The Associated Press
The Joplin Globe, June 20
Wide open money:
Only four months into the year, Missouri legislators had already accepted more than $500,000 in gifts from lobbyists.
The $558,813 worth of gifts presented to lawmakers by lobbyists from Jan. 1 through the end of April is about the same given in past years, according to data provided by the Missouri Ethics Commission and compiled by St. Louis Public Radio.
That’s an average of $2,836.62 in gifts per lawmaker, although if you go to LobbyingMissouri.org and look for yourself, you will quickly find that many among the 197 legislators took far more. And, we should point out, there are those who took nothing.
From expensive meals to sports tickets, there is no limit as to what and how much a legislator can take from lobbyists.
Efforts in the 2014 legislative session to curb or even ban the amount of money legislators can take from special interests failed to gain traction. The Globe early on endorsed a proposal by Jason Kander, secretary of state, who in January called for an ethics bill that restored campaign contribution limits, banned all gifts from lobbyists to all state elected officials, and required a three-year waiting period before ex-lawmakers can work as lobbyists.
Missouri, by the way, is the only state that allows unlimited campaign contributions and unlimited gifts from lobbyists. By the end of the year, legislators will easily have taken more than $1 million from special interests.
Closer to home, our nine Southwest Missouri legislators together accounted for $4,500 of the $558,813 in gifts reported by lobbyists in the first quarter.
Only one — Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho — took absolutely nothing. We applaud him and think that should be the standard.
Our laws make it too easy for those who make the laws to take money and gifts — lots and lots of money and gifts.
Let’s get serious about limiting the influence of special interests and demand reform in Missouri’s ethics laws.
Columbia Daily Tribune, June 22
Too much favoritism:
Noranda Aluminum Inc. is seeking a special electric power rate from Ameren even lower than the special rate it already has. Noranda is asking the Missouri Public Service Commission to approve a money-losing rate it says Ameren could recover by charging more to its other 1.2 million electric customers.
Granted, Noranda is by far Ameren’s largest customer, but for sheer bravado the rate-setting commission surely has never seen the equal.
Noranda throws its weight around, threatening to cut employment at its New Madrid smelter or even close down if Ameren and the PSC don’t grant the unprecedented rate cut. Noranda says if it closes, Ameren would come up $55 million short of revenue needed to maintain earnings allowed by the commission.
Not true, say PSC staffers. Ameren would be better off financially without Noranda. If the cost shift proposed by Noranda goes into effect, other Ameren customers would pay some $28 million more annually.
Everyone hopes Noranda can survive and thrive, but it makes no sense for its financial salvation to come at the expense of rational rate regulation policy and out of the pockets of Ameren’s 1.2 million other customers.
Already Ameren has given Noranda a favorable rate commensurate with the company’s large demand. Electricity is the largest single cost for a smelter, but that doesn’t mean the public should provide whatever it takes in subsidies to satisfy the company’s allegation of need. At some point, as the PSC staff points out, it makes more sense to draw a line.
The Public Service Commission will decide this case in August. In the meantime, Noranda and Ameren will be out and about campaigning to influence the commissioners. …
Only when the official line is drawn will we know what Noranda really will do, but it’s not a game of chicken. The bottom line is fair rate policy. Noranda simply wants too much special treatment at the expense of everyone else.
The Kansas City Star, June 22
Vote ‘no’ on gun and data questions:
At first glance two questions on Missouri’s August 5 ballot appear harmless enough.
One asks voters to affirm that “the right to keep and bear arms is an unalienable right.” Another seeks to protect Missourians’ electronic communications and data from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Both questions are proposed amendments to the state constitution. Although they appear innocuous, they are freighted with potential harmful consequences and could impede the work of law enforcement agencies.
Even the lawmakers who voted to place the questions on the ballot disagree on what they actually say or do. About the only thing that’s certain is that the questions are almost certain to drag the state into costly future court battles.
The Star recommends “no” votes on Constitutional Amendments 5 and 9.
The right of Missourians to keep and bear arms is amply granted in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in state law. But legislators, always eager to burnish their pro-gun credentials, felt the need to put it in the state constitution.
That would be a grievous mistake. Amendment 5 sets few barriers on exactly who has earned the “unalienable” right to possess firearms and ammunition. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says that could include convicted gang members, drug dealers and persons accused of domestic violence.
“No one can ensure the citizens of Missouri that these changes to our constitution will not create these unintended consequences,” Peters Baker wrote to lawmakers this year.
Along with Jennifer Joyce, the St. Louis Circuit attorney, Peters Bakers has filed a court motion contesting the language that will appear on the ballot. The two prosecutors contend the ballots won’t sufficiently inform voters that the proposed amendment would severely limit the legislature’s authority to regulate firearm use only for “convicted violent felons” or those declared by a court to be dangerously mentally ill.
The state auditor does see fit to warn voters that “the proposal’s passage will likely lead to increased litigation and criminal justice related cost,” which “could be significant.”
Clearly, this is no simple nod to the gun-rights crowd. Amendment 5 has the potential to greatly expand firearm use and restrict law enforcement’s ability to protect the public. It is a threat to public safety and the state’s treasury.
No one is contesting the right of law-abiding Missourians to own firearms. The ballot question likely extends gun rights to criminals who shouldn’t have them. Voters must reject this dangerous proposal.
There’s no question the nation needs to better protect the communications that Americans undertake on their computers and cell phones. But a vaguely worded amendment in the Missouri constitution isn’t the best way to begin.
Amendment 9 says that “people shall be secure in their electronic communications and data from unreasonable searches and seizures as they are now likewise secure in their persons, homes, papers and effects.”
Exactly what that means would probably be the subject of litigation, but it likely would require state and local police to obtain a search warrant before looking at someone’s cell phone or computer.
On principle, that sounds like a good idea. But a constitutional amendment leaves little room for nuances. What if a police officer spots a message as it is appearing on a cell phone screen, for example? Should police be able to look at a person’s cell phone to determine whether texting while driving was a factor in an accident? How would federal agents be affected when they work in Missouri?
The sponsors of the proposed amendment, Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph and Rep. Paul Curtman of Pacific, both Republicans, want to see Missouri set a precedent for the nation by granting electronic data the same privacy protections as the possessions and papers inside a person’s home. The U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling with two cases dealing with electronic privacy now, and will likely do so for years to come.
The intent of Amendment 9 is good. But there’s been too little discussion about the potential consequences. The subject needs to be more thoroughly explored by the courts and in legislative debate before it is enshrined in the Missouri constitution.
Springfield News-Leader, June 22
Protect creek and economy:
The image of 100,000 dead fish floating along a 4.5-mile stretch of Clear Creek is difficult to conjure up, but the reality of that fish kill is a reminder that chemicals being used by industries around the state and the country have the potential to kill fish and much more.
The fish kill in the creek between Monett and Pierce City was the result of a chemical leak at a Tyson feed plant in Aurora in May.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced that his office has filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods in connection with that leak. The six-count suit seeks penalties and damages, as well as reimbursement for the cost of investigating the incident — likely to reach beyond $200,000.
Tyson Foods employs about 700 people in a county of about 36,000 residents and a 6.1 percent unemployment rate. Last year, Tyson’s payroll there topped $21 million.
Tyson Foods is not just an important employer in Barry County. Across the state, it employs a total of 4,700, with a $146.4 million annual payroll, and works with more than 500 local meat and poultry suppliers and growers. We appreciate the role Tyson plays in keeping our economy viable and in feeding our population.
We don’t want laws to interfere with that role, but we are not willing to sacrifice the lives of fish or the health of our environment and population for the sake of an industry’s profits. Environmental laws must be reasonable and realistic, while still being able to address the realities of an ever-evolving industry.
The Clear Creek situation is a reminder that both state and federal laws are an important resource in keeping toxic chemicals out of our waterways and drinking sources.
In the case of the Clear Creek fish kill, the Department of Natural Resources released an investigative report that traced the incident back to a chemical leak at the Aurora plant. Alimet, an ammonia-based chemical, was leaking into one of the company’s containment ponds. The company, according to its own protocol, took the water to the Monett wastewater treatment facility to be “properly treated.”
Instead, the driver of one of the trucks containing the water and Alimet told the pretreatment operator that the truck was filled with animal fat. By the time everyone noticed that it wasn’t animal fat, too much of the chemical had been dumped for the treatment facility to handle.
The “treated” water was then released into Clear Creek where the ammonia was able to kill every fish in the creek — along with pretty much everything else.
Pollution from the Monett wastewater treatment facility is nothing new. DNR has been monitoring the plant for more than a decade, citing the facility as the only source of pollution in the otherwise aptly named Clear Creek. Ammonia has been among the pollutants cited, and local “food processing industries” have been named as the main culprit.
But this is not the only — or even the worst — example of industrial pollution in Missouri. The Environment Missouri Research and Policy Center recently released its biannual “Wasting Our Waterways” report, ranking Missouri as 11th in the nation for the highest amount of total developmental toxins discharged in 2012. Those are chemicals that affect the reproductive and developmental ability of an organism, including animals and people.
The Upper Black River region, in eastern Missouri, ranked as the fourth most polluted in the nation for developmental toxins.
And Tyson Foods was named the biggest polluter in Missouri, at its Sedalia plant, and among the biggest polluters in the country.
The report, gathered from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, self-reported by polluting facilities, calls for industries to switch from toxic chemicals to safer alternatives whenever possible. But it also points out that court cases brought by those polluters have gutted some of the Clean Water Act protections in Missouri and the nation.
The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a rule to close the loopholes that have left Missouri’s waterways at risk and restore Clean Water Act protections. The proposed rule would expand the definition of waterways under the act. Polluting industries have vigorously opposed that rule.
Strengthening federal and state laws is an important tool to enforcement, but a better step would be for governments to work with polluting industries to encourage and support use of safer alternatives.
Forcing polluters to pay penalties for such incidents as the Clear Creek fish kill is one way to do that, but we must also seek more proactive efforts.
Protecting our environment and our economy must be mutual goals. We cannot protect one at the expense of the other.