Editorial Roundup: Missouri

Kansas City Star. April 8, 2021.

Editorial: Missouri lawmakers peddling false choice between public defenders, Medicaid expansion

Missouri lawmakers are taking small steps to rectify the outrageous denial of constitutional rights for thousands of criminal defendants who need a public defender.

Sadly, the steps are too small, and they’re doing it the wrong way.

Tuesday, the House Budget Committee considered a bill adding a little more than $1 million to the public defenders’ budget, allowing the office to hire up to 15 additional lawyers. The director of the Office of the Public Defender, Mary Fox, said the money would allow her to clear up the backlog of some cases in some offices.

That’s incredibly important. As The Star has reported, thousands of indigent defendants have waited months for a public defender to represent their interests before a judge. Some of those defendants have languished in jail, waiting for the lawyer they’re owed by the U.S. Constitution.

In February, Missouri Circuit Court Judge William Hickle said it was likely that plaintiffs who claim an inadequate public defense would prevail in a lawsuit. More than 5,800 defendants were on wait lists in November 2019, the court found, without a public defender or private attorney.

“The State violates the Sixth Amendment (and the Missouri Constitution equivalent in Article I) by charging an indigent defendant with a crime … then delaying for weeks, months, and even more than a year before furnishing the defendant with an attorney,” Hickle wrote.

He gave the legislature until July 1 to rectify the problem.

The 15 additional lawyers won’t get the job done, even when combined with 12 new lawyers approved in an earlier budget measure. By most estimates, the Office of the Public Defender needs 53 more attorneys to adequately represent all clients, and to clean up the wait lists.

That would cost about $3.6 million, a pittance in a state with a $34 billion budget.

But it’s even worse than that, because the $1 million set aside for 15 public defenders is coming from an alternative spending blueprint that assumes Medicaid won’t be expanded in Missouri.

It’s outrageous. This isn’t an either-or situation. Missouri has more than enough cash to pay for expanded Medicaid and a fully-funded public defenders’ office.

And spending that money isn’t optional. The Missouri Constitution requires the state to make Medicaid available to qualified adults. The U.S. Constitution requires Missouri to provide an adequate defense for suspects who can’t afford a lawyer.

The recalcitrance in Jefferson City almost guarantees an ongoing lawsuit over the lack of funding for indigent defense. A lawsuit over the lack of Medicaid expansion is also a certainty if lawmakers don’t change their minds.

It is beyond frustrating to watch legislators continually dodge their legal obligations. And it should anger Missourians that lawmakers want to pit poor defendants against poor workers who lack health insurance.

Republicans have claimed the state lacks the resources to pay for these programs. It simply isn’t true. Tax revenues have exceeded expectations during the pandemic, and the federal government is showering billions on the state to pay for essential services.

Providing a lawyer to a defendant who can’t afford one is just such a service. We urge the Missouri Senate, and legislators in both parties, to fully fund the public defender and expand Medicaid before adjournment in May.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch. April 12, 2021.

Editorial: Move to rewrite Medicaid restrictions threatens the most vulnerable Missourians

Once again, Republicans in the Missouri Legislature have decided they can just ignore any federal law that offends their extremist ideology. Previously, it’s been about federal gun laws; now, it’s birth control. Approval of the state’s annual budget remains in limbo after Senate Republicans last month attached an amendment barring the use of Medicaid funds to pay for contraception, in defiance of federal law that says that’s part of the bargain when states receive federal Medicaid money.

Legislators who for years have declined federal dollars for Medicaid expansion in their determination to kneecap the Affordable Care Act are now creating the possibility that Missouri will lose its current Medicaid funding entirely — all for the sake of ensuring that poor women are denied access to birth control. Thankfully, cooler heads seem to be prevailing among the Senate leadership. But the episode highlights again how radical the GOP’s legislative majority has become.

Medicaid is the joint federal-state program that provides health care for the poor, covering almost a million of the most vulnerable Missourians, many of them children. It should cover more, since about 200,000 additional Missourians remain well below the poverty line but don’t qualify for Medicaid. They would be covered if the state agreed to expand the program as envisioned under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The federal government would pick up 90% of the tab. Yet even after passage last year of a statewide referendum to expand Medicaid coverage, the Legislature has moved to block funding the state’s portion, effectively preventing the expansion that the voters already approved.

It’s hard to fathom a more irresponsible and heartless stunt by elected representatives, but state Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, and a majority of his Republican colleagues have managed it. By prohibiting use of Medicaid funds to provide recipients with contraception, Wieland’s amendment attempts to overrule federal law with his own extremist views on the topic.

No one who understands the concept of federalism thinks it works that way, yet all but two Senate Republicans supported Wieland’s amendment. Unless the amendment supporters harbor some delusion that the Biden administration would just shrug and let them rewrite federal law from Jefferson City, these lawmakers are knowingly endangering the health care of hundreds of thousands of Missourians.

As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reports, Senate GOP leaders are confident they can ultimately pass the budget without the amendment — that they can work around the lunacy of their fellow Republicans, in other words.

For the sake of some of the most vulnerable citizens in the state, we certainly hope so. But either way, the episode should stand as one more reason Missouri voters might want to reconsider continually giving power to a party that has repeatedly shown nothing but contempt for the will of the voters, the concept of competent governance and the very lives of their own constituents.

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Joplin Globe. April 9, 2021.

Editorial: Protect Eleven Point State Park

We urge lawmakers to protect Eleven Point State Park.

There’s no doubt that the river and its watershed are nationally significant and have been recognized as such going back to the first conversations this country had on protecting its rivers. Selling the land would be a mistake that would deprive Missourians of a spectacular site. Yet, a bill to do just that has passed out of committee in the Missouri House and could soon come to the House floor.

The argument to sell the park is based on the specious claim that the state “misappropriated” mining settlement money it received when it bought the land along the Eleven Point several years ago and that the settlement money should be used in those areas that suffered mining damage. But that settlement included both remediation funds to restore damaged areas and mitigation funds, which can be used to offset what was lost. Putting in the public domain habitat for wildlife is an example of that, as some of what was damaged by lead mining is beyond our ability to restore or recover. Nothing in the settlement indicated the mitigation funds had be used on land that was damaged.

We have argued before that, because all Missouri taxpayers ante up when mining or other environmental problems occur in any part of the state and because wildlife belongs to all people in the state, all Missourians should benefit from the mitigation money too. Creating a state park that all can enjoy is a great way to do that.

Under former Gov. Jay Nixon, the state used mitigation money to acquire from willing sellers nearly 4,200 acres of land along Eleven Point, one of the nation’s inaugural National Wild and Scenic Rivers, and a river that was initially going to be included in the nation’s first federal river park until it was cut out by compromise. It is a place that previous generations worked hard to protect. That park protects nearly 7 square miles of habitat for wildlife, as well as the recharge basins for the large springs that feed the river and miles of riparian corridor.

Previous generations of Missourians — Republicans and Democrats — rallied to save Ozark rivers and went to extraordinary lengths to do so, including spending millions of state and federal tax dollars for acquisition, using eminent domain and drafting innovative laws to protect them. We have the ability to protect a large piece of the nationally significant Eleven Point River and watershed without having to do any of that.

The better way to see this is that Missouri acquired a crown jewel state park without having to use state money and can advance protection of a nationally significant river. Lawmakers should be advocating for opening the site to the public, not unraveling the deal.

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