Tonight Governor Jay Nixon gives his State of the State address.
Columnist John Sharp comments on some of the topics before the 2016 Missouri General Assembly.
South KC Perspective
Getting Missouri Current with the Rest of the Nation Is A Priority This Legislative Session
By John Sharp
The Missouri General Assembly kicked off its 2016 session on January 6 with much attention focused on hot button issues such as ethics reform and highway funding.
Unlimited Gifts to Legislators
Missouri is the only state in the nation that allows unlimited gifts to legislators from lobbyists, unlimited campaign contributions and no waiting period before legislators can become lobbyists after leaving office. While ethics reform has generated a great deal of media support for years, significant reforms never seem to cross the finish line. It will be interesting to see if this year is different.
One of the Lowest Fuel Taxes
Highway funding also has been a major topic of conversation in recent years. Missouri has one of the longest highway systems in the nation (longer than the systems of Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska combined), along with major needs to fund public transportation and rail and port improvements, but one of the nation’s lowest fuel taxes.
Missouri has a 17.3-cent a gallon tax for both gasoline and diesel fuel which has been unchanged since 1996. Only four states have a lower tax on gasoline, and only three have a lower tax on diesel.
Missouri voters turned down a three-fourths cent sales tax for transportation in August 2014 by a 59 to 41 percent margin, and last year’s session of the General Assembly failed to pass any fuel tax increase or toll road measure.
A recent column by Kansas City attorney Stephen Miller, chair of the Missouri Highways & Transportation Commission, noted that inadequate funding has resulted in the state having 641 bridges in critical condition that need to be rebuilt or replaced. He noted there are about 1,400 bridges with weight restrictions.
Governor Jay Nixon has endorsed legislation by Poplar Bluff Senator Doug Libla to increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents per gallon and the diesel tax by 3.5 cents.
For areas like south Kansas City that promote their easy access to the highway system to lure businesses such as the 182,000 square foot Boulevard Brewery national distribution center coming to the Three Trails Industrial Park at 87th and I-49, the inability to maintain a safe highway system could stifle continued job growth.
Accordingly, the South Kansas City and Grandview Chambers of Commerce have made long-term and sustainable transportation funding their top state legislative priority for 2016.
Other priorities of both Chambers and the city of Kansas City include legislation to allow the city to better enforce its property maintenance and nuisance codes and to expand enhanced 9-1-1 emergency dialing service to all counties in the state.
Accountable Vacant and Rental Property Owners
State Representative Sheila Solon of Blue Springs has reintroduced legislation which almost passed last year to put more teeth in the law requiring limited liability companies that own rental or vacant property in Kansas City to file the name and address of at least one person with management control of the property who can be held accountable for failure to properly maintain the property.
Her legislation clarifies that the manager must be a real person, not another company, and the address must be a street address, not just a post office box.
If a company fails to file the required information, the legislation allows the city or anyone adversely affected by the failure to petition the circuit court to enforce this requirement.
A news release from Solon’s office noted there are about 2,000 vacant properties in Kansas City owned by limited liability companies.
In a conversation with me on the opening day of this year’s legislative session, Solon said if the owners of vacant dilapidated property can’t be located, taxpayers often end up footing the bill to eliminate nuisances.
Outdated 9-1-1 Service
Missouri is the only state in the nation that doesn’t charge a fee for 9-1-1 service on cellular telephones, and consequently is the only state in the nation that doesn’t have 9-1-1 emergency dialing service throughout the state.
Representative Jeanie Lauer, also of Blue Springs, has reintroduced legislation designed to adequately fund 9-1-1 service even in sparsely populated counties and to provide a sustainable funding source in more populous areas that are seeing continual declines in revenue due to the shrinking number of telephone land lines.
Lauer told me on opening day of the legislative session that her bill simply updates Missouri law to reflect how telephone service has evolved. She said senior citizens and businesses that have most of the landlines still in use today are carrying the financial load for 9-1-1 service, while everyone with just a cell phone is getting it for free.
“If you travel across the state you may end up in an area without service,” Lauer said, pointing out that during recent flooding, “You had folks stranded who couldn’t access 9-1-1.”
Her bill would allow counties to seek voter approval for a monthly fee of up to $1.50 on each active telephone number, regardless of its technology, to support 9-1-1 service, although counties would need permission from the Missouri 9-1-1 Service Board to propose fees over $1.00. Such fees could not be in addition to any existing 9-1-1 county sales tax or 9-1-1 telephone tax.
It also imposes a statewide charge of three percent on prepaid wireless phone service, beginning January 1, 2017. Some of those funds ranging from 25 to 75 percent would be for 9-1-1 service in the counties where they are collected. The balance would be placed in a trust fund administered by the Missouri 9-1-1 Service Board to be used for grants and loans to counties to implement 9-1-1 service if they don’t have it or to improve existing service.
Improvements could include the ability to pinpoint the location of cell phone callers which counties with only basic 9-1-1 service don’t have, the ability to accept text messages and providing pre-arrival medical instructions by trained emergency medical dispatchers.
Lauer’s bill also creates a “Silver Alert System”, similar to the current “Amber Alert”, which could be used to help identify and locate missing persons thought to be endangered due to their age, mental or physical condition or weather conditions.
John Sharp is a former city councilman and legislator for the area, as well as writer.