Analysis: GOP marks 10 years atop Legislature
Monday, December 31, 2012
When Tom Dempsey arrived at the Missouri Capitol as a freshman lawmaker, he was assigned an office so small he had to lie diagonally on the floor if he needed a nap. Dempsey was, after all, one of the least senior Republicans in a building dominated for a half-century by Democrats.
Today, Dempsey is preparing to move into the Capitol suite of the Senate president pro tem, as a leader of the largest Republican legislative majority since the Civil War era.
The Jan. 9 start of Missouri’s legislative session will mark the 10th anniversary of complete Republican control of both chambers. The transformation has been so resounding that Republicans will now hold two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. And because of term limits, Dempsey will be one of only a few lawmakers remaining who can even recall what it was like when Democrats once ruled the building.
A lot certainly has changed in Dempsey’s political circumstances. But what has a decade of Republican lawmaking meant for Missouri?
For starters, taxes are lower — at least for certain businesses. Missouri’s social safety net is smaller. Fewer people receive government-subsidized health care and child care. Funding for colleges has lagged as enrollments have risen. And aid to public schools — though it has grown to new highs — still falls short of what’s recommended by a state formula.
Although per capital personal income has risen while Republicans have led the Legislature, so also has Missouri’s unemployment rate and the number of people in prison. There are fewer restrictions on guns, more constraints on abortion and no longer any limits on campaign contributions.
Republicans see their legacy from one perspective: “Missouri has been placed on a more fiscally sound, fiscally conservative approach,” said Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who was Senate president pro tem when Republicans took control of the chamber.
Added Dempsey: “Missourians are better off for us having led the state in the Legislature.”
Democrats see the past decade from another view: “This phobia of taxation — what we’re effectively doing is eating our young,” said Rep. Chris Kelly, who spent a decade in a Democratic majority before leaving the Legislature in the mid-1990s, then returning in 2009.
Here’s a look at a few ways the Republican-led Legislature has affected people’s lives:
Taxes. Not only have there been no tax hikes under Republican leadership, but the Legislature has waived hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes — often with the intent of benefiting businesses and economic development.
Republicans began by enacting a sales tax holiday for back-to-school supplies in 2003, and followed it up with a similar tax-free shopping period for energy efficient appliances in 2008.
The Legislature authorized tax breaks for downtown redevelopment projects in 2003; created incentives in 2005 for businesses that add jobs with decent wages and health care benefits; and enacted a special tax break in 2007 for a developer who amassed large tracts of land in hopes of rebuilding an impoverished part of St. Louis.
Lawmakers also heeded the call of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in a 2010 special session to pass millions of dollars of tax breaks for automakers, and they voted in 2011 to gradually eliminate the business franchise tax.
During the past decade, the number of state tax credits redeemed annually has more than doubled to nearly $630 million this past fiscal year — and the tab could have been even higher. The Legislature in 2008 authorized $240 million of tax credits to lure a Canadian airplane maker to Kansas City. But the company rejected the deal.
Still, Republicans are not done reducing taxes. Their goals for the 2013 session include a broad state income-tax cut and a revision of the state’s tax credits, which would cap some programs to free money for new incentives targeted at particular industries.
Government services. After 10 years of Republican budget writing spanning two separate economic downturns, Missouri is on track to spend almost the same amount of general revenues this year as it had budgeted in 2003. That has meant cuts to some programs to offset rising costs elsewhere.
The most notable Republican cut came in 2005, when Gov. Matt Blunt enacted measures eliminating Medicaid health care coverage for about 100,000 low-income adults and reducing benefits for hundreds of thousands of others. Republicans have called it a forward-thinking cut that helped balance the budget when the Great Recession hit. Though the number of people on federally funded food stamps has continued to rise, Missouri’s Medicaid rolls remain below their pre-2005 levels. There also are fewer Missourians receiving subsidized child care and cash welfare payments.
Despite escalating enrollments, the amount of money Missouri provides to public universities remains essentially the same as it was when Republicans took control of the Legislature. That’s due partly to cuts by Democratic governors who turned to higher education to help balance the budget.
Basic aid to K-12 schools has risen to an all-time high, yet it remains hundreds of millions of dollars short of the amount called for under a 2005 law that rewrote the school funding formula.
Social policy. The Republican-led Legislature has enacted a variety of new restrictions on abortion clinics, including a 24-hour waiting period after a woman consults with a physician. It placed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2004 ballot, which voters overwhelmingly approved. And it imposed new limitations on sexually oriented businesses.
Other social policy changes approved by the Legislature include numerous attempts to crack down on methamphetamine by limiting access to cold medications used to make it; revamping the state’s foster care system and nursing home laws; toughening penalties for sex offenders; and providing a boost to the state’s corn farmers by requiring gasoline to contain a 10 percent ethanol mix.
As one of its first actions as the majority, Republicans teamed up with some minority party Democrats in 2003 to enact a law allowing trained adults to carry concealed guns. That issue could be back with a new twist in 2013, as House Republican leaders now want to allow teachers and administrators to carry their concealed guns into classrooms.