The Missouri legislature’s reputation has taken a beating this summer. The bad acts of the few have maligned the reputation of the many. I’ve long advocated for ethics reform – and call me naive, but I do not recognize the capitol culture depicted in many articles as the same place I work every day from January to May.
The capitol culture most people experience who work in the building is not Sesame Street, but it’s also not Animal House. It’s obvious from the news of the past three months that there are legislators who become corrupted by power and the sycophancy attached to it. (Or maybe they came to office particularly susceptible to temptation.) Most legislators, however, – Republican and Democrat – are good people who try to do their best for constituents.
So what can be done? A gift limit would definitely help. A more formal, centralized internship program would help keep the focus where it should be. Standing up for those who speak up is a must. Finally, more clearly written rules and training won’t hurt. But let’s not pretend there’s a magic rule out there that will prevent all scandals. Power corrupts. Human beings are corruptible. In the most recent cases, the formal and centralized internship program would certainly have helped, but more clearly defined written rules would not likely have prevented the outcomes.
Does any normal person really need a written rule to know it’s not appropriate for a legislator to drink heavily with an intern or invite them to their apartment? The same is true for sexually explicit text messages from elected officials to interns.
Here’s a basic rule of conduct for legislators: if you wouldn’t want your spouse, kids, parents, or constituents to know what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be doing it. That works everywhere in life. The vast majority of legislators already follow it, and every legislator should.
Missourians deserve better. All elected officials ought to hold themselves and be held to a higher standard. When one takes an oath, they become the voice – and a true representative – of their community. We serve in the public trust and our actions in office – good and bad- reflect on our own community.
Our state capitol will never be an idyllic oasis of angels. And I don’t think anyone expects that it will. Creating new rules won’t prevent every future scandal. Humans will always be human. But fostering an atmosphere that supports those who speak up and lets potential predators know their actions may end up on the front page of their hometown newspaper will make a difference. I’m hopeful that these recent events will mark a sharp turning point in the culture of state government.
With the scandal-news as the backdrop, I was grateful for the opportunity this week to assist a mock legislative session hosted by the Missouri Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities. On Tuesday, these students from around the state convened in Jefferson City to visit their capitol and meet Gov. Nixon.
Leading student sessions like these are refreshing. They are enthusiastic and ready to learn. It’s fun to see them absorb how things work so quickly. After about 15 minutes, the young man elected Speaker for this session was already doing well enough to show he could preside over an actual House session with a little more practice.
Their topic for debate this week was Senate Bill 174, sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-St. Louis). SB 174 created the Missouri Achieving a Better Life Experience program this year. This legislation, carried by Speaker Todd Richardson in the House, allows families of Missourians with a disability to open a tax-exempt savings account to pay for expenses related to the disability. Anyone can make a tax-deductible contribution of $8,000 per individual or $16,000 for married couples to another Missourian’s ABLE account.
“Helping children with disabilities is not a partisan issue, it’s a human issue. It is about the right of all children to realize their God-given potential,” Gov. Nixon said when he signed the bill into law on June 29. “The Missouri ABLE program will allow people with disabilities and their families to save money in a special, tax exempt savings account so that they can provide for their basic necessities, and maintain a better quality of life. It’s a common sense, compassionate piece of legislation.”
Not surprisingly, the Mo ABLE bill passed by wide margins – with only a single no vote in the entire legislature. Our state legislation follows a federal law passed in 2014, which allows persons with disability to save up to $100,000 tax-free. In addition, any interest earned on the savings is tax free.
Scandal makes better copy. Partisan or ideological conflict supplies juicier bits for attack ads. Yet, the business of Missouri government still includes people of good will working to make Missouri a better place.
Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri announced in July that it would start performing abortions again in Missouri on August 3. They announced the same week as video surfaced showing Planned Parenthood leaders haggling over prices for body parts of aborted children. The issue now is whether Planned Parenthood would violate state law if it starts performing abortions at its Columbia facility. In 2007, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring abortion clinics to follow the same rules as other ambulatory surgical centers.
Planned Parenthood sued. It eventually settled the case and was allowed to continue operating without making the changes required by law. Essentially, their existing facility was “grandfathered” in. Planned Parenthood then ceased performing abortions. Generally, a “grandfather” clause expires when the party claiming its protection stops the grandfathered activity. That’s exactly what happened here.
It is not known whether Planned Parenthood has made the necessary upgrades to its facility to comply with state law. But it was issued a permit. At a hearing this week, the legislative liaison for the Department of Health and Senior Services was not able to answer basic questions about the permitting process. They shouldn’t have been issued a permit until, if and when, they are compliant. I’m confident that Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chairman of the committee leading the investigation, will continue to ask the right questions and will eventually get the necessary answers.