Just for the helluvit

We talked about Hell a few days ago during Sunday School and for some reason during that discussion, the upcoming veto session of the Missouri Legislature came to mind. We decided to ask a special correspondent with expertise on the subject to offer a perspective on the issues the lawmakers will consider when they begin their session next month.

We have summoned the spirit of a 13th-14th century poet who died about 170 years before Columbus discovered something in the water between Portugal and China–the North and South American continents. Our poet spoke Italian in his own time. But in the 692 years since his death he appears to have determined that eternity needed something more than harp playing and singing hosannas. So he started studying modern English and in what passes for a situation comedy in the afterlife, watching the machinations of Missouri politicians.

La Comedia di Missouri Assemblea Generale

by Dante Alighieri, il Sammo Poeta

Inviato speciale del Missourinet

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. It was Maundy Thursday in the year 1300 by the calendar we used then as I described in the poem you call “The Divine Comedy” my inability to find salvation and my fears that I might fall into a deep and dark place. And indeed, I found myself there, led by a fellow poet who revealed to me the nine depths of Hell and the behaviors that casts mankind into that place.

Pray listen, O Reader, to the story of those souls of the Assemblea Generale who for reasons of cowardice or gain might seem to have lost the straight way in the deep dark wood of your politics and face the chance they shall fall into that deep and dark place that brings not honor to their service to mankind.

They shall consider whether a large tax bill written without poetry or apparently even the thought of literary exactitude should be enacted despite the obvious significant flaws that a more perceptive writer has explained to them. It is because influential entities of your time, financed by one with much wealth who wishes not to pay tribute to the government for any of it, seek immediate gain at the expense of the less powerful. There, pride, avarice, and envy are the tongues men know and heed as they demand the flawed works of their colleagues be set in place tho unfairness and harm might be settled upon the less fortunate and the elderly. They weep not as a stone within them grows.

Others would speak of their own lack of courage as they consider enacting that which is clearly in violation of the sacred Constutiton to which they have sworn an oath of fealty and of which they often construe in manners befitting their purpose. But it is fear, not courage, that defines their mortal existence including one who admits the issue is “completely unconstitutional” but who pledges to support it nonetheless because “it is not worth the fight for me to vote against it.”

Or another who fears that as a “rural-area Democrat,” he shall be punished for failing to “vote for any gun bill” regardless of the violence that his vote shall perform to the oath of fealty he has taken to the same sacred charter he had promised to uphold.

Oh blind, Oh ignorant, self-seeking cupidity. Consider your origin. You were not formed to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.

As I wrote in my original poem that you know as “Dante’s Inferno,” the voyage across the River Styx comes only after the oarsman is told, “So it is wanted there where the power lies.” And where, in your Assemblea Generale does the power lie today? It appears not to lie within your chambers and within your intellect. And to where does that power wish to transport you?

To the nine rings of Hell, the outer ring of which is that place of Limbo, the place of virtuous pagans, the least painful of the circles? Or to the second circle that is reserved for those overcome by lust, for letting your appetites overrule their reason, where they are blown back and forth by the winds of great storms and of large donors? Perhaps it is the third circle where the gluttonous cannot see or heed their neighbors or the fourth circle where the avaricious and the miserly who alternately hoard and who squander resources among the favord also see not beyond their own appetites.

Perhaps the fifth circle where those who cause misery by their anger directed at others are left in a “black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.”

The sixth circle, reserved for heretics, might seem the place for those who pledge fealty to a sacred document but fear to stand by their pledge and are willing to “let the courts work it out.”

And the seventh? Ah, here, we see three sub-rings, one for those who commit violence against people and property. A second is for profligates who are mauled by fierce dogs because they have destroyed lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained, perhaps with a large increase in taxes on the potions and poultices the ill must have. And the final ring within the seventh circle shall be the residing place of, among others, userers whose eyes see only their own purses and who do not see beyond them.

The eighth circle likewise has rings within it, ten in all, wherein shall be found those who populate the hallways of the Assemblea Generale, for they are the panderers and seducers, the flatterers, those who commit simony (who pay to receive sacraments and often hide their payments by passing them through committees or non-profit groups that need not announce their presence and their wealth to the broader race of people), the false prophets who warm of great wealth or great disaster if their wishes are not favorably granted. Surely the members of the Assemblia should give heed their possible fates in the ninth ring, for this is the place for the corrupt politicians who are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch. Hypocrites are in the sixth ring, thieves in the seventh, fraudulent advisors and evil counselors populate the eighth. The ninth circle is for the sowers of discord whose bodies are divided by demons as they have demonized and divided others.

And the tenth ring within the eighth circle shall be saved for the falsifiers, the counterfeiters, imposters, and perjurers who give false and evil advice.

My journey took me to the ninth and the final circle which is set aside for those who live in treachery and who are traitors to their kindred, to their cities and countries.

I have shown through my poem the fate that could await those who place courage behind personal interest, who bow to those who see only their own pocketbooks, who seek only division and anger, who persecute the powerless, and who are blown about by the winds of the influential while endangering the welfare of the broader mass that relies on them for wisdom.

O human race,born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fail?

Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.


Beneath the amendment

It was late in 1980, as I recall.  The Missouri Bar was holding a seminar for newly-elected legislators and one of the sessions was intended to teach the incoming lawmakers how to deal with the media. Part of the seminar involved picking some of them and having a member of the Capitol press corps interview them so they knew that they would likely deal with a different animal than the local newspaper editor or the local radio or television reporter that didn’t know much about the kinds of things Capitol reporters pursue.  One of the newbies was Dennis Smith, a Representative-elect from Springfield.  I think he has forgiven me for what I did to him that day but he has never forgotten it.  

In the same election in which Smith and the other newbies were chosen, Missourians put a formula into the Missouri Constitution limiting the amount of taxes the state could collect.  It did some other things, too, but the tax limitation is what the Hancock Amendment is known for.

Representative-elect Smith supported the Hancock Amendment and since one of the things he and his colleagues are constitutionally-mandated to do is pass a state budget, he became fair game for a reporter who covers the budget process. 

In our pretend interview in front of the entire freshman legislative class, I asked him, as a Hancock Amendment supporter,  to use the formula to calculate how much the next state budget should be. 

He didn’t have a clue and the rest of his colleagues in the room enjoyed his discomfort no end.  

The memory of that event sauntered into my mind when reading a news release from State Auditor Tom Schweich, whose office periodically checks the formula and calculates how close state revenue is to exceeding the Hancock limit.  

A person who follows state government from a distance might be fooled by the legislature’s frantic push for tax cuts into thinking that the state is approaching the Hancock limit and must backpedal like crazy to avoid exceeding it.

Far from it, says Auditor Schweich.  Missouri is $3.9 billion below the limit established by Hancock. 

But that figure does not blunt our legislators’ enthusiasm to get us even more below Hancock and adding to the $3.9 billion dollars they’re already letting us keep and spend in ways that we know are better than the government knows.  

Why stop at 3.9?   To hear the Nixon administration argue in defense of the veto of HB253, the legislature wanted to make that figure more like $5.1 billion and the governor isn’t going to let them do it.  He seems to think funds are needed for programs and services that benefit six million Missourians, not just a few who are hoping for a veto override in September because they will benefit.  

It’s already a beautiful world, then, for those who favor letting taxpayers keep more of their own money, and the world will be absolutely gorgeous if the veto can be overridden in September. 

And Heaven knows we need to be able to keep more money that would go to state taxes in own pockets because student loans our children had to take out to get the higher education that has seen drastically reduced state support have to be paid off.  And that $650 per capita that we are allowed to keep this year will make a ding in that debt.  Not a dent.  Just a ding. And that $650 is helping us pay higher local elementary and secondary school tax rates because the state is $620 million dollars behind the in the school funding formula our elected representatives enacted almost a decade ago. And that $650 helps us pay penny after penny of sales taxes to finance things like the county sheriffs’ budgets that struggle each year because the state doesn’t pay all of the costs counties incur while they house state prisoners. And we might need that $650 in our pockets if the circuit breaker tax credit is eliminated so we can pay our rent. 

We have dragged you, reader friend, to this point in this post today and we’re darned if we know what the conclusion to this should be.   And that probably somewhat defines why the people on the third floor of the Capitol and the guy on the second floor aren’t together on a tax policy. 

Or maybe not. 


Emory Melton has left the building

Emory Melton was a square-headed Senator (a phrase he used to describe himself) from Cassville who served 24 years in the Missouri Senate before retiring in 1996.  He always had two pieces of advice for rookie lawmakers:  “Stay in your seats,” and “Read the bills.” Other senior members of the Senate sometimes dispensed similar advice.  Senator Melton was known as one of the quiet-spoken sharper knives in a chamber of pretty sharp knives who never felt the measure of a Senator was how much the Senator said but WHAT the Senator said in the few times it was necessary to be heard.  

The gulf between the era of Emory Melton and today’s Missouri legislature has become sharply obvious in last week’s discussion of House Bill 253, an amalgam of tax issues combined into one 177-page final bill in the last few days of the legislative session.  Governor Nixon  says an early review of the bill shows lawmakers repealed the state sales tax exemption on prescription drugs.  Nixon says the result would be a $200 million tax increase for those who use those drugs.   He didn’t come flat out and say he’s going to veto the bill, which has some things in it he wants.  He says it’s still being evaluated.    

Umbrage was quickly taken at the remarks of the Governor by the Senate sponsor of the bill and by two big business organizations that think HB253 is generally in the upper-OK range.  It’s not the legislature’s fault that this error was approved by, well, the, uh, legislature, they say.   Oh no.  It’s the Nixon administration’s fault.  The Nixon administration, they maintain, should have told the legislature that it was passing a bill with a big goof in it, a misplaced bracket that causes the entire problem.

It is fair to ask, however, how this could have happened with all of the opportunities for the mistake to have been caught by lawmakers as this bill percolated through the system. Those urging the governor to sign the bill anyway prefer to sidestep that question and point a finger of blame at someone else. 

HB253 went to the Senate from the House on April 8 on a vote of 106-48.  The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a hearing and recommended passage of the bill on May 2. The bill came up for debate on the 7th at which time Senator Kraus offered a Senate Substitute.  The Senate approved it and sent the bill to its Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee.  This committee has to bless any bill with a fiscal note beyond a certain level.  The GAFO Committee sent Kraus’ Senate Substitute for HB 253 back to the the Senate which sent it to the House on May 8th, on a vote of 24-9 with the flawed language in it that one might think would have been spotted had any of the 34 members of the senate READ THE SUBSTITUTE BILL or at least the new provisions put into it.  The House accepted the Senate amendments on May 9th and adopted the Senate Substitute 103-51 and then voted to Truly Agree and Finally Pass the bill by the same vote.   Yes, the voting was partisan in both chambers. 

This bill received “yes” votes from 127 legislators (24 in the Senate, 103 in the House) after various people should have READ THE BILL.

Somebody in the Governor’s office DID read the bill the other day, though.   Oops. 

And who is to blame for this situation.  We all know, don’t we?  The Nixon administration.  Of course. 

Associated Industries of Missouri (“The voice of Missouri Business,” it calls itself), quickly put out a statement from AIM President Ray McCarty who was described as “one of the main architects” of the bill. The statement quotes McCarty saying, “We take exception to the premise of the governor’s press statement which is that the General Assembly intentionally passed language to repeal the sales tax exemption for prescription drugs. The language in question is language that we understood came from the governor’s own Department of Revenue, which assured us on many occasions that the language was correct.”  At the end, McCarty asserts, ““We hope the governor will not use a situation created by his Department of Revenue as a reason to veto this pro-taxpayer bill.”

McCarty also says, “We have the entire 2014 legislative session to fix this and any other problems that are sure to arise out of a couple hundred pages of legislative changes that were instituted by Governor Nixon’s Department of Revenue.”  Oh, great.  “Other problems,” he says, “are sure to arise” from this bill.  One of the architects of this bill indicates there are other things that could have been caught if somebody would have read the bill. 

Sen. Kraus joined the finger-pointing chorus with, “That exact language was recommended to me by the governor’s own Department of Revenue, and throughout the process officials at DOR assured me and others that the language was correct.” 

Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry (“Our mission is …to protect and advance Missouri business”) lobbyist Tracy King called us wanting to talk about Governor Nixon’s statement.  Those who heard our newscasts on this issue last week or who have read our story on Missourinet.com and listened to our full interview with her heard her say, “Legislators could not have known this was a problem unless they are told.” She also told us, “It is up to the administration to let them know before the bill passes and not after-pass if there is a problem with the bill, particularly since they drafted the language.” Additionally she told us, “Most of our legislators are not experts in every area of law that comes before them, and so they have to rely on the administration; they have to rely on the advocates who are out there, including the Missouri Chamber, to let them know if there’s anything that’s problematic.”

She also mentioned the language was on six bills.  Six chances for SOMEBODY to read the language. But she seems to think that reading the bill is not the responsibility of legislators; instead it is up to somebody in another branch of government to read the language and tell the legislators that there’s a problem with a bill that is entirely under their control. 

We have read the bill since this all came up, particularly the section the Department of Revenue endorsed for inclusion. We like to think that we have an intelligence level somewhere above that of a prune even though we are not experts on tax laws either.  But the first time we saw what was bracketed out in section 19, the eyebrows went up.  “Do they really intend to do this?”  

One might wonder if any of those who voted on this issue had read the proposal supposedly offered by the DOR and had similar eyebrow reactions might have sought some answers before voting, “aye.”  But the bill was sent to the governor with scarcely an eyebrow twitch. 

One also might wonder if this is what the Missouri legislature in these term-limit days has come to? One might wonder about the idea that lawmakers should adopt an amendment if they are told it’s okay with that this or that interest or this or that agency without reading it and whether that is what the Founding Fathers meant when they created representative government.  One might wonder whether somebody should read what they are given instead of accepting assurances it is just fine. 

If you are the one who might wonder about such things, that is your business.  If you are one who doesn’t think one should wonder about such things, that’s your business too.  It’s a free country. But one might wonder if the Missouri legislature needs to rediscover its sense of wonder.

There is abundant finger-pointing about this.  The governor says the legislature made a bad mistake.  The legislature says the governor’s Department of Revenue made a bad mistake. 

To the chagrin (or it should be to their chagrin)  of those who quickly and vigorously pointed fingers at the Department of Revenue is information uncovered by our Capitol press corps colleague David Lieb of the Associated Press who reports the erroneous language did NOT originate with DOR after all.  David, who is an expert at digging out stuff, has gotten email records showing that the Department of Revenue in January sent a draft of a bill changing state laws so Missouri could join the Streamlined Sales Tax Compact to Representative Andrew Koenig, a Winchester Republican.  The proposal kept the sales tax exemption for prescription drugs.  A few days later the legislative research office sent a “corrected” version of the measure back to the department.  David says the revision from legislative research contained the faulty language.  Although Koenig’s bill did not pass, that language was used in other bills.

So the bad language originated in the legislature not in the revenue department.  All of this happened in late January.  David says legislative research sent the language to the Department of Revenue on January 28. We calculate that means 101 days passed from the day legislative research sent the erroneous language back to the department until the bill was sent to the Governor on May 9th. Didn’t anybody read the bill during that time? 

We talked a few days ago to a former mid-level manager in the department who remembered times when the agency submitted proposals to the legislature.  This person remembered sitting down with other employees and meticulously reading the language in the proposal, line by line, to make sure it said exactly what they wanted it to say.   So maybe this generation of department folks didn’t read their revised recommendation as carefully as they should have.  But it is not the Department of Revenue that has the responsibility of passing accurate and properly drawn bills.  The state constitution reserves that power, that right, that obligation, to the General Assembly.   

It is worth noting before the rhetoric arises for a second round that supporters of HB253 seem to have a point that the part of the bill with the $200 million flub does not go into effect until January 1, 2015, giving the legislature the entire 2014 session to, in effect, correct the law before it becomes law. But the question arises of whether any governor in terms of philosophy, practicality, principle, or politics should have that much confidence in the General Assembly or, for that matter, whether any Governor—as a matter of the four P’s–should sign a bill containing such a mistake.  If he vetoes it, all of the risk passes to the legislature in 2014 to approve a bill with corrected wording and provisions that Governor Nixon might indicate he would sign.

Imagine the political mischief that could brighten an election campaign or two to come with some claiming the Republicans in the legislature who profess to be great protectors of the taxpayer actually passed a $200 million dollar tax increase and others charging that Governor Nixon, defender of the common people, signed a $200 million tax hike for people who need to take prescription medications. There was a time before the era of campaigns dominated by politial inuendo and half-truths (and there is no such thing as a half-truth) when that would not be a consideration.  But today, nothing is too sleazy. 

In the end we are left with two pieces of wisdom passed on to us when we were much younger.   We do not recall the wise person who told us that it is good to remember than when you point the finger of blame at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.  

But we do recall who spoke the other the advice.  It was Senator Emory Melton who gave it not to us but to later generations of legislators: “Read the bills.”  

This mess is a textbook example of the enduring validity of those three important words. 

***Editor’s note:  A part of legislative folklore recounts that the legislature, during Sen. Melton’s tenure, inadvertently legalized rape. Our friend, King Marc Powers of Arcania, a small territory set aside in the Capitol, coincidentally researched that incident and recounted for us the specifics of those events:

“Lawmakers granted final passage to a bill, SB 156, that did NOT legalize rape. After the bill was truly agreed to, however, the Senate enrolling and engrossing staff made a mistake in putting together the “official” final bill that was sent to the governor. Their mistake, had it been a lawful act of the legislature, would have had the effect of repealing the rape law.

“Ashcroft signed the erroneous version and after catching the error asked Blunt, as secretary of state, to essentially send back the signed bad version and accept a signed version of bill the legislature actually approved. Blunt refused, saying his hands were tied.

“The Supreme Court said that since the Senate enrolling and engrossing staff have no authority to amend legislation, that version of SB 156 was no good. But because the mistake wasn’t caught until after the period for which Ashcroft had to act on bills had passed, neither was the version of the bill the legislature actually approved.

“So, the legislature never legalized rape. A few Senate staffers acting after the legislature had already gone home for the year did.”

 We thank Marc of Arcania for his assitance.  Perhaps the current screwup will not require the Missouri Supreme Court to straighten things out.