Three Ideas for Smaller Government in Missouri
There are many potential ways to reduce the size and influence of government in Missouri. For each, at least one — and probably many more — entrenched interest stands in the way of implementation. Some of those interests genuinely believe that a larger role for government would benefit their communities — an unfortunate and erroneous, but at least honest, opinion. Others keenly wish to reduce government, except for the pet causes that are important to that particular interest. As interest groups accumulate, each with its own list of exceptions, it becomes difficult to reduce government at all. Building from this premise, following are three proposals to reduce the size and scope of Missouri government.
Missouri could stand to have fewer counties. We currently have 114, plus the independent city of Saint Louis. This is the fourth-highest total out of all 50 states. Sixty of these counties contain fewer than 20,000 residents, and 26 have fewer than 10,000. Analysis demonstrates that Missouri’s smaller counties spend more per resident in providing the same basic levels of service. The curve levels out at approximately 15,000 residents, as efficiencies of scale emerge. Missouri’s leaders and the citizens in smaller counties should strongly consider merging, in order to save taxpayer funds and reduce per-capita levels of government employment. I do not recommend that the state mandate consolidation, but officials could include incentives to promote county mergers when disbursing aid to local governments.
Missouri could also reduce the number of state representatives, which, at 163 members in its lower body, is again the fourth highest in the country. The economic research does not conclusively show that larger numbers lead to greater spending levels, but state representatives themselves are not inexpensive. If 46 other states function effectively with fewer legislators, so can Missouri. Lowering the number of state representatives to 101 — about average for our bordering states — and slightly increasing staffing levels to accommodate the larger districts, would significantly reduce salary and benefit expenditures. Eliminating 62 representative positions would also dramatically reduce the meaningless legislation introduced each year — a good thing, unless you want an official symbol for every taxonomic classification on the planet.
Finally, Missouri could eliminate the township option for the 22 third-class counties that further subdivide themselves. My research has not found significant spending differences between counties with or without townships, and township officials receive small stipends, so this is not a financial argument. Rather, limiting the number of officials and government entities limits the overall power of government in our day-to-day lives. Too few officials might lead to disproportionate power for any single person or office, but a preponderance of officials can have negative effects as well, making it very difficult for the public and press to monitor their use of tax dollars. Unsurprisingly, a 2003 report by the state auditor documented numerous instances in which townships failed to follow proper financial reporting procedures. Two years prior, Wright County’s townships performed so poorly that voters abolished them. Voters in the other 22 counties should consider the same thing, and lawmakers would serve their constituents well by discontinuing the township option altogether.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but financed and appropriated through busybody legislation. Too many offices and officials leads to saggy pants bans, burdensome property regulations, fee increases, or tax exemptions for favored businesses rather than a reduction for all. This slowly but surely reduces our own freedoms — death by a thousand cuts from land use regulations, tax increases, safety mandates, awareness and sensitivity training, etc. The reforms I’ve suggested would slow that process and provide a tourniquet for liberty.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.