Recent Missouri Editorials

Written by Muleskinner Staff

The Associated Press
The Joplin Globe, May 4

Legislators need to take the wheel:
Missouri has the seventh largest highway system in the nation; it ranks 46th in terms of revenue spent per mile.
That’s a short road to a dead end.
But Missouri legislators have a chance to head off the coming crash.
This week, the Missouri Senate approved a bill that would raise the tax on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents a gallon in the state and on all other fuel by 1.5 cents a gallon, but another vote is still needed to advance it out of the Senate. Next it goes to the House. But the House has already failed to move out of committee a 2-cent increase in the gasoline tax, and House Speaker John Diehl has said it could be difficult to pass any tax increase.
It would be a mistake to let this moment pass.
Missouri Department of Transportation officials have been warning us for some time that the annual budget for roads and bridges is dropping fast, from $685 million this year to $325 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget.
According to The Associated Press, the department estimates it needs $485 million annually to maintain all of the state’s 32,000 miles of roads and bridges in their current conditions. To compensate for the expected shortfall, the department has said it plans to fully maintain only one-quarter of the system — its primary routes — while the rest of the state’s roads and bridges are expected to deteriorate.
And we’re not even talking about money to improve the system, such as a west bypass for the city of Joplin, or Missouri’s share of the Bella Vista bypass. Even smaller projects, such as the needed roundabout south of Seneca to improve safety, are already out of the state’s reach given the current budget crisis.
And unless we act soon, Missouri will not have enough money to meet the state requirement for federal matching funds, meaning other states will be spending our tax revenue on their roads and bridges.
Given that voters last year shot down a proposed three-quarter cent sales tax for transportation, the state’s options are limited. There might be some ability to add tolls to I-70, but we think that is the least preferable and slowest generator of revenue of all the options.
Whether the gas tax — currently at 17 cents in the states — has to go up 1.5 or 2 cents of even 3.5 cents, do it.
Come on legislators, take the wheel.
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The Kansas City Star, May 4
Charter school bill does more harm than good in Jackson County:
School choice advocates in Missouri have always pushed charter schools as a way for families to escape failing educational systems.
But a bill moving through the General Assembly would permit charter schools to start up in most of Jackson County, potentially harming districts that already achieve impressive results.
This wrongheaded idea should never have gotten as far as it has. House Bill 42 deserves a “no” vote from every legislator in the Jackson County delegation.
The charter school idea is part of the legislature’s annual attempt to correct serious flaws in a state law that enables students in unaccredited districts to transfer to better-performing districts. Lawmakers have failed to make progress because of insistence from conservatives that any significant education bill include a school choice component.
The charter school provision reportedly made its way into House Bill 42 at the insistence of Sen. Ed Emery, a Republican from Lamar, Mo., who has lamented that most students are educated in “government-supplied buildings” with “government-paid teachers.”
Charter schools are operated by independent boards, with per-pupil funding from the state. Missouri law authorizes them in the Kansas City Public Schools and St. Louis School District.
House Bill 42 would expand that to include districts in Jackson County and St. Louis County, except for the Center, Oak Grove and Lone Jack school districts in Jackson County.
The three exceptions were achieved by Democratic Sen. Jason Holsman of Kansas City, a parent in the Center School District.
Holsman, whose wife teaches at a Center school, said he tried to exempt all of Jackson County from the bill but was unable to budge Emery and other lawmakers.
Interestingly, none of the school districts Emery represents in Cass and four other counties would be affected. Most are too small to compete with charter schools, he said.
Holsman said that left him an opening to exempt the three Jackson County districts with enrollments of less than 3,000 students.
Still, a charter school could prove disruptive to a district like Grandview, which serves about 4,200 mostly low-income students and excels in achievement tests and other benchmarks. A charter school could potentially mean lost funds and a brain drain if families were enticed by a new option.
At the same time, House Bill 42 doesn’t do enough to resolve problems with the state’s transfer law, which currently affects two unaccredited school districts in the St. Louis area.
This bill shows less potential to help failing districts than it does to harm successful ones. It speaks keenly to the ability of certain ideological agendas to stand in the way of the greater good.
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Jefferson City News-Tribune, May 1
Unintended consequences of unnecessary amendments:
Here’s a novel criminal defense strategy — Missouri’s constitutional right to farm trumps state law prohibiting growing marijuana.
We have no idea how a Cole County circuit judge will rule on the motion filed by public defender Justin Carver on behalf of a defendant.
But the pleading underscores the potential mischief caused by growing tendency to elevate accepted practices to constitutional rights. Here are some examples.
Last year, Missouri voters approved a gun rights amendment, despite the protection already established in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment and the historical continuity of gun ownership since the nation’s founding.
In March 22 in this forum, we referenced an unintended consequence of that amendment. We wrote: “A March 2 News Tribune story reported: A St. Louis City circuit judge ruled Friday that the (gun rights) amendment changed the state’s law prohibiting convicted felons from possessing firearms. Before voters approved Amendment 5 last summer, the law clearly said ‘a felon previously convicted of a weapons charge) couldn’t have a gun, because of his felony conviction.'”
The most recent unintended consequence of amending the constitution to include a right to farm is a defense lawyer’s assertion that Missourians have a right to grow anything, which nullifies state law prohibiting the growing of marijuana.
And among proposals this legislative session is a constitutional amendment granting parents a “fundamental right to raise and educate their children.”
If such an amendment is approved, we can only imagine the legal strategies that will be concocted to excuse unacceptable and aberrant parental behavior as educational.
We repeat our contention that this constitutional amendment-itis reflects legislative laziness and, worse, it is downright dangerous.
Although some lawmakers may have good intentions, others latch on to popular issues — gun rights, farming, parenting — to grab the spotlight and to improve their re-election bids by attracting like-minded voters to the polls.
Whenever a constitutional amendment is proposed, we encourage Missourians to consider whether it is necessary and, more importantly, to envision the worst-case scenario if it passes.
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 4
Missouri spending on mental health goes down; suicide rate goes up:
Missouri whacked the state’s mental health department budgets from 2007 through 2012, and during that time the statewide suicide rate climbed 13 percent.
There has been no scientific study to connect those two facts, but it is hard to imagine they are not related. Suicides in Missouri now account for more deaths than homicides and drunken-driving accidents combined.
Untreated or undertreated mental illness is a leading cause of suicide, mental health experts say. Most people living with mental illness receive treatment from public mental health providers. When the state stops making money available for such treatment, people who can’t afford care elsewhere all too frequently turn to suicide.
Data from the American Association of Suicidology show the rate in Missouri to be higher than much of the nation. The state’s suicide rate of 15.9 per 100,000 people in 2012 puts it at 18th in the nation. The national average is 13 suicides per 100,000 people.
Missouri’s mental health system is overwhelmed and underfunded. Nearly a third of the system’s budget was cut in the five years between 2007 and 2012. There have been slight increases the past two years — pushing it from $1.2 billion in 2012, including federal funding for Medicaid-reimbursed services — to $1.6 billion last year.
Jacqueline Lukitsch, director of advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-St. Louis, said the budget increase “is not enough to meet demand.”
The Missouri Department of Mental Health serves some 170,000 Missourians annually through state-operated facilities and contracts with private organizations and individuals. Mental health advocates say that about one in five residents get the services they need and that mental health providers have a perpetual waiting list.
The Missouri chapter of NAMI says that close to 223,000 adults and 65,000 children in the state live with serious mental health conditions. Nationally, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death overall, and the third-leading cause of death among those 15 to 24 years old.
Mental illness is a leading reason that teens drop out of high school, create friction in families and are frequently absent from work or school. In adults, mental illness is estimated to be responsible for workplace spending of more than $34 billion in direct and indirect costs, such as sick days taken, higher rates of short-term disability and lower productivity.
All demographic groups experience suicides, with middle-age white males now having the highest rate nationally. Missouri experienced that in a very public way with the recent suicides of state Auditor Tom Schweich, and the one a month later of Mr. Schweich’s spokesman, Spence Jackson. Geographically, rural areas have higher rates than urban areas, due to less access to mental health services.
Historically, state mental health systems have served those with the greatest need for high-intensity services and who are most at risk for being ignored. Sharp cuts in state funding have eroded the system’s ability to care for those who most need their services.
Suicides have become so prevalent in a wide swath of the country that there is now what is known as a Suicide Belt, a region that stretches from Idaho down to Arizona and New Mexico. Missouri — with its 18th-highest suicide rate in the nation — is unfortunately close to becoming a hole in that belt.
The western U.S. has had a higher suicide rate than the rest of the country since the 1800s. Academics have studied the region and suggest that factors such as social isolation, low-population density, higher rates of population change, weak social ties and social institutions contribute to the higher rate.
Guns are another factor, regardless of geography. Firearms account for about half of all suicides nationally and more than half in Missouri. Mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse and economics are among the leading risk factors, with loss believed to be the common trigger. The unwanted ending of a relationship or of a job may be the life-altering event, but mental health advocates say that usually follows a long trail of problems.
The Missouri Legislature passed a $26 billion budget last month that cut $40 million for social programs and mental health needs. The future is looking bleak with flat revenues and looming business and income-tax cuts that will be phased-in beginning in 2017.
Spending money to provide mental health care that could help drive down Missouri’s high suicide rate should count at least as much as keeping corporate coffers filled. It’s all about priorities.