Kansas City Star, July 5

We all join Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas in his heartbreak and disgust over the violence that’s so out of control that three kids were killed here last week. One of them, a 4-year-old who had survived heart surgery, was shot in his own big-boy bed, during a driveby shooting. Two 12-year-olds shot in another drive-by survived. And two Kansas City police officers were shot on a single, terrible day.

Lucas was right to ask Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session. The mayor keeps speaking out about this epidemic of gun violence and has said repeatedly that he should be held personally accountable: “Earlier this week we failed a four-year-old and his family,” he wrote on Facebook on Thursday. “Today we failed and I failed our officers and their families...While we build community trust, we also must redouble efforts to hold accountable those who terrorize our community and who have taken too many lives. I’m heartbroken and disgusted by what our fellow Kansas Citians and our officers confront each day. We won’t tolerate lawlessness.”

I failed? His refreshingly old-fashioned, buck-stops-here willingness to accept responsibility could not be more different from Parson’s persistent refusal to take any measure of culpability, even for the results of his own decisions. But Lucas can’t turn this around on his own. Where are Parson and the other elected officials?

The governor, let’s not forget, already went back on one public promise to Lucas to back some modest gun reform. After the officers were shot, Parson tweeted that he and his wife were praying for them, along with #BackTheBlue. Does that mean he’ll finally help keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them?

And what about our U.S. Senators? As chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt could help us treat gun violence as the public health issue that it is. As chairman of the Department of Justice appropriations subcommittee, Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran could, too. We are on track to set a record for homicides this year — 101 already, versus 68 at this time last year — and could really use the help.

Violent crime has increased dramatically under Police Chief Rick Smith, who ended the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, a program of “focused deterrence” that was making a real difference. And the loosening of the state’s gun laws has resulted in more gun violence.

In comments to reporters, Smith seemed to blame the shootings of the two officers on critics of police brutality following the murder of George Floyd: “Some of this is the negative narrative on law enforcement, and I’m trying to bite my tongue here, but it’s frustrating.”

He also said the department needs more funding and more cooperation from witnesses.

It’s hard to see how the man who’d been waving a gun around at a McDonald’s, who critically wounded one of the officers who was chasing him and was then was himself shot dead, was responding to a “negative narrative on law enforcement.”

Same for the alleged wallet-snatcher who shot the officer chasing him.

“This is not the time for politics; it is the time for awareness,” Smith said. Yes, and maybe even for some self-awareness.

Anyone who thinks that the way to address police brutality is with brutality against police is flat wrong. That’s not what happened here, though; these were not political shootings.

An officer in critical condition after being shot in the head does, however, show the critical condition of our city. And that we have too many guns.

As Lucas said on Twitter, “The women and men of our department are dedicated to this city. Always have been. Always will be. We owe them our prayers tonight and our thanks and our resolve — all of us — to call out those who are terrorizing so many in our community.”

That’s true, and we do. But will Parson, Moran, Blunt and others do more than send thoughts and prayers? Some sensible gun laws would help the police a lot.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 5

Missouri, like other states, has had the fiscal wind knocked out of it by the pandemic. Looking ahead at the tough financial decisions facing the state in the future, there’s one that should be easy: Raise Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax. It should have been done even before there was a budget crisis. To fail to do it now would be governmental malpractice.

As in all 49 other U.S. states, Missouri has seen its tax revenue nosedive due to pandemic-related business closures or reductions, even as its health care costs rise because of coronavirus infections. Net general revenue in May was down 22% from the same period a year earlier, and total revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30 is down more than 7%.

Federal emergency funds have offset some of that, but not nearly enough, and Congress looks unlikely to get its act together to offer the further fiscal bailouts that state budgets need. The real-world results in Missouri are planned budget cuts of some $450 million, much of it from public schools and universities.

Where to turn? The state’s tobacco tax is an obvious possibility. Missouri’s tax is just 17 cents per cigarette pack, the same amount it’s been for more than a quarter century and the lowest in America. Compare that to some neighboring states: Kansas, $1.29 per pack. Arkansas, $1.15. Iowa, $1.36. Illinois, $2.98.

Missouri requires a statewide vote for major tax hikes, and multiple attempts have been made and failed to up the cigarette tax in recent years. But those attempts have arguably been thwarted by issues other than the simple question of whether those taxes should go up.

In 2016, for example, there were two competing cigarette tax hikes on the state ballot, one of them supported by big tobacco because it was stacked against smaller companies. The whole debate got further skewed by ballot language that looped in the controversial issue of stem-cell research. Voters could be forgiven for walking away in exasperation.

With health consciousness always on the rise and Missouri’s fiscal problems hitting schools and kids, a clean, simple ballot proposal to hike the per-pack tax significantly would stand a real chance of passage — if Gov. Mike Parson and other ruling Republicans were to get behind it. Depending on the level set, it could raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The worst-case scenario is there would be diminishing tax revenue as people quit smoking rather than pay the tax. But even that would create its own benefit in lower illnesses and health care costs.

There’s really no loser in this scenario except the tobacco companies and, frankly, no one should lose sleep over that. In times when feelings of helplessness abound, this is one reasonable, proactive step Missouri’s leaders could take to help.

St. Joseph News-Press, July 4

Missourians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic could receive a jolt today when the Missouri Department of Labor reimposes rules that require a work search in order to receive unemployment benefits. Those rules had been waived as the coronavirus drove the economy into recession and new claims for unemployment benefits surged.

Now, many who are laid off will need to perform three work search activities — things like filing an application on an employment site, doing a job interview or attending a skills workshop — in order to receive benefits. The state also reimposes a waiting week for new claims and a charge on employer accounts for unemployment claims.

It’s not a small matter. The state has already paid more than $2 billion in unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic as Missouri’s unemployment rate reached 10%.

In Buchanan County, 2,293 initial claims for unemployment benefits were filed in all of 2019. In the last three months, 6,382 Buchanan County residents filed an initial claim. That’s quite a spike, one that has contributed to a state unemployment insurance trust fund that’s narrowed from $1 trillion in January to $698 million at the year’s midway point.

So the state certainly has its reasons for taking a harder line with workers who want to receive benefits. The work activity exemption needed to expire at some point, the question is why now?

It would be a good question for the Missouri Department of Labor & Industrial Relations, but officials in Jefferson City weren’t answering questions. They instead referred callers to the department website.

In St. Joseph, the Missouri Job Center at 22nd Street and Frederick Avenue remained closed last week amid the pandemic. We would suggest that if it’s time to eliminate the work rule waiver, then perhaps it’s time to open up the office for those seeking help with employment.

State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer provided some insight. He told our reporter that unemployment checks, which include a $600 federal supplement, can provide a disincentive to returning to work. Give him credit for coming to the phone — something state officials refused to do — but something tells us that those who lost work during the pandemic would much rather be on the job than on the dole.

Social service agencies sometimes run tabletop exercises to give the general public a glimpse of life in poverty.

It’s a well-meaning but fake endeavor. For many Missourians, filing for unemployment and dealing with the lack of answers, the bureaucracy and the closed doors might be the closest approximation of what those in poverty experience on a daily basis.

Let’s hope Missouri labor officials are a little more helpful with those who really need their help in the long run.