Op Ed
January 12, 2007

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Reminder to legislators: ‘The Welfare of the People Shall be the Supreme Law’ — That’s Missouri’s State Motto
by Bob Quinn

Honorable members of the Missouri Senate and House of Representatives:

As you begin a new legislative session in Jefferson City, the mechanics of how you got elected — the fundraisers, the door-to-door campaigning, the community meetings, the media interviews, the unique intensity of Election Day and night — will no longer be your primary focus.

At least that is what many of your constituents want to believe, or at least hope will be the case.

In reality, lobbyists from the organizations that supported your election will be around on a regular basis to remind you how you got elected, and their important role in your victory. And they might mention a bill or two they would like you to support or oppose.

And in some ways, it is difficult for the campaign to ever truly stop, as you will be often urged to focus on how your will get re-elected the next time — or even elected to higher office.

My message today is this: In between and among the reminders of how you got elected, and the plans of how to get you re-elected, take time to focus on why you wanted to be elected in the first place.

As a former legislator myself, I know the reasons we seek public office are sometimes difficult to pinpoint, but other times are almost painfully clear.

But my hunch — my hope — is that most of you wanted to serve in the legislature because it is an opportunity to help people. And that is fitting since our official state motto is “The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” (It’s the Latin phrase “Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto” on the Great Seal of Missouri.)

This is difficult mission you are on. The welfare of the people — that is, what we need — is often different from we want. To some extent, each one us seems to say, “I want government services that I need, because that is my right as a taxpayer. But I am against those wasteful government services — you know, the services that somebody else needs — because that is a burden on me as a taxpayer.”

Your arduous task, then, is to find the balance. Missouri is not the wealthiest state in the nation; by most per capita measures, we rank in the middle. Yet there is no doubt all citizens would benefit from world class schools, universally available health care, decent housing for every family, and a system of justice that not only protects us from criminals, but actually helps former criminals become productive members of our society.

Can we really achieve that with the lowest paid state employees in the nation, and one of the two or three lowest tax efforts among the 50 states?

To be sure, families that are struggling to pay their bills, living paycheck to paycheck, pay an undue portion of Missouri’s taxes under our current tax laws. But is it unreasonable to look to those of us who earn a better than average income to make a greater financial contribution to the welfare of all?

It’s odd that, as legislators, we can see the logic of the taxpayers subsidizing the building of a professional sports stadium, a convention center, a corporate headquarters — but we cannot see the wisdom of pooling our collective resources (tax revenue) so those in need have housing, medical care and the tools to no longer be in need.

And government services help those of us above the poverty line, too. It is the public infrastructure, not just physical things like roads, but the whole system of schools, public safety services, courts of law and the like, which protect our ability to benefit from our talents and hard work, and pursue our individual version of the American Dream.

A long and probably contentious legislative session stretches before you. I pass along to you advice given to me by a veteran lawmaker when I was a newly minted freshman representative 20 years ago.

You were born with a head and a heart. Use them both.

Bob Quinn is executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, a statewide public policy advocacy organization. He served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1987 to 1992.


              
              
                 

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