Lessons are there to be learned by a series of events in the legislature during the last few days. You may decide if there is something to be learned from this wandering that speaks to the long-term impact of politically-expedient short-term thinking. Or maybe it makes perfect sense to you and the actions were wise and judicious.
The Senate started debating a fix to the Second Injury Fund this week. The fund is broke. Thousands of Missourians claiming second job-related injuries have filed claims that are not being processed, let alone paid, because the fund is almost bereft of, well, funds. One estimate says the fund could be a billion dollars short of meeting its obligations to 30,000 claimants. Why is that?
Well, back in 2005, the legislature decided to be kind to the employers of those workers and imposed a limit on the taxes employers pay to support the fund that compensates their workers who are injured to the extent they cannot do their jobs well or at all. And for eight years the taxes flowing into the fund have not kept pace with the claims filed by those workers.
The Senate started debating Senator Scott Rupp’s bill that doubles the tax to a figure that is still below what the state auditor says is needed. When asked if the business community agreed with the proposal (a question that in itself is a clue to how much of state government operates these days), Rupp said they were going along with it “kicking and screaming.” Rupp says the state won’t be able to settle all of the claims against the fund until at least 2020 even if his bill doubling the tax becomes law.
On the same day the Senate began debating the Second Injury Fund bill, a joint education committee released a new formula for funding higher education on the basis of institutional performance. The study behind the formula says our higher education institutions already are underfunded to the tune of $388 million dollars. Significantly, the formula says that if these underfunded institutions don’t meet performance goals, they could lose ten percent of their already underfunded appropriations.
That study has come less than a week after Governor Nixon presented a proposed state budget that leaves funding for elementary and secondary education about $625 million under the levels the legislature promised schools they would be at by now in the latest foundation formula rewrite in–here’s that wonderful year again—2005.
The day after the Second Injury Fund debate started and the higher education formula was announced, two state senators, Mike Kehoe and Ryan Mckenna, unveiled their 10-year plan for a penny sales tax on motor fuels to pay for transportation needs. Missourians have voted against increasing the regular fuel tax and proposals to charge tolls on our major highways have been shunted to the shoulder. The transportation department has dumped or is dumping 1500 employees, selling equipment, and closing dozens of facilities because it has only about half the money it used to have to take care of roads, bridges, railroads, airports, riverports, and limited mass transit. This plan will have to go to those reluctant voters if it gets past the legislature and the governor, both of which or whom have been proud to proclaim “no tax increases” for years.
So how will the state legislature deal with all of these shortages it has identified in education and in the Second Injury Fund?
Well, it could always cut business and income taxes in an effort to keep Kansas from luring Missouri jobs across the border to a state that faces a $300 million budget deficit because of tax cuts. Everybody should agree that the answer to shortfalls in funding obligations to things like education and the Second Injury Fund is less funding, shouldn’t they?
One of the advantages of being a state government reporter is that you get to wander the halls trying to find out what inspires lawmakers to do some of the things they do. We think we have found the source of that inspiration.
During the legislative session, groups that want to make favorable impressions on senators and representatives arrange to serve meals, often in the third floor rotunda but sometimes lines form outside the doors of individual legislators’ offices. All this food is made available at no cost to those who eat it. We confess to having no shame about gathering at the trough, too. After all, to understand how the system works, participation in the system to some degree is helpful (if not always nutritious). That’s our rationale and we’re sticking to it.
Yes, friends. At the Missouri Capitol there IS a free lunch.