Five New Year’s Resolutions for Missouri Lawmakers
A version of this commentary appeared in the Columbia Tribune.
Missouri is considered one of the most “conservative” of the 50 states. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on how you define the word.
Over the past several decades, Missouri has been going downhill both economically and educationally—as one of the worst-performing states in GDP growth and educational achievement in K-12 public education. Why?
Too often, Show-Me State conservativism has been characterized by a lack of urgency and a satisfaction with the status quo.
As I would define it, conservatism does not begin and end with the preservation of existing institutions, and it most definitely is not about protecting the privileges of the rich by exploiting the poor or being indifferent to the problems of the needy. Where it begins is with the desire to protect and enlarge freedom for all members of society—enabling people to work and live lives of their own choosing so long as they do no harm to others in the pursuit of their own betterment.
Here, then, are five New Year’s Resolutions for leaders in local and state government:
#1: Improve Missouri’s competitiveness; turn the Show-Me State from an economic sluggard into a great place to live, work, and own or operate a business. That means lowering taxes—leaving more money in people’s pockets to spend or invest as they choose. It also means removing obstacles to commerce and opportunity posed by excessive licensing and regulatory requirements.
#2: End crony capitalism—stop providing subsidies and tax carve-outs for politically favored businesses that are not available to all other businesses. In 2019, Missouri reported 524 tax-increment financing (TIF) projects from 100 political subdivisions across the state. These projects are anticipated to have $10.1 billion in TIF-reimbursable project costs. Such subsidies drain money from public services and have a bad track record of failing to deliver promised job, investment, or economic growth. Reductions in tax incentives and spending can provide some of the budgetary space to lower or eliminate individual income and earnings taxes.
#3: Don’t treat small, owner-operated businesses as the designated fall-guys in government-ordered lockdowns—calling them “non-essential” businesses while allowing their big-box counterparts such as Wal-Mart and Target to continue to operate.
#4: Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to taking care of essential infrastructure on a timely basis. Interstate 70, an economic and transportation lifeline, is falling apart. Numerous other major roads are badly in need of repair. Travel on Missouri’s roads has increased by 12 percent since 2008, but the state’s transportation budget has fallen by 15 percent. According to Missouri’s Department of Transportation, it now gets only enough revenue to cover a little more than half the state’s needed road and bridge repairs. One thing is certain: Postponing needed maintenance on long-lived assets such as roads and bridges is not a smart idea. It leads to escalating costs and catastrophic failure.
#5: Expand educational choice for students and families at all income levels throughout the Show-Me State. There is no worse example of blind allegiance to the status quo than Missouri’s K-12 public education system.
Supported by nominally conservative lawmakers, the state’s educational establishment—meaning school superintendents, teachers’ unions, and DESE (Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)—have blocked almost every initiative aimed at expanding school choice from vouchers and education savings accounts to expansion of charter schools. Despite a long record of poor results in the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” members of the establishment continue to oppose all forms of competition and choice in public education.
And who is hurt the most by this self-serving obstinacy on the part of the providers of public education? It is of course the users: students and their parents and families, and most especially lower-income families trapped in non-performing schools who cannot afford to move to other school districts or to private schools.
As I see it, true conservatism is really about an allegiance to principles—and to enduring values such as freedom, hard work, and equality under the law—rather than an allegiance to the status quo.