St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 29
Ethics and the Missouri Senate. Profiles in (not) courage:
When and if a proposal to enact a ban on lobbyists' gifts to Missouri lawmakers in excess of $50 a year comes back before the state Senate, the senators should be willing to take a recorded vote on it.
They should stop saying that the public doesn't care all that much about ethics reform while going out of their way to hide their votes. If they want to keep the freebies that House Bill 2166 would ban, fine. But let's see a roll call vote.
Because here's the deal: The Missouri House has already passed and sent the Senate a package of ethics reform bills. The Senate gutted the first one, which would have imposed a one-year waiting period on lawmakers who want to become lobbyists. The vote against it, on Feb. 18, was 18-14.
We'd like to tell you who was among the 18, but the vote came by "division," a parliamentary maneuver sometimes used on close but controversial issues. The "ayes" and "nays" stood quickly and then sat down before reporters could write down their names. Reporters were warned not to use cellphone cameras to make a record.
So much for profiles in courage.
Last Tuesday, HB 2166, the lobbyists' gift ban, the second major House-passed ethics change, was batted around in the Senate for three hours. When it became clear that many senators wanted no part of it, the sponsor, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, pulled the bill off the floor.
"I think we have a little bit of work to do on this," said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. "We're certainly in no hurry."
That's for sure, because ethically minded legislators worry about potentially explosive issues like leftover pizza.
"Has anybody ever seen there's leftover pizza and had a piece of it?" asked Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan. "Would I know if there was a box of pizza, and I came by your office, that a lobbyist paid for that pizza, and I walked by and I picked up a piece and ate it, and all of a sudden now I'm guilty of violating the thing that we've banned everybody from partaking in!"
And then there's the free-coats-for-the-poor issue. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, lean on lobbyists to buy coats for folks who can't afford them. The senators get a little PR boost, people get a warm coat and the lobbyists pick up the tab.
Lawmakers get $103 in expense money every day they're in session. They can buy their own pizzas. Charities can accept money for coats without running them past politicians.
This bill is not about pizza or coats. It's about endless free meals, golfing junkets and expensive seats at sporting events and concerts. Voters know it stinks. They deserve to know which senators are standing in the way.
Jefferson City News-Tribune, Feb. 28
Noranda case is more than a matter of utility rates:
Complex issues may defy simple solutions.
Such is the case with an effort by Ameren Missouri, the state's largest electricity provider, and Noranda Aluminum, its single largest customer, to solve an issue that goes way beyond setting utility rates.
Ameren and Noranda, former combatants in several recent rate cases, have joined forces and have asked the Legislature to eliminate "gridlock and stalemates" and provide economic "stability and predictability."
That's a tall order, but it does mark a step in the right direction. Some background is helpful.
Noranda operates a New Madrid aluminum smelter that employs 900 people when at full production. The process requires massive amounts of electricity; the operation accounts for 10 percent of Ameren's electricity production.
Although Noranda enjoyed a reduced rate as a bulk customer, last year it requested a further reduction, to be offset by a rate increase for other Ameren customers.
Ameren opposed it, we opposed it editorially and the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected it. The ruling suggested the matter is an economic development issue to be directed to the state Legislature, not the regulatory commission.
Since that time, Noranda has experienced some changes. The hedge fund that had an ownership interest in Noranda sold its shares, Noranda has filed for bankruptcy and has reduced its New Madrid operation from three production lines to one, which is scheduled to be shut down next month.
If that happens, closure would represent another reduction in U.S. aluminum production.
The variables in addressing this situation are wide-ranging. Among them are:
— The effect on Ameren rate payers. Ameren officials say the loss of Noranda would be more detrimental across the board than a calculated reduction in Noranda's rates to increase production.
— The impact on Missouri's economy. Lawmakers traditionally have acted to retain major industries, and Noranda is among the Bootheel's largest employers.
— The consequences for the aluminum industry. In the past two years, aluminum smelters in the United States have declined from nine to four, including New Madrid — and down from a total of 33 smelters only a few years ago. Internationally, the U.S. decline is being offset by increased production in China.
Because many of these components are intertwined and affect another, more analysis is needed to determine a reasonable approach to this multi-faceted problem.
We acknowledge this is much more than a regulatory concern. As an issue affecting utility investors and rate payers, a major manufacturer employing up to 900 Missourians and the future of an established U.S. industry, this rightfully is an economic development matter for the state Legislature.
St. Joseph News-Press, Feb. 28
Texting on the road a threat:
As much as it makes sense in theory, don't expect Missouri legislators to pass a law this session criminalizing texting while driving.
Still, texting in this circumstance is an unsafe practice that puts everyone on the road at risk.
The leading proposal on this issue, Senate Bill 569, is not moving quickly and there is a deeply rooted sentiment among lawmakers that government should restrain itself when it comes to regulating adult behavior.
Drivers up to age 21 already are prohibited from texting while behind the wheel. Extending the ban to other drivers requires the twin judgments that it is an effective deterrent and that experience as a driver doesn't help deter this behavior.
On both counts, proponents of a universal ban might concede the obvious. First, a savvy texting driver likely can escape detection much of the time, so the risk they pose is still often present. Second, while mature judgment does not always come with age, it is a reasonable point that older drivers — in general — make better judgments than new drivers.
Advocates, however, see no shades of gray on this issue. For support, they turn to law officers and others who have seen the tragedies and near-tragedies that can result.
Sgt. Jake Angle of the Missouri State Highway Patrol recently told the News-Press of studies that show the average text takes the driver's eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds — long enough to travel the length of a football field at 55 mph.
"They don't realize . that's a long time to take your eyes off the road," he said.
A timely example of the risk comes from an accident Sunday on King Hill Avenue in St. Joseph. Police said the driver was looking at a text on his phone when his vehicle went off the road and overturned. Police said there were no injuries but the driver was cited for careless driving.
The proposed law includes multiple exceptions for summoning emergency help or attempting to prevent injury to another person. It makes no allowance for casually checking a text and losing control of your vehicle.
In this set of facts the advocates for a texting ban find an argument for their cause. Others, however, will argue for more displays of common sense.
The Kansas City Star, Feb. 26
Streetcar's grand opening will be defining moment for downtown Kansas City:
The praising of — and caterwauling about — the new downtown streetcar system won't end May 6.
But Kansas Citians sure will have a better idea of which side of this debate they're going to choose going forward.
The long-scheduled service on the 2.2-mile line starts that day, highlighted by a giant celebration. Street parties up and down the route from the River Market to Union Station are being scheduled, featuring food trucks and entertainment.
The hoopla is well earned. It also will mark a major turning point, giving the streetcar system the opportunity to prove its value as a public transit service and redevelopment catalyst to help further revive downtown. We disagree with skeptics who think it will be an embarrassing and costly flop.
The Kansas City Streetcar Authority and City Hall deserve praise for delivering a publicly financed project that is on budget and will open generally in the time frame long ago promised of early 2016.
Critics who have lambasted the streetcar as a waste of money have no legitimate complaints to make about large cost overruns or super long delays in opening to the public, as have occurred in Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati.
Also intact are the promises for the rides in Kansas City to be free, supported through sales and property taxes imposed in a downtown district that includes the streetcar system, as well as frequent service on weekdays.
The streetcar will operate 6 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday, 7 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
The grand opening should turn out to be yet another positive event for Kansas City and its leaders, especially Mayor Sly James.
Just this past week, legal obstacles vanished to construction of a needed downtown convention hotel and airlines that serve Kansas City International Airport made it clear they're ready to help finance a $1 billion new terminal.
To be sure, the streetcar undertaking has had its shares of problems.
Some restaurants, shops and other businesses endured many months of construction along the line, leading to deserved complaints.
The company that made the streetcars did not deliver them as quickly as expected.
During the long and continuing training runs, far too many motorists are still parking their cars, trucks and delivery vehicles too close to the track or — amazingly — on top of the rail line itself.
That last fact has emerged as one of the key concerns about the efficiency of the new system. The streetcars are on a fixed rail and can't move around parked vehicles. If the streetcar grinds to a halt carrying dozens of passengers going to work or to and from lunch, that will harm its reputation and potential ridership. Streetcar officials, tow truck drivers and police will have to be extra vigilant in taking care of these concerns.
On a more upbeat note, streetcar backers say they have seen a big improvement in how motorists are dealing with the dictate of "parking within the white line" along the route. This issue may mostly resolve itself, especially since opening day is more than two months away.
The construction of Kansas City's system stands in contrast to recent media reports that have pointed to big problems with streetcar lines in other cities such as Atlanta, where ticket machines are installed to collect fares on a line that used to be free. All of that costs money — expenses Kansas City decided to avoid by offering free fares.
James and downtown's biggest proponents have spent the last few years talking about the potential for the streetcar to bring a surge of investment into the heart of the city.
The mayor last week claimed "more than $1.6 billion in construction" in the streetcar district over the last three years. It's an impressive feat, though not all projects obviously were prompted by the rail line.
Some have proceeded without taxpayer subsidies. However, the city and other taxing entities still are diverting tens of millions of future tax dollars from providing public services over to private businesses, helping them build hotel rooms, housing units and other projects.
Can the new streetcar system help shut off that siphon of incentives? That should be a goal. With the streetcar as a magnet for residents and workers, developers should be able to capitalize on that interest to complete their projects without such large helpings of tax dollars.
On May 6, the streetcar will begin to prove what its real value will be to the crucial future of downtown Kansas City.