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Candidates for the Missouri House of Representatives District 60 seat faced off in a forum hosted by the News Tribune on Thursday. Incumbent Rep. Dave Griffith, a Republican, and challenger Joshua Dunne, a Democrat, debated a variety of issues — and the News Tribune asked the candidates additional questions, some submitted by readers, following the forum.
Reader Mike Lester asked: Roads and bridges are in bad shape and getting worse, while state revenue for roads is inadequate to keep up with even standard maintenance — what do you recommend to address this issue?
"We can revisit the gas tax," Griffith said. "It's been a couple of years since that was on the ballot. I'm not saying a gas tax is the end-all solution. I suggest we not tie anything else to it on the ballot. The last time it was on the ballot, there was confusion."
Griffith said there was funding for the Missouri Highway Patrol tied to the ballot issue.
"There needs to be a combination," Griffith said. "There's not one answer. We do have an issue with our roads and bridges. If you listen to the Missouri Department of Transportation, they don't even have enough drivers for the winter season. They are trying to find dump truck drivers. Issues at MoDOT all go back to money."
This is another example of where Medicaid expansion can benefit Missouri, Dunne said.
"Medicaid expansion not only increases availability of affordable health insurance for state residents but has generally positive effects on state budgets," Dunne continued. Virginia recently added $421 million gained through Medicaid expansion to the state's budget and is using that money on crucial priorities, he explained.
"Missouri can use the money saved and gained by Medicaid expansion, to repair and replace our state's crumbling roads and bridges," Dunne said. "Which has been a huge cause of Missouri's inability to attract new businesses."
Another question candidates answered after the forum was how they stand on the "Wayfair tax" — collecting sales taxes on purchases made online by Missouri residents.
"Missouri's failure to collect sales tax is damaging to local businesses here in our state," Dunne said. "With COVID-19 already causing so many challenges to our state's business owners, they do not need any more obstacles for them to succeed."
Missouri is missing out on more than $100 million annually because of this issue, Dunne continued — money that would go a long way in funding priorities such as repairing our crumbling infrastructure and fully funding the schools in our local community.
Griffith said he supports Wayfair and Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreements. SSUTA are cooperative efforts between 44 states that make a uniform sales tax and collection system available.
"We've got so many taxing districts in the state of Missouri that it can be confusing and hard to implement," Griffith said. "There are companies out there that can help us work with the Department of Revenue. If retailers don't have brick and mortar inside the state, they don't have to pay sales tax. Local businesses are suffering because of that. We've got to do something.
"It boils down to education. We've got to educate counties and communities in how this is going to benefit them. It's not the end-all but a step in the right direction," he said.
The News Tribune also asked the candidates to assess Missouri's education funding.
Some of the withheld budget money the state released last week is going to help fund education, Griffith said. He pointed out the Legislature has fully funded the Foundation Formula. The formula, passed in 2005, establishes a minimum that should be spent to educate the average student in an academic year. The formula is weighted to reflect that some students need additional help.
"I've been campaigning on education — focused on K-12. Fully funding the Foundation Formula is a step in the right direction," Griffith said. "Like any other program, if the budget is tight — and we've seen it time and time again — if the budget is cut, one of the first thing that's hit is education, state employees and roads."
Our local schools are inadequately funded, from kindergarten through 12th grade and on to local colleges, Dunne said.
Dunne said he continues to "hammer" the benefits of Medicaid expansion. Between that and collected revenue from internet sales, the state would be in a much stronger financial place, he said.
"The supermajority in Missouri's Legislature loves to brag about their balanced budget, but they continuously cut education budgets and bet against the children and future leaders in our community," Dunne said.
Medicaid expansion and health care
Among the questions the candidates fielded Thursday was: "How is the state to implement the newly passed Medicaid expansion given the state budget?"
Dunne said Medicaid expansion will result in Missouri paying a lower percentage of the costs of Medicaid services. Expansion will bring more federal money back to the state, which has proven beneficial elsewhere. And that will increase revenue.
"The second thing that Medicaid expansion does is increase productivity and allow people to have more spending money," Dunne said. "So they can spend in their community and help local businesses."
Part of the difficulty is that Missouri has among the lowest corporate tax rates in the nation. Yet the state is not attracting businesses because rural health care is basically nonexistent, Dunne said.
Medicaid expansion won't be the panacea people hope for, Griffith countered.
"It seems like Medicaid expansion is going to be the answer to all of our budget problems. It's not," Griffith said.
Medicaid expansion is an unfunded mandate. If the majority party were to run something through the Legislature that was unfunded, members would be "raked over the coals for it," he continued.
Griffith said some people in Arkansas are looking at ways to get out of expansion. Members of the Southern Legislative Conference, he said, talk about loopholes in the program.
"We are blessed in the state of Missouri in that we do have a balanced budget. We're not like Illinois, and we're not like California, where we can just print more money," Griffith said. "We can borrow more money and borrow more money and it's all on the shoulders of our grandchildren."
He warned other programs would have to suffer to pay for Medicaid expansion.
Several readers submitted questions also dealt with health care.
Paul and Sarah Miller asked how the candidates might make contracted care facilities available in Jefferson City for local veterans.
Griffith replied the Missouri Veterans Commission, which operates seven veterans homes statewide, is funded through revenue brought in from casinos. Those casinos have not been able to generate money during the pandemic because they have been closed. Even if they weren't closed, revenue from casinos has dwindled over the years, Griffith said.
The commission will receive some money from medical marijuana, but that won't resolve the state's funding problems either, he said.
"When I'm re-elected, one of the first things I'm going to be doing is looking at funding sources for the Veterans Commission," Griffith said.
Dunne argued Medicaid expansion will also benefit veterans by building state revenue.
The men had vastly different views on how well Missouri has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, Missouri had reported an increase of more than 1,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The state also reported having the highest number of hospitalizations to date. Candidates were asked to rate the response to the pandemic and what steps might be necessary going forward.
Back in March, officials said the more people who get tested, the more people who will come back with positive results, Griffith replied. And there's much more testing being done at Jefferson City drive-thru test sites, he said.
There's no "playbook" that tells leaders what is the right thing to do, Griffith said. Gov. Mike Parson has done the best he could do, he continued.
"Being safe. Wearing masks. If you go into a business and they request you to do that, and you social distance, then you take care of your fellow man," Griffith said. "These are things that I think we've learned from the pandemic, that we've learned from COVID-19, that we're going to take with us into the future."
Maybe we've done a good job and maybe we could have done better, he said.
Griffith said it appears the number of positive cases is at its maximum. He also said the number of people in intensive care units is decreasing.
"It's poor. What we were told in March turned out to be lies," Dunne said about the state's COVID-19 response. "We were told this disease would go away in April. We were told it would go away in May. We were told it would go away in June. Now, we're being told we might magically get a vaccine in October."
Dunne said former President George W. Bush put a system together to fight pandemics; former President Barack Obama strengthened the system; then President Donald Trump gutted it, Dunne said.
Parson downplayed the importance of masks, he said.
"He has been shown several times in public not wearing a mask," Dunne said. "So to say that he has been setting an example is also false."