them to make the doling out decisions. It requires the humility to recognize that a person does not gain economic omniscience just by winning an election.
Last year, the legislature took a large step down this path with the passage of a broad-based tax cut for every single Missourian. The bill also had the unintended but beneficial consequence of encouraging fiscal discipline because last year’s tax cut does not take effect unless state general revenue grows by at least $125 million. Against that backdrop, every bill that diminishes general revenue now directly competes with the broad-based tax cut we worked so hard to pass.
Senate Bill 149 has a relatively modest fiscal estimate. The Department of Economic Development predicts it will cost more than $750,000, but is not specific. There are some who believe this “modest” impact is worth the risk. But even modest impacts add up. SB 149 is not alone. It is one of dozens of bills working their way through the legislature which would adversely impact general revenue and make broad-based tax cuts less likely. For that reason, I voted no and will continue to do so on similar bills as session proceeds.
Taking a Break – The legislature has its annual break next week and I’ll be taking a break from this column as well. Unfortunately, it won’t be all R&R. There’s work to do at the law office and there’s a partially-built DIY shed sitting on our back driveway that I’ve procrastinated on for two months with the thought that I’d finish it over spring break. Now that it’s in this column, it’s a public pledge. There’s also a good chance my better half will have this printed and placed on our fridge until it’s finished.