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Best way to downsize government? Cut taxes and legalize marijuana, speakers tell panel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 16, 2013: End state involvement in public education. Curb the state’s use of federal grants. Cut taxes to reduce state income. And legalize marijuana.

Those were among the most frequent suggestions posed Tuesday morning by many of the roughly 50 area residents – some of them state lawmakers -- who showed up in Clayton for the first in a series of hearings around the state this week by the Missouri House Committee on downsizing state government.

Chairman Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, called the one-hour session a “resounding success’’ and said in an interview that some proposals will likely end up in legislation he plans to introduce when the General Assembly goes back into session in January.

The panel was set up state House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, who has said he’s committed to pressing for cuts in state government during his final year as speaker.

Tuesday’s one-hour session was the only hearing in the St. Louis area. Virtually all of the speakers were conservatives decrying the growth of government at all levels.

Complaints of too much regulation, federal aid

David Day, an online radio host in Arnold, said he was confident that Curtman would follow through with his pledge to trim back. “He’s out to cut the waste,’’ said Day, adding that “waste’’ referred to many government operations that he believed were not needed.

Day, for example, told the committee that people in business – from hairdressers to physicians – had too many regulations and license requirements  and that it should be up to the public, not government, to determine who was qualified and who isn’t.

Anne Gassel of Ellisville said that the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education relied too much on federal grants and called for the General Assembly to approve any state agency's application for federal money.

Gassel said that state officials often failed to compute the “lifetime costs’’ of the programs or personnel temporarily funded with federal dollars.

Former state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, cited the new state budget’s allocation of $68 million in federal money to pay for technology upgrades at the state Department of Social Services. Lembke noted that he had helped block the acceptance of the money earlier because the upgrades might be used to help implement Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Lembke told the committee that state legislators needed to make sure that the improvements results in the staff cuts that the department has promised.

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, offered up a similar warning, saying that term limits tended to make it more difficult for the General Assembly to follow through with its efforts to curb the state’s bureaucracy.

State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, asserted that the best way to rein in government was to cut the flow of money to fund it. He called for the panel’s help in overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of SB253, a bill that cuts business taxes in half over five years, and trims individual tax rates as well.

Laura Hausladen of Bourbon, Mo., proposed that the state bar regional planning commissions and similar bodies, such as economic development commissions. "They are a non-representative form of government and, in my opinion, unAmerican," she said.

Call to legalize marijuana

Arguably the most intriguing suggestion was made by several speakers appearing on behalf of Show Me Cannabis, a group out to legalize – or, at minimum, decriminalize – marijuana.

Executive Director John Payne said that such a move could reduce the state’s bottom line by as much as $150 million a year -- $90 million from cutting law-enforcement costs, and $60 million in increased state income by regulations and fees on the drug’s production and possession.

Curtman said he was paying serious attention to the proposal, which has begun to generate legislative interest and some bills – so far, none successful. Curtman didn’t say if marijuana would figure into his legislative plans.

The panel planned to hold more hearings Tuesday in Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff, followed by Wednesday sessions in Springfield, Joplin and Kansas City. The committee’s final stops are to be next Thursday in St. Joseph, Columbia and Jefferson City.

Said Curtman after the St. Louis event: “If the turnout at the St. Louis hearing is any indication of what we can expect at the stops on the rest of our tour, the committee is going to benefit from a diverse range of outstanding suggestions from Missourians from all walks of life.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.