The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 27

Missouri’s Republican leadership spent the bulk of 2020 demonstrating exactly how not to lead in a crisis but definitely how to win an election campaign. With a deadly pandemic raging, the economy plummeting and medical staffers overwhelmed by the constant flood of coronavirus victims, the state’s elected Republican leaders did their best to echo President Donald Trump’s misinformed statements that this virus was no big deal and would soon be a thing of the past. Don’t bother with those masks. Enjoy your spring break. Party hardy through the summer, and forget about tomorrow. We won’t push back if local activists invoke Hitler’s Germany to protest radical socialist Democrats’ call for mask mandates.

The apparently coordinated campaign of ignorance-exploitation by Missouri’s top Republican leaders was successful in helping turn a manageable viral outbreak into a health care crisis of catastrophic proportions. Yet, amazingly, the strategy turned out to be popular at the polls on Nov. 3.

If the results weren’t so tragic, with more than 5,100 deaths and 378,000 coronavirus infections statewide, history could well record Missouri’s 2020 performance as one of the most bizarre comedy shows of all time. In the starring roles were a gaffe-prone, farmer-turned-governor who seemed to mean well but never could quite get his dang pandemic message straight.

His bumbling sidekicks included an attorney general who got horribly confused and, bless his heart, wound up suing China. Then there were the two U.S. senators who constantly mistook the words pandemic with politics and election loss with fraud. Combine their antics with open defiance of health precautions by lawmakers and local officials from rural areas, and Missourians had the makings of a rollicking good remake of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

In the final scene, the nation voted overwhelmingly to oust Trump from the White House, but Missouri’s Republican leadership, bless their hearts, completely forgot that this nation is a democracy. Forty state Republican lawmakers signed on to a Supreme Court amicus brief seeking to overturn the election result, citing fraud that nobody could prove. Honey, I shrank the Constitution!

How did things go so far astray? The year began with economic and political indicators looking positive for Gov. Mike Parson and the rest of the state’s GOP super-majority. But the pandemic’s arrival in February turned the state’s entire political picture upside down.

Top-level Democratic contenders, led by State Auditor Nicole Galloway, had their campaign aspirations dashed by the need to demonstrate responsible leadership. They curtailed public appearances, dutifully wore masks and conducted rallies by Zoom. That approach was absolutely the right thing to do.

But, alas, responsible leadership turned out not to be what Missouri voters were looking for. Republican politicians, encouraged by Trump’s aggressive, throw-caution-to-the-wind rally schedule, campaigned in-person with reckless abandon. In fact, they turned mask-free gatherings into a virtue, equating masks and gathering restrictions with radical socialism.

The arrival of warm weather in May led to a viral video of a big pool party at Lake of the Ozarks. Parson punted responsibility for such irresponsibility by telling reporters that it was up to local governments to enforce their own rules and restrictions. (This, of course, is the same governor who signed legislation prohibiting local governments from imposing their own gun restrictions and denying counties the right to ban stinky, polluting industrial pig farms.)

“You don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask,” Parson told a cheering crowd in mid-July. The quote was particularly ironic considering the context. Weeks before, Trump had conducted a mass rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which thousands gathered proudly without those dang masks. Days later, Oklahoma saw a big spike in coronavirus infections. One of those in attendance at the rally, former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, became infected and died on July 30.

It turned out that people really did need the government to tell them to wear masks. Yet the more Parson appeared to champion the cause of freedom over personal responsibility, the more people partied and rallied, and the more hospitals filled with coronavirus patients.

When the rural numbers started spiking, this Editorial Board criticized Parson for misleading his supporters about the pandemic’s seriousness. We warned in late April: “As the virus moves out from the cities, rural America will face some unique problems, including older-than-average populations, lack of hospitals, lack of medical insurance — and a sense of complacency or tough-it-out self-reliance that too many rural-state political leaders have encouraged. … It didn’t help that rural-state governors, including Missouri’s Mike Parson, were generally slower to issue stay-at-home orders than their urban counterparts, further signaling to their citizens that this wasn’t a threat.”

Parson responded angrily. He told reporters incorrectly that the editorial had referred to residents outside the St. Louis region as “simple-minded rural Missourians.” No such wording appeared anywhere in this newspaper.

Parson was, however, embarking on a campaign strategy of pitting rural Missourians against urban elites. That theme would play out again and again in the leadup to his victory in November.

But our warnings ultimately were borne out. Coronavirus hotspots — initially the major urban regions of St. Louis and Kansas City — shifted dramatically. Suddenly, the very rural areas that Parson treated as somehow immune to the virus started seeing dramatic infection spikes. His base — that is, Trump’s base — was getting sicker and sicker. And when rural clinics were unable to handle the surge in cases, those patients began flooding into urban hospitals, overwhelming their resources and filling beds to near capacity.

On Sept. 23, the governor’s office announced that Parson had tested positive himself, along with his wife. Two weeks later, Trump would be hospitalized with the virus.

But rather than serve as a reminder to voters that these two didn’t have a clue about leadership in a crisis, Missouri voters treated Parson’s and Trump’s infections as a badge of honor. Their popularity seemed to increase.

The example of vigilance and caution set by Auditor Galloway in her gubernatorial campaign wound up working against her. She couldn’t circulate under pandemic restrictions, leaving Parson to sweep through the countryside with a message of defiant disregard.

An equally defiant state Attorney General Eric Schmitt tried his own unique approach, garnering national headlines by filing a federal lawsuit against the Communist Party of China for failing to stop the coronavirus.

Schmitt, Parson and Trump swept Missouri although Trump, of course, lost the national vote. Schmitt latched onto Trump’s unfounded claim of massive vote fraud and joined a lawsuit by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to overturn millions of legally cast votes. The Supreme Court rejected the case without so much as a hearing.

The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, did their best to enable the president’s bizarre fraud fantasy. Blunt refused for weeks to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect. Hawley fully embraced the fraud narrative and stuck with Trump to the end. The entire Republican U.S. House delegation from Missouri signed on to the same Paxton lawsuit that Schmitt endorsed.

Their clear strategy, just like their approach to the pandemic, was simply to ignore reality, reject facts and do their best to cultivate mass ignorance. In Missouri, that’s what passed as leadership in 2020.

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The Kansas City Star, Dec. 23

Missouri is in a state of emergency until the end of March. Utility bills are continuing to mount for thousands of people affected by the coronavirus. Heat, electricity and running water are basic necessities that are all the more essential during a pandemic.

So why hasn’t Kansas City-based natural gas company Spire Energy extended its moratorium on utility shutoffs into the spring?

Spire’s temporary pause on disconnections ends Dec. 31.

“We want all of our customers to have access to Spire’s affordable, reliable, clean energy,” a company statement said. “During December’s colder weather, Spire is temporarily suspending disconnections for non-payment in Missouri.”

But other utilities have gone further.

Evergy suspended disconnections for non-payment until March. Several other investor-owned utility companies have announced similar plans.

Current customers with suspended accounts can have service restored with a payment plan and deposit of 1/12th of the outstanding bill, Evergy officials said.

Many other businesses have made extraordinary sacrifices to help flatten the COVID-19 curve, said John Coffman, an attorney for the Consumers Council of Missouri. Yet Spire refuses to come to the aid of Missourians who are suffering.

“We’ve pleaded with utility companies to do what Evergy did,” Coffman said.

Coronavirus cases will continue to surge during the winter months, public health experts say. Our state should brace for a staggering number of infections and deaths. An extended shutoff moratorium into the spring would save lives.

Missourians burdened by financial hardship have been forced to choose to pay utility bills or make mortgage or rent payments or buy groceries during these unprecedented times, Coffman said. Many families have faced homelessness.

To leave anyone without heat or hot water during a pandemic is unconscionable. No family should be placed in that situation. Living with relatives or entering a shelter is exceedingly risky and could expose more people to the highly contagious virus.

Citing the need to protect public health and safety, the Consumers Council of Missouri, which advocates on behalf of consumer interests, sought an emergency order to create a winter utility disconnection moratorium. But the motion was rejected by the Missouri Public Service Commission, a five-member regulatory body chaired by former state lawmaker Ryan Silvey of Kansas City.

The commissioners, who are appointed by the Missouri governor, regulate public utility companies in the state. A recent 5-0 decision to deny the request to suspend disconnections put many struggling Missourians in peril.

“I just want to let the commissioners know that it is absolutely barbaric and sick that they denied a utility moratorium during a global pandemic,” Missouri resident Gillian Parish wrote to the Public Service Commission after its decision.

“There are so many people out of work and trying to get by right now and are unable to pay their utilities. I am angry for my fellow citizens,” wrote Barry Smythe, another Missourian.

Silvey couldn’t legally discuss the decision. The commission determined it did not have the authority to grant the motion. Another filing is being considered, Coffman said.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” he said. “But the effort to try to bend the curve of the pandemic will continue.”

Missouri is one of only a handful of states that have not had the governor or public utilities commission issue a moratorium on shutoffs, the Consumers Council found. Residents across the state looking for relief have been left out in the cold by state government officials.

Off and on since March, Spire and Evergy have suspended cuts to service. The companies continue to offer assistance to customers faced with the threat of disconnection. Each has donated to relief funds to assist as well.

But unless Spire continues its shutoff moratorium after the holiday season, the health and safety of thousands of Missourians could be endangered.

And the consequences will be dire.

Emergency funds for income-eligible families struggling to pay rent or utility bills are available. Contact a local community service organization or visit the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at www.acf.hhs.gov/ocs/programs/liheap for more information.

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Joplin Globe, Dec. 23

It is about time.

Congress finally managed to get its act together enough to pass a $900 billion relief bill to help those hurt by the economic devastation associated with the pandemic.

Nationally, the current unemployment rate is 10.6%. Missouri is doing better, clocking a 4.4% unemployment rate in November. But that excludes people who are out of work and who have stopped looking for now because their industries are shuttered. Small businesses in general are hurting. Industries such as entertainment, recreation, travel, restaurants, lodging and education have been hammered hardest by this calamity.

Funding for supplemental unemployment benefits for about 12 million Americans under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will expire Dec. 26, but the new package extends enhanced unemployment benefits for jobless workers, who will receive up to $300 per week through mid-March, compared with the CARES Act that provided $600 weekly. Self-employed people and gig workers will also see extended assistance.

The bill also reauthorizes the Paycheck Protection Program, adding $285 billion to the popular measure that shores up businesses and employment through forgivable loans.

The measure will provide $600 direct payments to every adult earning up to $75,000 and their dependent children. Individuals earning between $75,000 and $99,000 will get smaller checks. Individuals earning more than $99,000 will not receive the benefit.

Importantly, the measure includes $25 billion to help families pay rent, and it extends the eviction moratorium now in effect until Jan. 31. Keeping people from becoming homeless in the midst of a pandemic protects society as well as those facing eviction.

The measure also provides more funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help provide food for families struggling.

The effort to pass this measure has been hard to watch. It has seemed as if one side or the other kept throwing hard blocks or even moving the goalposts. It was as if many of those in Congress didn’t want to provide the needed help.

What finally got it passed were negotiation and compromise — the best tools of effective politics. Horse trading and deal making have gotten a bad rap for years now, but they are vital for the operation of our government. The system of checks and balances that underpins our republic requires each side to be willing to work across the aisle, to be willing to have each side get something, but no side get everything.

Otto von Bismarck said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” Though this process has not been what we would have hoped, it has produced a measure that helps. Perhaps that is the best we could hope for right now.

Now, let’s look to better days with vaccines becoming widely available and the economy on the rebound.

Then we can turn our eyes to curbing the deficit.