Doesn’t the Missouri legislature have more important issues to deal with?

February 6, 2023 5:45 am

Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City (Getty Images).

With just a little more than a month into the new legislative session, there is still time for Missouri lawmakers to change direction and focus on issues that are important to many Missourians. 

But, will they?

The legislature got off to a roaring start proposing bills to limit transgender students’ participation in schools’ sports, and banning the teaching of “critical race theory.”

At least 10 bills have been filed to limit the ability of transgender children to play in youth sports. There are proposed bills also on banning discussion about gender and sexual identity by school staff, and how health care providers treat children with gender identity issues.

Since 2012, only 13 transgender students have been approved to play sports by The Missouri State High School Activities Association, which requires transgender athletes to apply and provide medical documentation in order to compete as the gender they identify with.

Drag performances and shows have also reached the legislative radar. Stay tuned.

An education bill banning the teaching of “critical race theory,” or CRT, in high schools is moving through committees gaining approval when in fact, CRT is not even being taught in Missouri high schools.

CRT has been included in what is called a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which seeks to limit how race and history are taught. The bill goes so far as to allow lawsuits against school districts with the potential of cuts in state funding if there are any curricula violations.

What unnecessary threats and misguided intimidation toward the public education system.

One must ask, how can these superficial, superfluous — misguided and potentially very harmful — issues be the most important facing our state?

Are they being used as strawmen, deflectors, distractions or phantoms?

Or, is there something more sinister occurring: New and blatant attempts to continue to oppress and discriminate against the Black and LGBTQ communities, as well as legitimize censorship as a means to suppress how we factually and truthfully educate our children.

Whatever the reasons, focusing on these issues is taking precedence over other pressing needs crying out for action and remedy.

Needs like addressing homelessness, fixing a foster care system bursting at the seams, and determining how best to spend a $6 billion dollar surplus in areas that will benefit most Missourians.

When it comes to homelessness, the legislature would rather focus on implementing a law that would criminalize those forced to shelter on city or state-owned property.

Instead of incarcerating them, why not spend some of the state’s multi-billion-dollar surplus on providing temporary housing and funding more permanent affordable housing options?

Why not use some of those surplus dollars to increase mental health services and substance abuse rehabilitation services for those who have clearly lost their way?

For individuals and families who became homeless because of economic decline and hard times, why not provide job-training for re-entry into the workplace?

Surely, in addition to giving tax cuts and tax breaks, and widening I-70, shouldn’t some of those surplus dollars be used to help some of the most downtrodden citizens among us get back on their feet?

Then there is the ever-present and growing crisis in the foster care system for Missouri’s abandoned and neglected children. The percentage of kids entering foster care in our state is among the highest in the country.

According to Missouri’s social services agency, the state has made too many children permanent orphans by severing the legal ties to their biological parents, yet not doing everything it can to find adoptive parents. They wait in foster care — some interminably, never being adopted or aging out as they languish in the system.

The solution is two-fold.

First, more resources, services and crisis intervention programs can be provided to vulnerable families to prevent those conditions — poverty, abuse, addiction, mental illness — that cause children to enter the foster care system in the first place.

Second, the social services agency must be adequately staffed to get these children either back with their biological parents or adoptive parents.

Foster children need not linger in an institutional setting for most of their childhood and formative years.

The agency is requesting that the current legislature provide funding to provide critically needed staffing and resources to get more children placed in permanent homes.

Will some of that $6 billion surplus be used to give our foster children the best chance at a healthy, meaningful and fulfilling life?

Another high priority issue is the availability of affordable housing for low income and middle-class working families. As in most states, there is an endemic affordable housing crisis.

The crisis is more severe in Missouri’s largest metropolitan areas, Kansas City and St. Louis. But there is also a shortage of affordable housing in smaller cities and rural communities all across the state.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Missouri has a major shortage of homes.

How can this be, as the state continues to amass and sit on billions of dollars?

In addition, the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which oversees affordable housing, has hundreds of millions of unrestricted dollars (see page 7 in PDF link) and programs that could be applied in a more urgent way to address the growing housing shortages.

Given these major challenges facing Missourians all across the state — and there are others — how can a fabricated issue like banning “critical race theory,” and an over-exaggerated issue like preventing transgender students from participating in sports have top billing on the legislative agenda?

They shouldn’t.

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream (2018) and Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism™ Should be Practiced (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.