Category Archives: Capitol Reports

How Government Regulation Kills Innovation – Uber Edition

Government works best when it determines the rules of the road, not the composition of the traffic. That’s the pithy libertarian case for less regulation, first formulated by law professor Richard Epstein. Government should make simple rules that apply to everyone  – not micro-manage industries or pick winners and losers.

When most people hear of “over-regulation,” they tend to think of the EPA or another federal agency strangling an industry with red tape. In this critical view of regulation, it’s bureaucrats versus businesses.  But in reality, some of regulation’s most insidious effects arise from entrenched business interests that use the regulatory process to stifle competition.

For example, entrenched businesses may benefit from expensive new regulations precisely because the cost makes it more difficult for upstarts or smaller companies to compete. Dodd-Frank is the best recent example. Passed in the wake of the financial meltdown to allegedly crackdown on Wall Street, the law has instead helped big Wall Street banks consolidate market-share.

According to Marshall Lux and Robert Greene of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, since Dodd-Frank, the market-share held by community banks has declined rapidly. Between 2006 and 2010, community banks shrank by six percent. Since Dodd-Frank passed in 2010, community banks have declined by more than 12 percent. The authors explain that Dodd-Frank gutted small banks by “piling up regulatory costs on institutions that neither pose systemic risks nor have the diversified businesses to support such costs.” As one North Carolina banker quoted by the authors explained, “When they created ‘too big to fail,’ they also created ‘too small to succeed.’”

This phenomenon is perhaps even more prevalent at the state and local level. At these lower levels of government, thousands of regulatory licensing boards both police industries and act as a roadblock to new competition or new business models.

Take upstart Uber as an example. Uber is an app-based transportation company that allows consumers around the world to find drivers willing to give them a ride. Uber users download an app. When you’re ready for a ride, you ask the app to find the nearest Uber-approved driver. Your driver shows up and off you go.

Uber is easier and often less expensive than hailing a cab. No surprise then – consumers love it and traditional cab companies don’t. So, like any other industry facing an existential threat to its existing business model, cab companies and drivers are fighting back. In Illinois, they convinced the legislature to enact more expensive standards for cab companies. In Portland, city officials sued to prevent Uber from operating until it acquired expensive permits for every driver. In Nevada, Uber was forced to shut-down. 

The anti-competitive fever may be highest in St. Louis, where a Metropolitan Taxicab Commission controlled by existing operators has the power to disapprove of new competitors for any reason it deems fit – including unwanted competition. Three members of this Cab Cabal own companies that are supposed to be regulated by the commission. Worse, in a rule that would be more appropriate for Chinese-style capitalism, new operators in St. Louis must first apply to the Cabal for a “certificate of convenience and necessity.” In turn, the Cabal has the “power to issue or refuse any Certificate as the public welfare, convenience or necessity may require.” The Cabal can even turn down an application because it doesn’t like the color scheme of the applicant’s vehicles.

If Uber had not tried to enter the market in St. Louis, this ridiculous cabal might have continued without significant challenge. But now that it has – and been denied, people are taking notice. Thousands of would-be small business owners have requested information from Uber on how to become a driver in Missouri, only to be thwarted by the taxi cab cabal. Even more consumers have sent Uber inquiries asking when the app will be available for use in the 19th largest metropolitan market in the country.

The St. Louis taxi cabal won’t budge, so state legislators are taking action. Along with State Senator Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia), I filed legislation to bypass the cabal by creating a state-wide licensing process for companies like Uber. House Bill 792 would require “transportation network companies” to conduct background checks on drivers and carry adequate insurance.

Missouri consumers and entrepreneurs shouldn’t have to kiss the rings of the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission to freely engage in a simple market transaction.  Existing cab companies should not have the legal authority to kill new competition for any reason – let alone color scheme or a requirement that the new competitor show a “need” for a new company. Instead, any licensing regime should prescribe simple rules of the road, but not seek to determine or limit the composition of the traffic. 

Ethics Bills Moving

On Monday, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability will hear seven ethics bills, including four of my own. In addition, I expect that the Senate will move quickly on a broad ethics bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Richard. These are just the latest in a series of action that have begun to improve the ethics climate in the capitol. When we adopted our Rules, we put an end to “issues” committee which were often used so legislators could eat for free without being individually reported. On Wednesday, Speaker John Diehl appropriately banned off-site committee meetings during session. It’s my hope that these are just the first in several changes on the way.

General Assembly Rejects Politician Pay Increases

On Thursday, the Senate approved my resolution formally rejecting the proposed politician pay increase proposed by the Citizen’s Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials. To do so, they had to overcome opposition from two Democratic senators who threatened a filibuster. Much credit goes to Sen. Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph), who handled the resolution, and to Sens. Mike Kehoe, Jeannie Riddle, and Kurt Schaefer from mid-Missouri.

In the Senate, filibusters kill more bills than actual votes. When the resolution came back up for debate Thursday, Sen. Schaaf noted there was opposition and announced he had a motion to shut off debate on his desk that any senator could sign. I wasn’t there, but it’s been reported to me that Sen. Kehoe immediately marched over to Sen. Schaaf’s desk to sign the motion.

It wasn’t much later that the Senate formally voted to reject the politician pay raises. I’m pleased that the Senate did the right thing. Keeping legislator pay modest helps ensure a citizen government, and there is no case to be made for increasing legislator salaries when they’re already sixteenth highest in the nation while our state employees are the worst-paid.

No New Stadium Debt Without Public Debate

Rome had its gladiators and the Coliseum. American states and local governments have taxpayer-funded NFL stadiums. Since 1992, you’ve been paying for the Rams stadium in St. Louis. Under legislation passed in 1991, Missouri taxpayers have paid $12 million per year to pay for construction of the Rams existing stadium. That obligation will continue until 2022.

When the state and local governments initially negotiated a 30 year lease with the Rams, it gave the team the right to end the lease if the dome was not in the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums. Because of an NFL building spree, the Edward Jones Dome is no longer a top tier facility. In 2012, Rams owner Stan Kroenke started negotiations with St. Louis officials to improve the dome, and dropped not-so-subtle hints that he was looking westward.

Late last year, it was disclosed that Kroenke bought a sizable chunk of land in southern California and was working on plans to build a stadium there. Around the same time, Gov. Nixon asked a two-man task force to develop a plan to keep the Rams in St. Louis. That plan was released on January 9 and required up to $350 million in new public moneys to fund a new stadium. So far, Gov. Nixon’s been mum on how that public financing might work.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee for General Administration met to take budget testimony from officials in Gov. Nixon’s administration regarding public debt. I started the hearing with a $350 million question: does Gov. Nixon believe he has the legal authority to burden Missouri taxpayers with up to $350 million in new debt to finance a new stadium for the St. Louis Rams without any action of the General Assembly or a public vote?

Gov. Nixon’s position is that he has legal authority, based on a 24 year old statute to unilaterally saddle you with more than a quarter billion dollars in new debt for a brand-new stadium that our children’s children would likely still be paying off 37 years from now.

Potential bond buyer beware: if the Nixon administration attempts to bind Missouri taxpayers with new debt without any legislative action, litigation challenging the bonds is quite likely. Any such bonds should be branded with an asterisk – *subject to litigation.

Forget the legalities for a minute though, and just consider the policy. If Gov. Nixon believes it’s a wise investment of taxpayer money, he ought to present a plan to the General Assembly. A quarter billion dollars over 30 years is real money. It deserves a public hearing, and action should not be taken unless Gov. Nixon can gain the support of the people’s elected Representatives and Senators in the General Assembly.

I’m highly skeptical of any stadium-funding proposal. On a philosophical level, stadium financing is not an appropriate role for government. This is not Rome. The NFL is a private business run by billionaires. Where we have it, welfare ought to be limited to those who are poor and deserving, not doled out to the wealthy or indolent.

As for return-on-investment, every economic study I’ve ever seen shows that these “investments” rarely, if ever, pay off for local governments. Ironically, if you consider income tax revenue from St. Louis Rams employees and visiting NFL players, a deal for the Rams may actually make more economic sense than the Boeing giveaway. But regardless of my opinion or the precise ROI calculations, at the very least, taxpayers deserve a greater say in what happens next.

Speech Week at the Capitol

State of the State

The Missouri Constitution mandates that the legislature do three things every year: pass a budget and listen to both the governor and the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court gives speeches. That’s all the constitution requires. This week, we knocked out two of the three.

On Wednesday night, Gov. Nixon gave his seventh State of the State address. His reception was polite, but cold. And his speech was long on rhetoric, but short on details. 

He said the legislature should strongly consider toll roads and raising the gas tax to solve a transportation funding shortfall. But he stopped short of explicitly endorsing either. (I’m a yes on tolls and a no on raising the gas tax.)

He called education the “great equalizer” (it is) and asked the legislature to deliver a “clean” transfer bill to his desk. In this case, “clean” is a euphemism for something that passes his ideological litmus test. This was probably the most awkward moment of the speech. When he expressed confidence that the legislature would pass a “clean” bill to his desk, Gov. Nixon was met with silence.

Last year, a bi-partisan, cross-regional coalition of lawmakers endured months of long nights and tense negotiations to put an education reform bill on Gov. Nixon’s desk. We debated big issues and haggled over minutiae. We laughed and swore. Finally, we passed a bill with a veto proof majority in the Senate and a large majority in the House. Meanwhile, Gov. Nixon never offered a plan. His only engagement was with his veto pen. To his credit, however, Gov. Nixon has already engaged legislative leaders on the transfer issue this year. But after his long self-imposed absence, he cannot reasonably expect appreciation.

Gov. Nixon later called for ethics reform, agreeing with my earlier comments that Missouri has the weakest ethics laws in the country. But again, he failed to offer any details.

Finally, in the strangest part of the speech, Gov. Nixon stopped just short of declaring war on Kansas, which has proposed a 360-mile aqueduct to steal our water from the Missouri River. I doubt there’s any member of the General Assembly who wants Kansas to steal our vital resources. But what’s the action item for the General Assembly? We can’t tell Kansas what to do any more than Kansas can tell us what to do. The battleground likely will be with the Army Corps of Engineers, Congress, or, if necessary, the Supreme Court. But other than beating our chests and passing non-binding resolutions, there’s not much the Missouri legislature can do.

Disappointed with Proposed State Budget

After modest pay increases in three of the last four years, Gov. Nixon did not propose a pay increase for state employees in this year’s budget. This is disappointing. There are other budget items that should be lower priority. One example – an apparent plan to spend $70 million on water infrastructure that would be more appropriate to be borne by ratepayers in the affected areas rather than general taxpayers. On the bright side, health insurance premiums for state employees will not increase. While other Missourians have suffered from rising health insurance costs due to Obamacare, the state budget has consistently held state employees harmless – and Gov. Nixon’s budget proposal continues the practice.

With pay raises absent from the initial proposal, it will be very difficult to get them in the budget at the end – and, of course, they’d be subject to line-item veto. Nevertheless, I will try and am confident that other representatives and senators from mid-Missouri will as well.

State of the Judiciary

On Thursday, Chief Justice Mary Russell delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address. She began her speech with a short note about the crucial role that the right to trial by jury plays (and has always played) in our constitutional republic. It is a right which traces all the way back to the Magna Carta. It was a right cited as a reason for severing ties with England in the Declaration of Independence (“For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”) And it’s a right present in both our federal and state constitutions.

The State of the Judiciary, however, is much different from the State of the State. It’s not appropriate for a judge to opine on the political issues of the day. By necessity then, the speech is limited to extolling general principles of law and explaining how Missouri courts are improving processes and procedures.

Judge Russell’s reception was warm and welcoming. Her “undercover judge” work over the past year has endeared her to legislators and Missourians who appreciate her willingness to personally examine the real-world work of Missouri courts. Her attitude and accessibility is a great example for other judges and for all public officials. 

No to Politician Pay Raise Resolution Advances 

On Tuesday, the House approved the resolution I sponsored to reject the proposed politician pay raises recommended by the Citizen’s Commission on Elected Official Pay. The final vote was 135 to 13. It now moves to the Senate for consideration, and will be heard by the Senate Committee on Rules Tuesday morning.

Committee Assignments, Politician Pay Increases, and Legislation 101

Committee Assignments

On Tuesday, Speaker John Diehl announced appointments for committee chairmanships. I’m pleased to report that I was re-appointed as chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability. As chairman of this committee for the last four years, starting with the Mamtek debacle, we have investigated waste, fraud, and abuse in state government. We’ve also debated and passed substantive bills arising from those investigations.  The committee’s investigations have typically been reactive. In this session, I intend for the committee to take more pro-active role. In coming weeks, I will write more about what this will mean.

I have also been appointed to the House Committees on Ethics, Consumer Affairs, and Appropriations for General Administration.

Politician Pay Raise Refusal Advances

On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee heard and approved HCR 4, a resolution I sponsored that rejects the politician pay raises recommended by the Citizens’ Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials. In December, the Commission recommended a $4,000 or 11 percent raise for state legislators, and eight to ten percent raises for statewide elected officials.

Over the past four years, state employees have received steady (but small) pay increases. We still rank near the very bottom of state employee pay for the entire country. By stark contrast, Missouri legislators already enjoy the 16th highest salaries in the country.

Serving in elected office is an incredible honor. We don’t need to increase the salaries. I anticipate that the House will take up and pass HCR 4 next week as our first substantive act of the new legislative session.

Bill Success Rate – Legislation 101

Last Sunday, the News-Tribune ran an informative piece on the role that filing actual legislation plays in a legislator’s job. It was interesting to see the sidebar chart showing my legislative filing and “success” rate. According to the chart, I’ve sponsored 71 bills, of which three have passed.

The article rightly explained that whether a particular bill passes   does not, alone, indicate whether a legislator was successful in filing the bill.  With 163 House members and 34 senators, no single member of the General Assembly (except the House budget chair) is able to pass more than a handful of bills in any session. So, why file more than a few bills? Simple – there’s more than one way to change the law.

You can, of course, pass the bill itself. More likely, however, you attach the bill as an amendment to another bill that’s moving. Or, you handle a Senate version of a similar – or identical – bill that passes. If you have an idea for legislation but do not file an actual bill, your chances of success in adding it as an amendment are greatly diminished. The committee process vets an idea.

Most bills I have sponsored were not filed with the intention of pushing that particular bill number to become law. I’m not driven by the “glory” of getting my name on a bill that I can hang on the wall. My objective is improving our state. I file these bills to secure a hearing, and a positive vote on the bill from the committee.

Armed with that committee vote, I later attach the bill as an amendment to a different bill.  The floor speech follows a template, “This amendment would improve our state by (describe what it does). And, Mr. Speaker, I must note, it is identical to a bill I filed that was passed by a wide, bi-partisan margin in committee.” The second sentence eases the path to adoption. And you never get to say it unless you go through the process of filing the bill, requesting a hearing, testifying on it, and then urging the committee chairman to pass it.

I reviewed the bills I’ve sponsored and tallied the number that were incorporated as amendments to other bills. Together with the three bills that became law on their own, I counted 21 bills that became law through amendments. For example, House Bill 1208 from 2012 would have prohibited rapists from using child custody cases as leverage against their victims. That particular bill did not pass by itself but was included as an amendment in House Bill 1256, which did become law.

Amendments are also occasionally offered that weren’t proposed as bills. My favorite example comes from 2012 when I offered an amendment to Senate Bill 749 that requires insurers to inform consumers if coverage for surgical abortions were added to their insurance plans and allow pro-life Missourians to exclude such coverage from their own plans. The Catholic Conference dubbed it “the Barnes amendment” and it became law to give pro-life Missourians the right to choose whether they would pay for someone else’s abortion in their insurance plan or not.

Finally, every once in a while you can change Missouri law without even passing a bill. That’s what happened with House Bill 1986, a bill I sponsored in 2012 to require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to purchase software to detect and deter cheating on standardized tests.  Without having to pass an actual bill, DESE decided to purchase the software on its own for the next school year.

As Mark Twain famously noted, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” The number of bills filed versus passed is a misleading indicator of a legislator’s effectiveness. It gauges a general legislative activity, but doesn’t measure success. It also fails to account for a legislator’s efforts to stop bad bills or bad amendments – an equally important task.

One of the local legislators (Rep. Caleb Jones from Columbia) in last week’s story filed more bills than me (81) and only passed four. Yet, he was recently voted as the top legislator who “gets things done” by readers of an inside-the-Capitol newsletter called In the same poll, I was voted as the top legislator who “does their homework.”  These polls are meaningless in the big picture, but still nice to receive recognition for hard work from people who observe the legislature on a daily basis.  

Time to Get to Work

With the pomp-and-circumstance over, I’m eager to start working. Committees have been announced, but assignments have not been made yet. I will hopefully bring you that news next week.

While waiting for that announcement, I’ve been busy filing bills. So far, I’ve filed 12 bills and one resolution. The resolution rejects the proposed salary increases for elected officials. Those bills fall into three categories: ethics, health care, and criminal justice. I’ve written previously about the ethics proposals and the salary rejection resolution, so this week I’ll focus on the other two.

Health Care

I have proposed three “small ball” Medicaid reform bills. These bills don’t move Medicaid into the optimal market-based space;  but they make incremental improvements that will yield better outcomes and savings for taxpayers.

House Bill 319 expands the list of providers eligible to provide Medicaid services through telehealth, or the use of new electronic communications technologies. The most common, and probably oldest, example of telehealth, is radiology. A radiologist can review x-rays, MRI, and other records without being in the same room, or even the same country, as the patient. A technician takes the scan and forwards the necessary medical information to the doctor.

As technology has improved, telehealth services are available in other areas as well. For example, a dermatologist in Columbia could help diagnose an unusual rash or skin lesion using a high-resolution digital photograph taken by a family practice physician in Eldon. House Bill 319 would facilitate the expansion of telehealth services where medically appropriate.

House Bill 320 is similar to a bill I filed last year and would require the Department of Social Services to develop incentives programs to encourage health care providers to open health clinics in or near high poverty schools. In 2009, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation creating a similar program in Texas and research has shown that these clinics both improve health outcomes for children in poverty and save taxpayer money by reducing unnecessary emergency room visits.

Because this bill’s opponents have engaged in deception, it’s important to point out that (1) consent of a child’s parent or guardian would be required before a student received any services, (2) no school-based clinic could perform or refer for abortion or contraceptives, (3) the student’s medical records would not become a part of their education records, (4) schools would not be turned into medical providers and no health care provider could collocate without permission of the school, and (5) there’s no new Medicaid eligibility in the bill.

The bill is simple. We have children currently on Medicaid who are emergency room frequent flyers and/or who don’t always receive timely medical care. We know where these kids are during the school day. HB 320 creates incentives to make health care more convenient for these children which, in turn, helps keep them out of the emergency room and saves taxpayer money.

House Bill 386 creates incentives for primary care physicians to serve Medicaid patients outside of normal business hours. Like House Bill 320, it would push Medicaid recipients to receiving health care services in a more appropriate and less expensive setting than the emergency room.

Criminal Justice

House Bill 332 would tighten the “Mack’s Creek Law” to limit local government to collecting ten percent (down from 30 percent their annual general operating revenues from fines and court costs for traffic violations. This bill is identical to a bill sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt (R – St. Louis County). I expect that a similar or identical may also be filed by Rep. Paul Curtman (R – Union).  A municipality that subsists only by extracting heavy fines for traffic violations from its own citizens, or those unfortunate enough to pass through, should be forced to close its troll gates. St. Louis County is littered with such municipalities. (By comparison, Jefferson City collects less than 4 percent of its revenue from fines.)

Local governments will, of course, oppose this bill. Vigorously. Those facing those loss of power naturally oppose the change.  One criticism I’ve already heard is that we’re limiting the power of government. To that I plead guilty as charged. (An aside: I thought about filing a bill like this last year but decided against it because I thought it would be too difficult to take on all of the local government lobbyists. Events over the summer obviously made success more likely.)

House Bill 334 would require prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to have a written policy directing investigations of officer-involved shootings to outside agencies and prosecutors. They could appoint a prosecutor in a neighboring jurisdiction or a person designated by the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, an entity within state government which helps elected prosecutors throughout the state. This is already a common practice. A recent local example (though not involving a shooting) was the death of Brandon Ellingson at the Lake, where the local prosecutor appropriately recused himself and appointed a special prosecutor.

As I wrote previously, prosecutors should not bring charges because of political pressure, public spectacle or general calls for justice disconnected from the actual facts. I respect and, indeed, agree with the grand jury’s decision, and I depart from those who impugn St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. This bill is about general confidence in the criminal justice system. It would not increase the power of the Attorney General or Governor because I have less confidence in the ability of persons in those positions (past, present, and future) to make judgments free from political pressure and bias than other local elected prosecutors or an attorney designated by MoOPS. And it would not re-open the Michael Brown file. It states that it would only apply to situations occurring after August 28, 2015. It would, however, increase confidence in our criminal justice system.

Prosecutors are biased in favor of law enforcement. That’s their role in our adversarial system. Remember the last campaign ad you noticed for a prosecutor who promisednot to side with law enforcement? Of course not. We don’t want prosecutors to be “impartial” regarding law enforcement officers within their own jurisdiction. We want them to work closely with law enforcement officers to put bad people in jail. While the prosecutor’s position requires  sufficient independence and fairness to exercise prosecutorial discretion, they still play for the same team.  In the rare example where the situation is flipped – where a law enforcement officer may have broken the law, House Bill 334 would take the common and best practice and make it law.

Session Preview

The General Assembly will convene its 98th session this Wednesday, January 7. I anticipate much blather by a bi-partisan cast – myself included – about this, that, and the other priorities, and what’s different this time. Legislative leaders will renew commitments to improving our state. Gov. Nixon will do the same – and will likely prepare a State-of-the-State address littered with alluring alliterations, his preferred literary device.

Like Christmas, the start of the legislative process is the same story every year. The speakers may change but the underlying themes remain. Unlike Christmas, the early January legislative service lacks a deeper meaning – and it certainly won’t help save your soul. And yet, the legislative pomp-and-circumstance is more than just going through the motions. It’s the symbolic act  that triggers the process of governance in our one-fiftieth space of our representative Republic.

Because it’s a new legislature this year, the process will begin more slowly. We need operating rules, so that will be our first order of business. I expect there will be several positive changes to the House rules relating to ethics.

After establishing the rules, committees must be formed. Those too will likely be announced in the first week. Incoming Speaker John Diehl is re-vamping the presently sprawling House committee process from one that is disparate and sometimes leads to conflicting policies to one that is better organized and flows through subcommittees.

The “old” committee structure featured 59 standing committees with a single Rules committee. Bills had to work their way through a standing committee and were then referred to Rules, which lacked the authority to make any substantive policy changes to a bill. Rules was an unusual committee under the old setup. It’s where many bills went to die unreported deaths by inaction. Yet, if a committee member spotted a problem with a bill that could have been fixed or reconciled with another bill, they could not effectively make any change. Further, as the funnel for 59 different standing committees, the Rules committee  members had difficult time tracking the details of every bill.

Speaker Diehl’s new system eliminates the gate-keeper function of the Rules committee and will disperse its power across eight to twelve committees with jurisdiction over broad subject areas. For example, Economic Development (where proposed new tax credit giveaways are typically referred) and Ways & Means (tax cut bills) will likely be under the umbrella of a general “Commerce” committee.

Diehl is thus voluntarily relinquishing much of the Speaker’s power. Rather than having to work with only the chair of the Rules committee to kill or move bills after they get out of the original committee, the Speaker has dispersed that power among many more members. Paradoxically, by spreading the powers of the Rules committee around, Speaker Diehl will also facilitate a more consistent policy because the general committees will have greater subject area expertise.

No system yields perfect results. Like Churchill said, democracy is the worst of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. The minutiae of the democratic process matters a great deal. The old House committee system was disjointed at its start with power centralized at its end. The new system will be organized at its start with power decentralized at its end.

After adopting Rules and creating committees, the legislature will get down to the actual business of legislating. I believe the following areas will receive much work and attention:

Ethics reform seems to have real steam this session. Likely topics include: (1) capping gifts to legislators, (2) improving reporting of gifts and out-of-state events, (3) ending the revolving door for legislators to become lobbyists, and (4) improving transparency in campaign advertising.

Tax Credit Reform
I plan on filing legislation in January that ends or reduces dozens of current tax credits and tax exemptions that are targeted to a special few and replace them with a reduction in the overall tax rate for every Missourian. One of the smallest but most obscene examples is the sales tax exemption for legislators for purchases from their state expense account. Rep. Dave Hinson (R-St. Clair) has already proposed House Bill 274, which I believe overlaps in many areas with the bill I am working on. (In case you were wondering, the legislator exemption was passed in 1988.)

The legislature will try, again, to improve failing school districts. Last year, after a series of long nights and difficult negotiations, the House and Senate passed bi-partisan reforms. While we worked, Gov. Nixon did – and said – nearly nothing. He did not, and does not, have a plan of his own. I anticipate the legislature will return to work on the issue this year. As with last year, I will support plans that increase educational options for families, and vigorously oppose proposals designed to trap them in failing schools or school districts.

Ethics Reform

There are two types of political corruption.  The first is fodder for tabloids and Hollywood movies – POLITICIAN TAKES BRIBE! This type of corruption is rare outside of Illinois. But as Auditor Tom Schweich has explained, corruption goes beyond that which is illegal.

The second-type of corruption is more pervasive, and it might be best described as the short-circuiting of the ordinary political process through undue influence. This is the corruption that doesn’t uproot an elected official’s position or unseat any fundamental beliefs, but it may determine an issue’s priority and, when there’s uncertainty, may move them to act in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.

“Short-circuiting” works in different ways – through campaign contributions, gifts, special treatment, false friendship, and access. It causes elected officials to pause before acting against – or just not in lockstep with – their political patrons. “Short-circuiting” can move a legislator from undecided to a yes, from no to undecided (and then eventually to yes), or merely from hell no! to a quiet no. “Short-circuiting” can also move what would otherwise be an afterthought, “oh, if we have some extra time to get it done” legislation, into the “priority” category.

Is it worse in Missouri than other states? Well, we aren’t Illinois. There aren’t any recent prominent examples of prosecutions for Type-1 corruption. But Missouri’s ethics laws are the weakest in the country. We are the only state with unlimited gifts, unlimited campaign contributions, weak campaign finance transparency laws, and no ban on either legislators’ consulting or lobbying during or in the immediate aftermath of public service.

The vast majority of elected officials start (and continue) in public service for the right reasons.  But they are not angels. Madison observed, “If men were angels, government would not be necessary.” If politicians were angels, ethics laws would not be necessary either. Power both corrupts and is a magnet to the already corrupted. Where you find power, you will also find scoundrels and rogues, whose existence crosses parties, regions, and ideology.

Much like I wrote about prosecutor recusals in police shootings, public perception matters even where’s there’s no actual short-circuiting of the political process.  And the public cannot and does not like what it presently sees. That’s why on Monday, I joined Rep. Caleb Rowden (R – Columbia) in filing several bills to add some backbone to Missouri’s ethics laws.

These bills would, among other things, increase transparency by (1) requiring immediate reporting of contributions over $500 received during the legislative session, (2) requiring any entity that spends more than 25 percent of its annual budget on election advertising to file reports listing its donors, (3) requiring all lobbyist expenditures outside the state of Missouri to be reported within 14 days, and (4) requiring individualized reporting of all lobbyist expenditures made outside the capitol.House Bill 228, which I sponsored, will institute a one-year waiting period before a legislator can become a lobbyist.

I anticipate that a bill capping gifts will be filed soon as well. In addition to these measures, I expect that the House will amend its operating rules to put some ethics changes in place immediately. Many similar bills have also been pre-filed in the Missouri Senate. I believe ethics reform has tangible momentum and I am hopeful that several bills will pass in the next legislative session.

Paul Revere, Eric Garner, Rosebud, the NAACP, and the First Amendment

When I learned last week that the NAACP was organizing a march to Jefferson City, my first thought was that the organizers must have missed out on those ubiquitous MoDOT highway maps. The route’s about 120 miles, it’s cold, and there aren’t many places to stay along the way. I wondered how many people could make it because I’m in good health and am not sure that I could.

My next thought was that I would not attend the concluding rally. This was for several reasons. Most prominent in my mind was that I disagree with most of the NAACP marchers on what justice in Ferguson means.

In August, I noted there were far more questions than answers and that we should not jump to one side or the other. Instead, justice requires a blind eye to both the status of the accused and the potential consequences of choosing not to bring an indictment. A badge is not an unmitigated license for violence, and officers who abuse their powers must be subject to the same laws as everyone else.

I asked at that time whether there was any history of racial animus or abusive behavior by the officer involved. It turns out there wasn’t. I asked how many witnesses there were and whether any disputed initial reports that Michael Brown had been shot in the back. It turns out there were several witnesses other than Dorian Johnson, and neither the physical evidence nor those other witnesses agreed with those initial reports.

I still do not know what happened that fateful Saturday morning. I was not there. But now I do know that most of the eyewitness testimony tended to corroborate Officer Wilson’s version of events more than Dorian Johnson’s. While a grand jury has a lesser standard, the ultimate burden for conviction in a criminal case is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors already tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt. That’s for a good reason. Police officers keep society safe. The majority of police officers are great people who do not abuse their power.

In this case, Dorian Johnson’s testimony would have been on one side and Officer Wilson and several eyewitnesses would have been on the other. Where the weight of the eyewitness testimony lines up on the officer’s side and the star witness on the other side has a history of lying to police and has even slightly changed his story, the officer is going to win in court.

Prosecutors should not bring charges because of political pressure, public spectacle, or general calls for justice unconnected to the physical evidence and testimony. I believe it was the right decision that Officer Wilson not be tried for a crime.

The second reason for my initial decision not to attend is that, while I agree on many points of policy, including prosecutor recusals, municipal court reforms, recruiting minority police officers, revising Missouri’s unconstitutional police use of force statute, and defending Missouri’s strong laws against discrimination, I disagree with the NAACP on many of the causes and cures for continuing inequality in America.

That said, I empathize with the heartbreak, anger, and hopelessness felt by black Americans after the grand jury’s decision. In one of the great lines from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch explains, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Black Americans watching the grand jury decision may justifiably wonder when the last time someone with their skin color was given the benefit of the doubt by a prosecutor. They are angered with the knowledge that, even with recent fixes, federal and state laws still penalize possession and distribution of crack much harsher than cocaine or even meth. Same crime. Different time. The drug used in black communities gets the heavier sentence. They are likewise angered by disproportionate use of the death penalty in black on white crimes in comparison to black on black or white crimes.

I didn’t think about attending again until Thursday night when I decided to go because of three events that happened this week.

On Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Keith English suggested in a Facebook post that marchers should march right through Jefferson City until they reached Mexico – the country. I guess Rep. English has missed a few history classes in his day. What’s more American than exercising the right to petition government for a redress of grievances – particularly grievances about alleged abuse of governmental power? And I hate to be the one to have to break this to him in a public forum, but NAACP marchers weren’t the problem in Ferguson. Rioters and looters don’t march 120 miles on hilly, rural roads when its 35 degrees outside.

On Thursday morning, the Columbia Missourian reported counter-protestors in Rosebud greeted marchers with fried chicken, a melon, and a 40 ounce bottle of beer. Then they shouted for marchers to go home, displayed a Confederate flag, and yelled racial epithets as the group passed through town. If they wanted to prove the marchers’ larger point about the continued existence of racism in America, I’m not sure what else the counter-protestors could have done short of violence.   

Third, on Wednesday, a grand jury in New York chose not to indict an officer in the stranglehold death of the late Eric Garner. Unlike Ferguson, Garner’s deadly encounter with police was videotaped. Garner was unarmed. He resisted arrest by telling an officer “don’t touch me” and by moving his hands when the officer tried to cuff him. He was then immediately placed in a chokehold and taken to the ground as he was swarmed by five police officers. When he’s down on the ground and surrounded, a few of the officers say, “Alright, he’s down, he’s down.” Then Garner starts gasping, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” And still, the officer maintains his chokehold as the four other officers lay on top of him, one on his head. As Garner’s body goes limp, no one attempts to administer CPR. Watch the video for yourself.

Garner’s crime? He allegedly sold a loose cigarette without a permit or paying a tax. Seriously, can you think of a more petty crime? What would Sam Adams or Paul Revere have had to say if a British soldier strangled an American colonist who refused to pay a tax on his tea? What would the reaction have been if federal officers in Nevada had raided Clive Bundy’s ranch and killed him in the process?

After these three events this week, I decided to attend the culminating rally. Not because I agree with everything or even most of what I believed would be said. Nor was it in a quest for racial “tolerance” – a word that is demeaning to both the one doing the tolerating and those allegedly being tolerated. Instead, it was to show respect for fellow Americans who marched 120 miles in the dead of winter to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and to petition government for a peaceful redress of grievances.