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Brenda Talent hopes to use her talents to help Show Me Institute

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2010 - After years as a tax lawyer and the wife of a politician, Brenda Talent is elevating her own public profile by heading up the region's largest conservative, free-market think tank. As the new executive director of the Show Me Institute, Talent says she embraces the institute's mission and wants to be a part of the effort to promote and elevate its research.

"I was ready for a new challenge in my life; and the things the organization is focusing on, the things they're talking about are things I'm interested in," said Talent during a recent interview. "This is a marriage of what I'm going through -- wanting to do something new and challenging, and the needs of the institute. "

And she emphasizes that her new job has nothing to do, politically, with any future career moves by her husband, former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who is on many short lists as a possible statewide candidate in 2012. He lost his Senate seat in 2006 to Democrat Claire McCaskill.

The Show Me Institute, says Brenda Talent, is a nonprofit -- and strictly apolitical. "We're not about the electoral process, we're not about the legislative process," she said. "We're about putting good ideas out there."

But she and other staff members acknowledge that they hope that some of those ideas end up shaping public policy.

Talent comes to the institute after a lengthy career as a tax lawyer with the Bryan Cave law firm; she was made a partner in 1992. Earlier, in the mid-1980s, she had served as a captain in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps.

Her husband, Jim Talent, said his wife's hiring validates the strength of her management skills. He noted her past as a member of the Parkway School Board, as a tax lawyer and as the manager of Jim Talent's successful contests for the Legislature and the U.S. House.

When Brenda Talent officially was hired several weeks ago, board chairman Crosby Kemper III said that she "was selected after a lengthy and comprehensive search to find the best and most qualified candidate to help lead the institute in its efforts to promote public policies that are driven by free-market principles and a desire to advance liberty.

"Brenda Talent has a wide breadth of experience in law and public policy, particularly tax policy and education," Kemper said. "In fact, she's been on our radar for quite some time, and we're delighted that the timing has worked out."

The institute is financed by donors, some of whom serve on its boards. Several are politically prominent. The president is Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy financier who in recent years has become the state's most generous Republican donor. The secretary is Bevis Schock, a local lawyer who led the unsuccessful court fight in the late 1990s against Missouri's campaign donation limits (which were repealed by the Legislature a few years ago). Also on the board is former Ambassador Stephen Brauer, a prominent Republican.

Talent emphasizes that she will be managing the institute and its staff of 16. She won't be writing studies herself -- although her expertise as a tax lawyer may be occasionally sought.

"We have a number of scholars here,'' she said. "They're the ones who get into the depth of policy studies."

One of the institute's studies already has manifested itself as Proposition A, the Nov. 2 proposal to curb municipal earnings taxes. If passed statewide, the proposition would require votes every five years to continue the tax in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, and would bar any other municipalities from levying such a tax. Sinquefield, the institute's president, has provided almost all the funding for the pro Proposition A campaign.

One of the institute's first studies, by University of Missouri professor Joseph Haslag in 2006, reviewed 101 of the nation's largest cities, 23 which impose an earnings tax. Haslag argued that cities without an earnings tax saw their per capital income increase faster than those with. In Missouri, for example, Haslag compared the economic growth of Springfield, Mo., which doesn't have an earnings tax, to Kansas City and St Louis.

Critics, including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, disagree with the study's premise and its results. But the study helped draw attention to the institute and its free-market approach.

The institute's more recent studies have been critical of the state's business tax credit programs, arguing that they "cost too much, deliver too little," and have called for "greater transparency and accountability" in what school districts pay their superintendents.

Last week, the institute hosted a debate between two staff analysts -- David Stokes and John Payne -- to discuss the question of whether "supporters of limited government (should) ally with conservatives/Republicans."

This summer, the institute promoted its work with a booth at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia.

The institute focuses solely on fiscal issues and steers away from social issues like abortion, guns and gay rights.

The institute's aim, said Talent, is to provide free-market-based research on Missouri issues and topics, using "a more objective perspective'' that can be used by the public, politicians and the press as a resource.

"We've got the talent, we've got the research,'' Talent said.

A key goal, she continued, is to elevate the quality of the discussion of fiscal issues. "It's really important at this particular time for our state; there's a lot of difficult issues out there, and the public discourse can be fairly superficial," Talent said.

Not all topics are outwardly weighty. Analyst Dave Roland, for example, has been working with some African-American hair braiders in the area, who he said are being threatened by the state because they lack a cosmetology license.

The dispute fits in with his broader examination of "the right to earn a living,'' and the obstacles that governments can and do erect. Roland's argument is that professions that don't pose a threat to health and safety shouldn't be impeded by excessive government regulation.

Brenda Talent said the broad range of topics that the institute is examining was among the attractions that drew her to take the job.

"It's fascinating; it's also very exciting," she said. "It's a wonderful feeling to be working with a group of people who have such excitement and dedication."

Photo by Jo Mannies | Beacon staff

Jo Mannies Beacon political reporter

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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