Dollars and Sense

Sometimes as we cover the goings-on at the capitol we try to find some rhyme and reason to the different issues that float around and don’t seem to bump into each other very much. But we have this feeling that they are connected to the same string somehow.

Reporters are challenged in several ways to put issues into context and then write stories that explain those issues in a limited number of words.  Those of us who broadcast the news sometimes envy our newspaper friends for the number of words they can use in their analysis pieces and have little trouble leaving such work to them.  We have only 450-480 words to use in an entire three-minute newscast, a format that does not lend itself to close examination of complicated issues.

Why 450-480 words?  Because you and I can sight-read something much faster, 400,. 500 — thousands of words a minute for the speed readers.  But the spoken word is most understandable if the reader of the material speaks at 150-160 words a minute.  Slower than that frustrates listeners who want to hear the next word. Faster than that is faster than the average listener’s mind can absorb information and often leads to poor delivery by the reader..

That’s today’s lesson in Broadcast News 101.

The internet affords us an opportunity to explore things at greater length, however.

The problem then lies in sorting out issues and turning them into a coherent narrative. But some things in recent days have triggered a fruitless search for perspective.  Sometimes all we wind up with is a a fruit basket and we can’t figure out how apples, plums, grapes, oranges, pears, persimmons, and kumquats relate.  There’s a feeling that the fruit basket is more than different kinds of fruit.  We’re struggling with how to make all of this into a proper fruit salad.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention in Pinkney Walker’s Econ 51 class at Mizzou.  Surely he said something  that would provide the recipe.

Here’s the fruit basket of issues that we’re talking about.

The House and the Senate are trying to come up with a state budget for the next fiscal year that will have about $500 million dollars less money available for state services and institutions than was used in the current fiscal year’s budget.   The committees are faced with difficult decisions about who gets hurt and why they should get hurt more than somebody else and who gets protected.

While the budget people are dealing with a big funding shortfall, Senator Eric Schmitt took a bill to the Senate that could give businesses a tax deduction that might lower state income by another $100-200-milion.

While all of this was going on, Representative Eric Burlison was explaining to a Senate committee why Missouri needs a new constitutional amendment limiting state spending and making sure that “excess” tax collections are put aside for rainy days or rainy years. He has a formula that limits state tax collections and strengthens the state’s rainy day funds so money is available for bad years such as we’ve been having.  He would base his formula on the amount the state had to spend in the last “good” year before the recession. If the state collects a WHOLE lot of money, the state will reduce the individual income tax rate.  The bill says the reduction will be temporary. It’s a pretty complicated bill.

Missouri already has the Hancock Amendment limiting state spending.  A new report says the state is four BILLION dollars away from hitting the Hancock limit.  State tax collections would have to rise about 50% to bump up against the Hancock standard. Hancock, however, does not require excess tax collections to go into rainy day funds.  They have to be sent back to taxpayers.

Then we have some other elements in the mix.

Universities throughout the state have been announcing tuition and fee increases to make up for continued cuts in state funding going to the campuses.  The Department of Higher Education acknowledges that students ar spending more years getting their degrees and thus adding to debts they’ll be paying off when they’re in their 40s.

The state transportation department has barely enough income to more or less maintain the present road and bridge system, but it’s close.  One of the hottest topics of this legislative session is whether I-70 should become a toll road. But it’s just talk so far.

The legislature passed a new formula several years to provide funding for elementary and secondary education, knowing at the time the state did not have the money to fully fund the formula.  So lawmakers decided to phase the increases in during a period of years.  They haven’t met those financial targets in recent years, though.

Every year the state issues millions of dollars in tax credits, some of which return mere pennies on the dollars invested.  Those tax credits represent hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes the state chooses not to collect.  Annual calls for reforms of that system to limit the amount of uncollected taxes have gone nowhere.  The only tax credit reform bill to hit the Senate floor this year would have ended tax credits to people who rent—mostly low income elderly people, to hear credit advocates talk.  It has been pushed to the sidelines after some senators demanded broader legislation dealing with the other tax credit programs be passed first.  That piece of business hasn’t gotten to the floor for debate and we have entered the part of the legislative session where we start counting down the number of work days before adjournment (only about 22 or 23 or so).

The governor, who wants to be re-elected, is proud that he has recommended budgets that have not increased taxes.  The majority of legislators running for whatever office they are seeking this year are likely to emphasize that they have resisted increasing taxes.

Missouri has the nation’s lowest cigarette tax by far.  But, as legislative leaders put it several times in our interviews, “This is no time to be increasing taxes.”   Not even on cigarettes.

A few says ago the Kansas City Star ran an editorial cited some numbers and concluded Missouri is “a state in trouble.”    It noted Missouri is 38h in the nation in  per capita funding for elementary and secondary education.  It’s 45th in per capita spending for higher education. We’re 50th in per capita spending on public health.  Missouri is 49th in per capita spending for state government administrative expenses (prison guards, the people who deal with child protection services, various court  personnel, etc.). And we’re 43rd in per capita spending on parks, recreation, and environmental matters.

There are those who say we should be higher up the scale.  There are those who say Missouri needs to “right size” its government and that means re-setting priorities

Now you have an idea why those of us who try to do several stories within 450-480 words are glad we have colleagues on the print side who can tell all of us what this fruit basket means. We work with people on the capitol press corps who are really good at that. Listen to us.  Read them. In our different ways, we try to give you the perspective you need to make informed decisions about the people you pick to lead us and the issues they deal with on our behalf.

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