Recent Missouri editorials

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31

Elections are, by definition, always about politics, whether they involve a local bond issue, school board seats or choosing the president of the United States. But the simple act of voting must always be above politics. Those who take the time to vote deserve to be hailed as defenders of democracy, regardless of their political persuasion.

In today’s America, however, that’s no longer the case. President Donald Trump, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft seem intent on stifling democratic participation amid well-founded pandemic fears. Missourians’ determination to defy those efforts will be put to their first post-shutdown test on Tuesday when municipal elections occur across the state.

Applications for absentee ballots have skyrocketed this year to four times the level they were during municipal elections in April 2019. This year’s elections were supposed to have occurred in April but were postponed to June 2 in Parson’s only gesture recognizing the dangers of forcing people into crowded polling places during a pandemic.

Legislation awaiting Parson’s signature would allow narrowly qualified voters — mainly those 65 and older or others with underlying health conditions — to request mail-in ballots for the August and November elections. Even if Parson does sign the bill, which is not assured, expanded absentee-voting permissions wouldn’t apply to Tuesday’s election.

Some election boards, including those in St. Charles and St. Louis counties, have declared that fear of coronavirus exposure is a legitimate excuse to vote absentee. “If anyone is truly concerned about their health and they are quarantining themselves because of COVID, that is a valid confinement for an absentee ballot,” St. Charles County Elections Director Kurt Bahr told the Post-Dispatch.

Trump has denounced mail-in voting as an invitation to fraud, even though he himself votes by mail. Parson and Ashcroft say a provision under existing law, which permits absentee voting because of “incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability,” does not apply to pandemic fears. Those who vote absentee without a valid reason can be fined or imprisoned.

It’s apparently not above Parson and Ashcroft to use the threat of such absurdly draconian punishments as an intimidation tactic. Why? Voters who truly fear coronavirus exposure would probably stay at home rather than risk their health. National polls indicate that Democrats take the threat of exposure far more seriously than Republicans. Under this twisted logic, Republicans gain an edge by blocking absentee voting.

Tuesday’s election is mainly about bond issues and infrastructure investments, which tend not to generate harsh partisan splits. But the message Parson and Ashcroft are sending is that they don’t take voter safety seriously enough to make exceptional allowances for what are clearly exceptional circumstances. It’s understandable why voters would be afraid of the coronavirus. But why are Trump, Parson and Ashcroft so afraid of democracy?

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The Kansas City Star. May 29

Maybe Missouri Gov. Mike Parson should take yet another cue from President Donald Trump and let somebody else handle more of his daily COVID-19 news conferences.

Increasingly, even the most unsurprising, politely phrased and calmly intoned questions get a reaction somewhere between prickly and on the verge of a meltdown, depending on the day and the reporter doing the asking.

That Parson is at war with words themselves doesn’t help, but that isn’t the real problem, which is that so much of what he says is wrong-headed.

Take Thursday’s briefing, for instance. At that outing, in the space of just a few minutes, Parson made three “he did not just say that” statements.

Asked what he’d tell Missourians who aren’t sure they should vote in person in local elections on Tuesday, he took his usual leg-stretching walk around the rhetorical ranch and then said well, if you don’t feel safe, then by all means, stay home.

“I hope people feel safe to go out and vote, but if they don’t, you know the number one thing is their safety should be number one. So if they don’t, then don’t go out and vote. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard myself say that, but if you don’t feel safe, then I wouldn’t do that.”

We don’t know that we’ve ever heard anyone who purports to care about democracy say that, nor would we expect to. Parson’s message that we should bail on voting rather than risking our health is especially outrageous because in Missouri, it’s his party that’s determined to force people to choose between staying safe and doing their duty as a citizen.

A bill that would make it only slightly easier to vote safely is on Parson’s desk, but he hasn’t said whether he’ll sign even that weak, meek legislation, which allows mail-in voting for those who can get their ballots notarized. That’s no help for those who don’t feel safe going out amid this pandemic, of course; why not just require papal dispensation, or a warrant from the FISA court?

At Tuesday’s briefing, Parson almost lost it over a question about whether it was the state’s responsibility or that of the counties to enforce the social distancing orders so widely disregarded at the Lake of the Ozarks during Memorial Day weekend. How many times, he asked, would he have to repeat that it was up to counties?

Got it. But county officials in that area have since said that nope, it is up to the state, so at Thursday’s briefing, Parson was asked whether, with neither the state nor the counties doing anything to enforce the order, he would do something to try and break the impasse.

“It is what it is,” he said, annoyed all over again.

If you didn’t want to have to answer any questions, Governor, then why seek public office? If you didn’t want to take responsibility in the greatest crisis of our lifetime, why even go through the motions of governing?

His answer in full to the question of who would enforce the order was this: “It is what it is. The local health department, for example, shuts down restaurants when they’re not doing something right. The state don’t come in and do that. They do that. That’s their job to do that. Look, I’ve been a supporter of local control ever since the beginning I’ve been here as governor. The local control statement needs to take the responsibility, good and bad, and that’s the way it is.”

Sometimes it is. Parson and other Missouri Republicans have opposed allowing Kansas City to make its own gun laws, have opposed local control of the Kansas City Police Department and have opposed allowing local school districts to have control of their own calendar. Republicans including Parson also kept cities from instituting a $15 minimum wage. Yet when it comes to public health during a crisis, it’s over to you, counties, and good luck.

The governor said counties can always go to court to try to force compliance on social distancing, “whether that’s pulling a business license, whether that’s like anything else. COVID-19 has got a lot of attention, but at the end of the day, the rules are still in place that were in place before. Just because COVID-19 doesn’t change it.”

Told that the state health department does have the ability to enforce the order, he said, “I’m not going to send some sort of police action out there. I think that’s a dangerous road to go down, when government has that kind of authority over individuals.”

That he sees nothing in between police action and hands-off pandemonium leaves a complete vacuum of leadership in this state. And what’s dangerous is libertarian laissez-faire in the middle of a pandemic.

The impression that Parson is in so far over his head that he’s drowning might have come through most clearly in his answer to a question about his thoughts on George Floyd’s death in police custody Monday after a Minneapolis officer kept a knee on his neck until he stopped breathing.

This is not a hard question. Even Trump has said, “I feel very, very badly. That’s a very shocking sight.” Yes, watching an officer of the peace act as though he’s squashing a bug while draining the life from a man pleading for air is a very shocking sight.

Parson’s thoughts were these: “You know, look. I was in law enforcement for a long time, and you see what’s going on in other cities. You know, you never want to see that. I’ve always held myself to a higher standard, whether I was in law enforcement, whether I was in the military. Well, I’ve been a legislator, and I’m the governor now. When you get in these positions, you’ve got to be held to a pretty high standard.”

“What I know from the outside looking in, probably wasn’t the best of circumstances and people have to be held accountable for that. But again, I want to be really careful where I judge somebody just by what I’ve seen on TV. I don’t know what the facts were, but as a normal person, it didn’t look too good.”

When you’re making Donald Trump look like Malcolm X, you’re not looking too good, either. It isn’t really his performance at news conferences that are the problem, but the fact that they reveal the thinking of the man in charge, and how very far Mike Parson is from meeting this moment.

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St. Joseph News-Press, May 30

A minimalist, or someone who doesn’t trust the government, would find plenty to like about this year’s legislative session in Missouri.

An abbreviated, disjointed session resulted in 32 bills passing through both chambers, about a third of what lawmakers normally advance to the governor’s desk. Some may look at this list and breathe a sigh of relief, assuming that a new law doesn’t always make things better.

Fair point, but this year’s session did feature missed opportunities. Bills that failed included proposals that would have allowed statewide prescription drug monitoring, sports gambling and legal immunity for companies that take reasonable steps to limit COVID-19. Other bills on the cutting room floor would have prohibited texting while driving and eminent domain for a transmission project in north Missouri.

Lawmakers also failed to reach consensus on a bill that would allow state and local government to collect a tax on internet sales. This was one of the bigger missed opportunities because a tax on e-commerce would level the playing field for local retailers and allow state and local government to capitalize on shifting consumer preferences.

That was known heading into the session in January. The Wayfair bill, named after the court case that cleared the way for states to collect an internet sales tax, also has the potential of stemming the budget hemorrhaging that threatens essential services in the wake of the coronavirus restrictions. By the end of the session, this made the missed opportunity an even bigger whiff for officials like David Slater, the mayor of Pleasant Valley, Missouri.

Slater, a graduate of Bishop LeBlond High School and Missouri Western State University, wrote a letter on behalf of the state’s mayors urging Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session to address the internet sales tax issue, according to the Kansas City Star. In our view, this seems a reasonable request, especially since lawmakers may need to gather at some point because of COVID-19 and its impact on the budget.

Why not expand what amounts to a COVID-19 session to deal with a Wayfair bill, so that Missouri could end its status as one of only two states that collects on local stores but exempts the online marketplace?

A special session for an internet tax makes even more sense after 2019, when the governor called lawmakers back on the less-than-critical issue of allowing Missourians to use the sale of multiple vehicles as a credit against the purchase of another vehicle.

At the time, it was a head-scratcher.

This year, a much stronger case could be made for a special session to address a proposed tax on internet sales.