The Kansas City Star, Jan. 10
Voters should renew an earnings tax that's crucial to Kansas City's future
Kansas Citians will be bombarded in the weeks to come with excellent reasons to renew the city's 1 percent earnings tax on April 5.
The tax raises almost $230 million a year. It supplies about 70 percent of the funds needed for core public safety functions, especially to put police officers on the street and firefighters on ambulances and fire trucks.
If the tax fails, the city would lose 10 percent of the funding each year — roughly $30 million annually — until the revenues were wiped out a decade from now.
True, the city could ask voters to endorse higher sales and property taxes to help fill the gap. However, state law limits how high those taxes can go, and the city does not have enough authority to raise anywhere close to $230 million a year.
The city has prepared a chart showing the possible calamitous effects of a "no" vote. They include the loss of 810 uniformed police and 550 firefighters, more than half the forces of both departments. The total city workforce could be sliced by 2,240 — about 30 percent.
Critics contend this is sky-is-falling rhetoric. The city could be more efficient with its funds, they argue, and it has deep pockets elsewhere to make up for the cuts.
We're all for efficiency at City Hall and will continue to beat that drum.
But the idea that $230 million worth of "efficiencies" can be wrung out of a $530 million general fund budget is sheer poppycock. As is the notion that secret large sources of cash exist at 12th and Oak streets.
The recession in the last decade led to the elimination of almost 700 city positions, most in non-public safety roles. The city this year gave no pay increases to its almost 7,000 employees. Annual raises for the next four years are scheduled to be in the reasonable range of 2 to 2.5 percent.
Still, the city has managed to continue receiving strong annual citizen satisfaction reports. Officials are using better data to guide them in providing public services. For example, City Manager Troy Schulte and top administrators in non-public safety agencies have scrambled to work with private sector groups, such as in animal control.
Earnings tax enemies contend that a city with a total budget of $1.4 billion can sustain losing this source of funds.
That's grossly misleading. Huge chunks of the city budget are strictly allocated to other priorities. The city's water, sewer and aviation funds account for $500 million of overall spending and by law can't be used to fill in the gaps if the earnings tax goes away.
Debt service of more than $115 million also can't be tapped. Nor can a capital improvements program that spends tens of millions each year.
Kansas Citians are in this position because St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, an ardent foe, convinced Missourians in 2010 to force Kansas City and St. Louis every five years to vote on extending their earnings taxes. Kansas City went over the top in 2011 with a 78 percent approval at the polls.
Supporters will be rallying voters to turn out in similar numbers to extend the tax, an action that is the city's highest priority in 2016.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 10
We all favor better policing, but the goals must be realistic
Expecting police officers in Missouri to be able to perceive a motorist's sexual orientation sounds ridiculous. And it may be.
It is also absurd to expect law enforcement officials to try to guess at a driver's religion, English-language proficiency or national origin during a traffic stop.
But is a law enforcement officer more likely to pull over a driver who is leaving a nightclub in a recognized gay district? Maybe. How about someone dressed in traditional Muslim garb? Again, maybe.
Should those things happen? Definitely not.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Don't Shoot Coalition — a group that formed in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 — are trying to gather data on the influence of such biases in traffic apprehensions. The groups support bipartisan legislation filed Tuesday aiming to reduce profiling of any type by police in traffic stops.
The Fair and Impartial Policing Act, sponsored by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, seeks to expand police reporting requirements. Officers for the past 15 years have been required to list the race of drivers they stop so that information can be examined for evidence of racial profiling.
The Missouri Attorney General's office releases annual vehicle stop reports showing policing patterns that suggest "driving while black" is enough of an offense to warrant a stop in some areas of Missouri and among some law enforcement departments and officers. The data show that African-American drivers are almost two times more likely than white drivers to be stopped, searched and arrested.
The 2014 report, in particular, showed that African-American drivers were 75 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites. Black drivers were stopped at a rate 66 percent higher than should be expected based on their representation in the population of those ages 16 and older.
It also showed that black and Hispanic drivers were nearly twice as likely to be searched as whites, even though white drivers were more often found to be in possession of drugs, weapons or other illegal contraband.
The reasoning behind the new legislation is that there could be other biases involved in traffic stops — such as religious affiliation and sexual orientation. It looks to put an end to offenses such as "driving while gay" or "driving while Muslim."
It also looks to include details on pedestrian stops by police, to require training on biased policing and to put into place methods for holding law enforcement agencies and officers accountable when a pattern of biased policing practices is noted.
"Missourians of all communities deserve to have equal treatment under the law," Ms. Nasheed said about the bill. "The Fair and Impartial Policing Act is a step towards balancing an inequity that must be addressed."
Mr. Dogan added that "transparency is the friend, not the enemy of good policing. The (act) will provide stronger analysis and the statistics necessary to recognize and applaud those who protect and serve all communities equally."
The goals of the legislation are laudatory. Good policing should be honored. Bad policing — whether intentional or not — should be punished.
But trying to gather fair and accurate data about sexual orientation seems, at best, a stretch. Russia bans transgender people and those deemed to have "disorders of sexual preference" from driving. In Alaska, a woman alleged she was denied a driver's license listing her post-operative gender unless she provided proof of her reassignment surgery. Jeffrey Mittman, now the ACLU-Missouri executive director, handled a lawsuit on her behalf when he headed the ACLU in Alaska.
No one is claiming that these things have happened in Missouri, or that they are going to happen. In an effort to be far-reaching and to have as wide a scope as possible, the intent of Ms. Nasheed's and Mr. Dogan's bill probably is an overreach. In a culture gripped with fear and in which people are reluctant to share personal details, expecting a police officer to determine a person's sexual orientation during a traffic stop raises legitimate concerns.
The same with making judgments about a person's religion based on superficial details, such as what they are wearing or whether they are driving in the vicinity of a mosque. No police officer should be expected to do that, even with bias training.
We have to trust that most law enforcement officers and departments try to weed out bias. The bill's efforts to prevent bias, to educate police on what bias is and how to prevent it, and to beef up penalties for discernible patterns of biased policing are well-intentioned and should be approved.
Getting into the squishy area of trying to determine sexual orientation and a variety of other subjective details during a police stop should be avoided. Including those reporting requirements in the bill would also be likely to doom its prospects for success in a legislative body that has not shown itself to be friendly toward expanding individual and civil rights.
The bill's sponsors and supporters — the ACLU and the Don't Shoot Coalition — should go back to the drawing board, eliminate the subjective requirements in the bill and make it a straight-up piece of legislation aimed at putting teeth into the data-collection process. That might help Missouri legislators see wisdom in approving the Fair and Impartial Policing Act.
Accountability, transparency and training are the best ways to get better law enforcement for all.
The Joplin Globe, Jan. 10
Kicking the can down Missouri's troubled roads
Even skeptics on occasion can be hopeful.
That's how we would characterize our reaction to Ron Richard's top priority for the new legislative session. Richard, a Republican from Joplin, also holds the top position in the Senate as president pro tem. Richard told the Globe that the Senate will be working on transportation bills that will generate funds for roads and bridges in Missouri.
We want to hope that the Legislature this session will either pass a modest gas tax increase as has been proposed or find a solution for the state's revenue shortfall before it loses its federal funding.
Two proposals are being suggested. One being pitched by Rep. Bryan Spencer, R-Wentzville, is a dead-end in our view. He is sponsoring a measure that calls for counties to take over maintenance of all lettered highways in each county that are currently under state maintenance. That plan would be contingent on the passage of a constitutional amendment to increase road funding to counties. That proposal only transfers a problem to another government entity, and it hardly seems right to land that into the laps of county commissioners.
The proposal that makes the most sense is one that will raise the state gas tax by 1.5 cents per gallon and add 3.5 cents to the state tax on diesel fuel.
We'll find out this week how that proposal fairs when a hearing on the bill is held in the Senate. Local trucking companies say they are willing to accept the higher taxes if it means Missouri would actually have better roads and bridges.
We've heard this proposal before, and because 2016 is an election year for some legislators, we know there will be a reluctance to raise taxes — even if that means the people who use the roads will be the ones paying for the needed repairs.
There's nothing that says a bump in gas taxes is what has to be done. But the public does have a reasonable expectation that it will have safe roads and bridges.
That means that lawmakers must do something this session.
Sen. Doug Libla, a Republican from Poplar Bluff and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety, is the sponsor of the bill that would increase the gas tax. He tried to get a similar bill passed last session, but it never reached the floor for a vote.
"I have support on this one," Libla said. "We can't keep kicking the can down the road this year."
We hope Libla's bill is successful. Yet, past experience tells us we should be listening for that "clink, clink, clink" sound of the can as it rolls along the troubled roads of Missouri.
Jefferson City News-Tribune, Jan. 10
Amnesty collects taxes, but coddles scofflaws
We acknowledge mixed emotions when it comes to tax amnesty programs.
We believe they encourage delinquency and repeat what one former lawmaker characterized as a "tax cheat program." In that regard, they are fundamentally unfair to residents who meet their tax obligations on time.
But experience shows they do work to bring in revenue owed to the state.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday the state received about $35 million in previously unpaid taxes during the most recent amnesty program, authorized by lawmakers in the 2015 session.
The amount is within the $20-$60 million range cited by lawmakers during the previous session, but below the amounts collected during previous amnesty programs — $74 million in 2002 and the $42 million in 2003.
In accordance with the budget approved by lawmakers, Nixon will direct the bulk of the revenue to provide dental care for about 282,000 low-income Missourians. The Legislature included one-time dental benefits in Medicaid in the current state budget.
Adult dental benefits were among 2005 cuts to Missouri Medicaid made by former Gov. Matt Blunt.
According to Nixon's announcement, Medicaid coverage for adult dental care will be expanded to include preventative services, restorative services, periodontal treatment, oral surgery extractions, radiographs, pain evaluation and relief, infection control, and general anesthesia.
The money also will cover a 1 percent increase to Medicaid providers for alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment, psychiatric services, developmental disabilities community programs, in-home services, private-duty nursing, and child welfare providers.
We are pleased services budgeted by state officials will be provided, but we offer two reminders.
First, although the governor announced the allocation of amnesty money, lawmakers also deserve credit for including it in the budget.
And, if taxpayers obeyed the law, state services would be financed as budgeted without the added effort or fanfare that accompanies an occasional program that coddles and coaxes tax scofflaws.