EDITORIAL: Our hope for the 2018 legislative session

Saturday , January 13, 2018 - 2:56 PM

Springfield News-Leader

Missouri has no shortage of pressing needs as the 2018 legislative session begins.

Many lawmakers have explained what issues they’ll focus on and have pre-filed bills, in hopes they can each rush to the front of the line.

Legislators and their constituents will push for changes on a variety of fronts, and the clock will run out on many.

We’ve compiled a few issues we’d like to see Missouri legislators tackle this session. In this compilation, you’ll find a few of the current hits, some oldies (issues that come up year after year) and a few personal favorites (issues we don’t think get enough attention).

Apply the most obvious funding fix for transportation

Officials within the Missouri Department of Transportation have, for several years, warned that our roads and bridges are in bad need of maintenance and that there are limited funds for projects. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged we have infrastructure needs that aren’t being met.

Though legislators have been reluctant in the past, we think it’s time to ask voters to pay a higher fuel tax. It’s true that tax increases are unpopular, but we’ve seen in our conservative corner of the state in recent months that voters will support revenue increases when the need is clear.

Just last week, the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force, set up by lawmakers, recommended a 10-cent-per-gallon increase on the current 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax. That increase would, based on projections, lead to a $430 million increase in revenue for projects each year.

In a state with such an extensive highway system, and in a region that relies so much on auto transportation, it makes sense for those using the roads to help pay for their upkeep.

Find a long-term funding solution to in-home care cuts

A battle at the end of the last session saw a cut, a potential save, and a veto of that save to funding for in-home and assisted living care.

While there’s some evidence that the change in how seniors and folks with disabilities are assessed hasn’t been as dire as predicted, we don’t believe it’s right to make it more difficult for those Missourians to receive care.

While some will have the safety net of family, many won’t. We’ve heard from officials at care facilities and professionals that provide in-home care that people often have nowhere to turn or have families that can’t support their needs.

Re-evaluate the community college funding levels

Missouri set the funding formula for community colleges in 1993, before many of the current students were even born. While the expectation was to adjust the rates every five years to reflect changes in enrollment, the funding levels were adjusted only once, in 1998.

Even though a local college like Ozarks Technical Community College is much larger than it was 20 years ago and others, like St. Louis Community College, are smaller, their state funding hasn’t changed to reflect that.

Many local folks are looking for good-paying careers and are willing to go through the necessary training to reach those levels. Unfortunately, they’re left in the cold, partly because community college funding levels are out of line. It should be an easy fix.

Establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring program

Much like the fight over Real ID, Missourians are a bit over-concerned about being part of a database. In both cases, Missouri is the last state to make a needed change.

Several communities are working on establishing their own databases, and the governor has taken some other steps to fight the opioid crisis. And a statewide database alone doesn’t save us.

But rural communities in particular are left without enough tools to combat this issue, and statewide monitoring could be one piece of the puzzle.

Increase funding to the public defender’s office

This is another issue that has plagued administrations of both Republican and Democratic governors, largely because paying for the defense of people accused of crimes isn’t politically popular, and thus not a priority for cash-strapped budgets.

Even for those who don’t personally see the need for folks to get an adequate defense and aren’t swayed by a little thing called the Constitution, there are practical reasons that the lack of funding is a stressor on our community.

Without more public defenders, cases can’t get through the court system any faster — even as we add prosecutors and judges — and people awaiting trial will continue to fill the jail, even as it gets larger.

Our systemic public safety issues will be difficult to fully address until we have adequate staffing for public defenders.Invest in workforce development

Officials with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and other business-minded folks in the area have long desired a program to boost the workforce and attract job creators.

The Alabama Industrial Development Program has been seen as a strong model. That program uses state funds to train and place workers with companies that are interesting in setting up in Alabama.

Officials tell us that among the many factors businesses consider when looking to expand, having a qualified workforce is near the top of the list. With a program like Alabama’s, those companies can have ready-trained employees to hit the floor on day one. It’s a strategy that could work well for Missouri.

Streamline our sales tax

Many of Missouri’s problems stem from a lack of funding. This measure would be a small step to help that problem.

While it requires some heavy lifting in the form of changing the tax code, it comes with the benefit of receiving tax revenue we should be collecting in the first place.

Essentially, national online vendors are off the hook when it comes to collecting and remitting sales tax in the state.

Technically, we the consumers should be tracking our online spending and paying sales taxes on those purchases. The state doesn’t enforce this, so naturally, almost no one is doing it.

For one thing, this system — the result of an outdated tax code — unfairly penalizes brick-and-mortar businesses. Those businesses in our communities that must collect sales tax are at a disadvantage when competing with national internet retailers that can avoid collecting sales tax.

But the other problem created by our old tax system is that we’re no longer collecting all the sales tax revenue we should be, and that hurts the state’s bottom line.

As online shopping continues to rise in popularity, our revenue problem stands to get worse unless we take steps to update the tax code.

Continue to evaluate tax credits and trim the fat

Again, many of the above issues are about increasing funding. In the case of the fuel tax and streamlined sales tax, there are some options for new revenue.

However, there’s at least one area in which we probably need to cut back, and that’s with our bloated tax credit programs.

Folks have long been calling for a review of these programs, and that’s something the governor has taken on in his first year, but we have to keep it up.

As former state auditor Tom Schweich explained back in 2014, the historic tax credits program has been an inefficient use of state resources, with Missouri spending more to renovate historic homes and buildings than any other state.

Likewise, our low-income housing tax credit program has been audited and found to be inefficient.

We should identify incentives for developers to renovate structures — particularly as they pertain to infill development in cities — and we must find ways to provide organizations with funds to house those who need affordable homes.

But it’s clear that the current systems are not providing the most bang for our buck.

Copyright Springfield News-Leader. Reprinted with permission.

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