Dysfunction in government is in the eyes of the beholder.
That, in essence, was the upshot of Friday’s Third Annual Ethics Conference at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
What some speakers viewed as dysfunction, others saw as evidence of proper government action – or restraint.
Take, for example, the four-person panel of Republican and Democratic state lawmakers, past and present.
State Rep. Margo McNeil, D- Florissant, contends that Missouri legislators – in particular, the Republican leadership – are acting against the public’s best interests. She cited the General Assembly’s failure to fully fund the state’s chief aid program for public education, and its rejection of the billions in federal dollars for Medicaid expansion, while also approving tax cuts.
McNeil levels much of the blame on the state’s term limits for legislators, which she believes has led to strict party-line voting, and the elimination of Missouri’s campaign donation limits, which she contends has made many legislators beholden to big donors.
“How do we fix this dysfunction? First is to limit campaign contributions and that would have to be done through initiative petition because I don’t believe the legislature will take it on,” she said.
Limited government seen as virtue, not vice
But state Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, and former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, a Republican from St. Louis County, contended that the General Assembly was acting in the public’s best interest by curbing government’s reach.
“Some people will say dysfunction in government is in not passing legislation,” Kraus said. “Other people will say dysfunction in government is in passing too much legislation.”
Kraus added that he and other conservatives believe that “government isn’t there to solve all problems.”
“We have pretty good functioning government at the state level,’’ he said.
Hanaway defended the GOP’s opposition to the expansion of Medicaid, but added that she agreed that something needed to be done to aid hospitals that now are losing their federal money for treating the uninsured. The federal Affordable Care Act eliminated the payments, under the assumption that Medicaid expansion would take care of the previously uninsured.
Former state Sen. Tim Green, a Democrat from north county who’s now a lobbyist, sided with the Republicans by opposing any reinstatement of campaign-finance limits.
Wealthy people will get around the limits, as they had in the past, he said. The upshot, he asserted, was that campaign donations would simply be harder to track.
As Green sees it, government dysfunction isn’t caused by disagreements. “No discussion is political dysfunction,’’ he said.
Snowe optimistic about GOP control of Senate
Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, opted against running for re-election in 2012 – in part – because of her dissatisfaction with congressional gridlock.
Snowe, the conference’s keynote speaker, said in an interview that congressional stalemates had gotten even worse over the past two years.
“Decision-making is all about the politics rather than about government and legislation,” she said. “And both sides are not willing to take the risks of working across the political aisle to drive a consensus agenda on the issues important to this country.”
Still, Snowe said she was optimistic that the atmosphere might improve when Republicans take over the U.S. Senate in January. She said that soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., respects Senate procedures and will likely do what he can to win bipartisan consensus on issues.
Snowe blamed the U.S. House, also led by Republicans since 2011, for some of the gridlock. She said that that the congressional boundary lines drawn for House seats after the 2010 census have led to districts that are more polarized than ever.
About 85 percent of the House seats are drawn to be safe Republican or Democratic seats, she said. “They’re designed to appeal to the ideological partisan bases,’’ she said had led to a lack of “competition of ideas.”
Partisan, racial tensions continue at local level
The last forum of the day featured three veterans of municipal government sounding off on what the city of Ferguson could have down differently after the Aug. 9 police shooting that killed teenager Michael Brown.
The shooting has ignited months of unrest.
The panel featured St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, municipal attorney Kevin O’Keefe and former Hazelwood Mayor TR Carr.
French, D-21st Ward, said Ferguson officials didn’t do a good job of engaging a largely transient African-American population. That type of attitude, he said, fed into anger that revealed itself after Brown was shot and killed.
“It’s easy sometimes for local officials in municipalities to ignore folks that don’t participate in the process,” French said in an interview after the forum. “But that has consequences. A municipality has to serve everyone who lives in that community. And you can’t have huge pockets of underserved, unserved, frustrated, angry people that’s detached from the rest of the city.”
O’Keefe’s firm represents Ferguson. He disagreed with French’s assertion.
“A lot of the public discourse that has grown since August uses Ferguson as a surrogate for issues that are independent of the governance of the city of Ferguson itself,” O’Keefe said.
Carr – who is also serves on the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners – said he’s realized that local government tends to be less chaotic than people may believe.
“The constituent groups see us at shopping centers, they see us at the grocery stores – they know where we live and they’ll come to our house,” Carr said after the forum. “There’s a great impetus for us to be responsive to the citizens to meet their needs, because local government meets people where they live.”
But French contended that, at least with St. Louis, that “it’s hard to argue how functional we’ve been when we’ve lost population continuously in neighborhoods in decline.” He said that economic decline has led to more turnover in the elected officials.
“So folks are trying to hold people accountable and it creates an unstable political environment when you have such great turnover,” French said. “If you can’t pave the roads or install streetlights or pay your bills without a predatory policy on citizens to pay for that, through ticketing or whatever, I think that’s a failure. I think that is an example of dysfunction.”