Orwell of the 36th Senatorial District

Listening to debate in the Missouri legislature sometimes calls great literature to mind.  Not that the debate is particularly literary. But in one form or another, the debate creates the allusion.

There are only 34 Missouri Senate districts.  But there are times when it seems there is a Senator from the 36th Senatorial District exercising his influence over the debate. It has happened a couple of times this year.

“Senator” Orwell’s famous 1949 book, written about a dystopian society thirty-five years in the future, included examples of that society’s special language or Newspeak.  One of the words in the new language was “blackwhite.” One of the definitions of “blackwhite” is “the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

The Missouri Senate has taken a couple of runs at a proposal that would have Missouri join a compact with more than twenty other states (so far) and 1200 retailers to collect Missouri sales taxes on remote purchases — things bought through the internet or from out-of-state catalogue companies.  For instance:  If you bought a new winter coat at a local department store, you would pay the state sales tax.  But if you bought that same winter coat through an internet arm of that store, you would NOT pay the sales tax.

In this time when people are being hurt because state tax revenue is far behind the amount necessary to serve them, some lawmakers are looking for ways to collect those sales taxes.  Senator Joan Bray’s SB905 could be the answer. Bray is a St. Louis Democrat who says Kansas collected $36 million last year through the compact.  She is confident Missouri could bolster its budget by more than that if it is allowed to join the compact.

Two members of the Senate, Jason Crowell (R- Cape Girardeau) and Eric Schmitt  (R-Glendale) have strongly opposed the bill.  “This is a tax increase,” they claim although those might not be their exact words. Bray has taken her bill to the Senate floor twice and has not been able to get it to a vote.

The argument from Crowell and Schmitt threatens to block passage of the bill that could collect tens of millions of dollars in sales taxes that proponents say should be paid to begin with, arguing that a Missourian should pay sales taxes on purchases whether the items are bought in a brick and mortar store in any downtown in Missouri or whether the Missourian buys the item from an internet “store.”  The sales tax amount is the same for internet sales as it is for the brick and mortar store sales.

But, argue Schmitt and Crowell, making people pay the taxes that state law says they should be paying to begin with—but that they are not paying—is a tax increase and we cannot have tax increases.

Here’s an excerpt from the debate on Senator Bray’s bill last week.  Senator Gary Nodler (R-Joplin), a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, tries to convince Schmitt that the sales tax is white and Schmitt’s position is black.

Whether Bray’s bill ever clears the Senate, let alone whether it stands a chance in the House, appears to depend on whether Senators such as Schmitt and Crowell will let it come to a vote in the Senate.  The ticking clock and the falling calendar pages are increasing factors in determining what gets done, and one or two Senators who want to talk in  ways that break issues into black and white, or blackwhite, hold increasing life and death powers, or as Senator Orwell might put it, lifedeath.

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