Give Liberty a Chance!

God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies…

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgement of faith in God and His works.

- Frederic Bastiat, The Law, 1850

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Property Taxes

“Milk the cow, but do not pull off the udder,” or so goes an old Greek proverb so goes the experience of property owners throughout Missouri.

No one disputes the necessary evil of taxes to fund vital public services that range from fire and police protection, to water and sewer service, to funding schools to educate the next generation. Tax paying citizens deserve that our local political subdivisions do their level best to be stewards of these tax dollars making sure that each dollar that is collected is spent wisely and the greatest value possible is received in return. A system of equitable taxation, open books, and accountability are essential for good and sound government.

It is difficult to find a region in our great state, especially in the suburban areas, where property owners are not struggling to meet the financial burden that results from the ever-increasing property values and the corresponding increase their property tax burden. In some counties in Missouri, assessed values increased by an average of 22% between 2005 and 2007. Such increases touch every family, but its harshest impact is felt by those on fixed incomes.

To add insult to injury, our assessed valuations trail the home market resulting in valuations that may not accurately reflect the market price of a home. While Missouri is feeling the pinch of dropping median home prices, we are much better off than some parts of the country. Property taxes remain a local issue, but these striking increases call for action at the state level and property tax reform is a top priority this session.

The Missouri Senate has passed a bill that mandates tax rate rollbacks by all political subdivisions in reassessment years (SB711). These rollbacks are intended to protect property owners from sharp tax rate increases and prevent windfall revenues by taxing entities in reassessment years.

The bill also allows the ability for taxpayers to pay their property taxes in installments to prevent the “shock” of lump sum tax payments at year-end during the holiday season. Current law already allows counties to opt for quarterly installments, so this bill will require counties to provide taxpayers an estimate of their tax liability in the spring.

Citizens should never be liable for the errors of government, but in Clay County citizens are held liable for penalties and interest even when an error is made by the county. Unfortunately, our county collector will not make any exceptions and citizens are not prone to go to court, or are unaware of that alternative to prove their innocence. In either case, the taxpayer should not have to bear the burden of legal fees and the hassle of a lawsuit, because the county is unwilling to admit fault and waive the penalties and interest. This bill, and a companion House bill (HB1958) which I have co-sponsored, prohibits the imposition of penalties and interest where there is clear and convincing evidence that a county made an error in the determination of taxes owed by a taxpayer.

The Missouri House is considering an increase in the income cap for property tax relief known as the circuit breaker (HB1321). The program is currently available to seniors and disabled individuals who make $27,500. This bill would raise the cap to $32,500 for a single person and $36,500 for a married couple while increasing the maximum tax credit from $750 to $800.

Another bill under consideration by the House (HJR59) is a constitutional amendment exempting Missouri citizens on active military duty from paying personal property taxes.

Property tax reform is a very complex issue. Radio-television personality Arthur Godfrey proclaimed, “I'm proud to be paying taxes in the United States. The only thing is - I could be just as proud for half the money.” The best humor is always rooted in truth. We should demand accountability in the usage of our tax dollars and we deserve an open and accurate assessment process that prevents government from taking advantage of them.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Teacher Liability Protection

No matter how many years it has been since graduation day, every one of us can still remember that one teacher in our elementary and secondary experience that stands out. Whether that teacher pushed you to your limits, made you laugh on the worst of days, or had that unique gift of making the complex understandable, these teachers still stand out today.

No matter how long it has been since you walked out of class for the last time, you will still find teachers and staff that continue to work hard providing the best learning environment with the resources available to them for our children. As in your life each new day brings new challenges and that is no different for our teachers and supporting staff. Unfortunately, there are days when unforeseen incidents take place that are beyond the control of a teacher which create a liability for the school district and its employees.

From a teacher breaking up a fight between students resulting in an accidental strike to a student in the scuffle to a child injuring himself after running away from the group during a field trip there are many situations in between and beyond that can find a teacher or staff member liable for events that are out of their control.

Unfortunate episodes such as these have led to lawsuits being filed against teachers and staff around our state, despite the fact that school board policies were being followed to address the situation.

Teachers have enough on their hands every day than to worry about whether an accident will happen in which they will be liable. To help address this issue I have co-sponsored the Teacher Liability Protection Act. This legislation is intended to protect teachers, staff, and volunteers from unnecessary lawsuits that divert money away from the classroom and into the courtroom. Such lawsuits can ruin the career of valued a teacher regardless of whether negligence or guilt was found.

The proposed legislation expands the existing liability protection for teachers and other school personnel. Teachers and staff already have some legal protections against liability on matters relating to discipline under our current law. This bill expands the existing protections and establishes a legal precedence to throw out lawsuits if the teacher or staff member was acting within established school board policies. This proposal will not extend these protections to teachers and staff that are not following school board policies or are willfully negligent in performing their duties.

The bill also provides immunity from liability to qualified teachers and staff who dispense medication or life-saving medical treatments such as CPR. In addition, a teacher or other public school employee who is not qualified or one who refuses to offer a treatment or administer medication will not be held liable.

The Teacher Liability Protection Act will provide teachers and staff the security they need to perform their duties without fear of reprisal. The parents and children of Missouri rely on teachers to provide our children the education they need for success. This legislation will give teachers the tools they need to create the best educational environment possible for our children.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Joint Sessions

This past week two joint sessions of the General Assembly were held. The State of the Judiciary address was delivered on Tuesday followed by the State of Transportation address on Wednesday.

Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith delivered the 35th State of the Judiciary address. While many topics were discussed one area stands out. She defended the non-partisan court plan, but did allow that changes in the process are being considered. First, more transparency is needed in the selection process for judges. The Supreme Court will begin by making more information available to the public and the media about the judicial candidates in a timely fashion. Commissions will be required to announce the time, date, and location of their meetings and to provide demographic information about the applicant pool prior to those meetings.

Second, Chief Justice Stith declared, “We want citizens to have ready information about the performance of their judges so they can make fully informed decisions when they exercise their right to vote”. This is a very positive change. Retention votes for judges are the most difficult votes to cast, due to the extreme lack of information and sources for information about the judges. She noted:

The Supreme Court also is requiring the creation of judicial performance committees to use objective standards to conduct in-depth evaluations of nonpartisan judges seeking retention. These performance committees, composed of an equal number of lay persons and lawyers, will release their evaluation summaries and will recommend whether a nonpartisan judge should be retained. The bottom line recommendations, and directions to a Web site with detailed evaluation information, will be made available in a concise voter information pamphlet - the type of pamphlet we hope one day to be able to send to all the voters.

These are positive changes for the courts and the courts would not have taken these steps and announce these intentions without the feedback and interest received by the public.

Oddly enough the Chief Justice noted that the $395 million of in damages, offsets, fines, fees, and costs are considered a “positive economic impact” and further stated that “we courts do our share in contributing to the state's bottom line”. Apparently I missed that in the constitution. The assessment of damages, offsets, fines, fees, and costs, while justified by law and necessary to punish offenders, is really a form of wealth redistribution. To have a positive economic impact both parties would to benefit in the transaction.

Director Pete Rahn delivered the fifth, and final, State of Transportation address. This address was required by statute in 2003 in response the lack of credibility MODOT was experiencing with the public and the General Assembly. Director Rahn noted, “The road to credibility is a long one. The road to discredit is not. Credibility takes a long time to build, but it can be torn down in a matter of seconds” – very true words indeed.

MODOT has made significant improvements over the past few years and has racked up a number of successes. The success or failure to deliver the Smooth Roads Initiative and the Safe and Sound Bridge program will be MODOT’s legacy for this decade. Here are some “success” highlights from the address:

In 2006, we delivered 2,200 miles of smoother, safer roads a full year ahead of schedule. We are now building on that success with our Better Roads, Brighter Future initiative which will result in 5,600 miles of major roads with smooth pavement; brighter, wider striping; larger signs; rumble stripes; and, in most cases, a minimum four-foot paved shoulder all by 2012.

With just one year of Better Roads, Brighter Future completed, 78 percent of our
major roads are now in good condition as compared to 44 percent just five years ago. That is progress that benefits all of us. That is an example of how far we've come.

Missouri climbed from 39th to 17th between 2000 and 2005 including an eleven-spot jump from 2004 to 2005 - the second biggest improvement in the country. And that was prior to the full effects of the Smooth Roads Initiative or any of the positive improvements through Better Roads, Brighter Future, which will undoubtedly move us up the rankings in future years.

Construction contracts awarded in Fiscal Year 2007 came in 7.4 percent under budget. That was a 90 million dollar savings - 90 million dollars more for road and bridge improvements. For Fiscal Year 2008, so far we are at 114 million dollars or 14 percent under budget.

Additionally, all projects in our five-year plan that were sped up due to Amendment 3 funding have been awarded to a contractor. With 100 percent of these projects under contract, we came in at 4 percent under budget. That is even more savings for even more highway improvements. That is an example of how far we've come!

MODOT in recent years has moved beyond their old “patch and promise” reputation to making significant improvements to our ailing infrastructure and reduced the number of fatalities on Missouri highways. While MODOT has certainly made significant improvements, it will continue to take a diligent public to hold their feet to the fire. Their performance has raised our expectations on what we can expect.