Guilt by association

We’ve watched this situation develop in our General Assembly for some time and it has reached the point where we just cannot avoid saying something.  But anyone watching the deterioration of our law-making process must find themselves questioning whether it is too easy to buy influence and whether political courage and independence are too easily abandoned.

There is no doubt that the appearance of impropriety has grown in that process.  We say “appearance” because we lack specific proof that votes are being bought, that money is heavily influencing  procedures, or that lawmakers and candidates are lacking the courage to resist offers that will put them in or keep them in positions of power rather than in positions of service.

Power is narrow and self-serving.  Service is broad and self-giving.  There have been growing signs that a line has been crossed and legislative independence has been forfeited, and the basic promise made between lawmaker and citizen that is the oath of office has lost its meaning.

The promise, that oath, is in the Missouri Constitution:  “I do solemnly swear, or affirm that I will…faithfully perform the duties of my office, and that I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law.”  (lightly edited.)

Directly or indirectly.   Money or other valuable thing. Knowingly.

The oath of office, like the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer, is–we fear–a spoken ritual easily recited without consideration of the commitments required by them.  In truth, all of us would probably be embarrassed by how little we think about that kind of thing, how easily we mouth words and move on.   But all three establish principles for the way we live our lives.

Some other time and some other place will be more appropriate for discussions of the philosophies of the Pledge and the Prayer.  Today is a good time to ponder the Oath.

These are painful things to say for someone who has watched this process for four decades. And they are not, I hope, erroneous nostalgic reflections on the good old days.

Politics at the state level have always had their raw edges, a toughness that is not publicly visible to those who see only floor debates and committee hearings.  Influence always has been a presence in the hallways and the offices.  Lobbyists have written bills or substantial parts of them.  Threats of retaliation in campaigns have always been made.  Favors have always been available for exchange.

But today’s climate is noticeably different.  There is a brazenness to the process.  And there is a seeming indifference to it.

Critics of term limits warned that imposition of them would leave lobbyists, bureaucrats, and legislative staff in charge of government because they are perpetual while the people who write the laws serve only for short times.

The first manifestation of that criticism began to materialize when we increasingly heard one lawmaker debating another ask something like, “Have you checked with so-and-so in the hallway to see if this is okay?”   Today the question is seldom asked because legislators have their cell phones in their hands and–often during debate–refer to messages they are receiving from outside the chamber from this or that special interest representative who is saying whether something is acceptable.

The rules of the House and the Senate bar lobbyists from the floors during debate.  The cell phone and texting have made those rules moot.  The lobbyists are in the chambers.  The walls have been breached.

Lawmakers have spoken for several years of reforming ethics laws, limiting outside influences on the role of Senators and Representatives in passing the people’s laws.  Such proclamations are easily made.  But in a world where ethical standards are lacking and the courage to rebuild walls  and to rediscover a level of independence that can exist inside them is in short supply, the proclamations are little more than easily-recited ritual.

Understand this simple fact:  This is the only state that has no limits on political contributions.  This is the only state that has no limits on lobbyists’ gifts.  This is a state that has no limits on legislators holding fund-raising events in Jefferson City during the legislative session.

In recent days, some of our newspaper colleagues who have gone through campaign finance reports have noted the flow of checks to legislators or legislative campaign committees just before or just after significant votes on specific issues.

And four Representatives who had the courage last year to go against party leadership and refused to vote to overturn a veto on a tax cut bill favored by a billionaire GOP supporter now have primary election opponents getting money from an organization heavily financed by the billionaire.   The Kirksville Daily Express reported the other day that Dr. John Bailey, who is running against incumbent Republican Nate Walker–one of those who went against party orders to override the veto last year–has gotten $50,000 of the $65,830 he has reported in contributions from that organization.  Walker, on the other hand, has had to put $70,000 of his own money into his campaign.

What we have written constitutes nothing more than guilt by association, a concern there is an appearance of impropriety, a series of circumstances that only feeds cynicism and distrust from a general public that blames government for whatever social ill personally affects that voter, a voter who believes the words,  “I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law” are, if not a lie, certainly hollow.

Notes from the front lines

(being an irregular compilation of miscellaneous things that cross the Missourinet news desk that don’t rise to the level of full bloghood.)

We wonder how many Missourians get automated calls from polling companies that ask people to use the touch pad on their phones to give answers to various questions—and they are so irritated by (a) the call and (b) the automated poll that indicates the interested party doesn’t really care about them enough to have a real person call. And we wonder how many people getting those calls are upset enough that they answer every question with a lie. We wonder if the polling firms that compile the results have a system that factors in the likelihood that people do just that.

We got a call the other day asking us about Amendment 7, the transportation sales tax.

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We wrote a story the other day and all the time we were writing we asked ourselves, “Why are we writing this story?’ It was about a Laclede County man whose death was attributed to the West Nile Virus. He’s the first fatality from the mosquito-borne disease. Last year, two Missouri deaths were attributed to WNV and 29 illnesses.

West Nile deaths have been news stories for years and we have started to wonder why they are news.

We’re about to declare that it isn’t as far as the Missourinet is concerned, and won’t be unless we see the number of cases reach triple or quadruple numbers.

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The next time your state Senator or Representative starts talking about the need for tax cuts for small businesses being essential to a growing economy, consider this:

The Small Business Administration is redefining “small business.” J. D. Harrison of the Washington Post reports the new definition could include a family clothing store or software publisher with income up to $38.5 million a year. He also reports companies can have as many as 1,500 workers and still be considered “small businesses.”

The definitions will apply at different levels to different kinds of businesses.

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And finally–

We hope it’s more than just going through the movements: Springfield will be the host city of the North American Manure Expo tomorrow and Wednesday. These folks seem to have a certain drollness about them. Their website says: “We know your time is valuable. But so is every gallon and pound of manure being applied to your fields. You can’t afford to miss the 2014 North American Manure Expo, the only trade show on the continent to focus specifically on manure management and application issues. It would be a real waste to your wallet.”

Nothing on the webpage indicates if the conference will focus on getting the straight poop about what flows downhill. But there are plenty of Ozarky places in the Springfield area to demonstrate the validity of the long-held belief.

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We are all descentants of Samuel Rhodes (AUDIO)

Many will celebrate today. Few will read the document this day celebrates and few will see it as a living document that carries responsibilities for this generation these 238 years later.

The American Revolution did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Some colonies had formed their own governments by then. The Continentall Army and the British Army had been spilling each other’s blood for months. The Revolution was already well on when the Congress, on this day, adopted its statement of reasons for declaring independence from the British Crown.

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell is descended from one of those who fought to make the hopes of those who signed that document’s dream of a new country come true. Her ancestor moved to Missouri decades after the Declaration, after the Louisiana Purchase had extended the nation he fought to create by creating a nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

She is a key figure in the system of government her ancestor and his colleagues fought to give us. She has written of the special link she has with him and and the nation he, the signers of the Declaration, and those who bore the burden of battle to give us this day and this nation.

LISTEN: JUDGEREADS:

READ:

It is that time of year for fireworks and picnics and parades with children waving the American flag. It also is time to honor the birth of our nationon the Fourth of July, celebrating our nation’s declaration of independence in 1776 and the creation of a new government in which the people divided authority among three separate but equal branches – the executive, the legislative and the judicial. This holiday is special for me for two reasons.

First, as a member of the judiciary, I experience daily the wisdom of our forefathers in their creation of our government, in particular the creation of courts in our system of democracy.

Second, my great-great-great-great-grandfather – Samuel W. Rhodes, who later settled in Callaway County, Missouri – fought in the Revolutionary War while still a colonist in Virginia.

It is important to remember the ideals for which our forefathers fought-including the ideal of justice. In the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers complained, among their grievances against Britain’s King George, that he: obstructed the administration of justice, made judges dependent on his will alone, deprived the colonists of the benefits of trial by jury and transported the colonists “beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses.”

And so it perhaps is not surprising that, when establishing the new constitution for the fledgling nation several years later, our forefathers listed “establish Justice” second only behind “in Order to form a more perfect Union.”

To ensure the abuses of King George would not happen again, the new government established the constitution – not a king – as the ultimate authority and divided governmental power among three branches of government. The founders designed the judiciary as a forum where people peaceably can resolve their disputes and where impartial judges who are not beholden to a president or governor can decide the matters before them based on the law and the facts. In our courts, everyone has to follow the rules established in our constitution.

Thanks to our forefathers declaring their independence from England 238 years ago, we now have fair and impartial courts available to help allcitizens make sure there is equal justice for all. And thanks to the hundreds of Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Missouri, including my ancestor, who fought to ensure that we have a superior system of justice in our country. I am honored to be a member of the judicial branch that my great-great-great-great-grandfather fought to establish.

So let us celebrate together this Fourth of July, as John Adams envisioned in a letter to his wife, Abigail, about the Declaration of Independence:

“It ought to be commemorated … with pomp and parade, … bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”