What does the typical Missourian think about the role of state government today?
Ask that question in an unalloyed manner and most respondents would conjure a conservative, pro-gun, anti-tax, anti-abortion family-values voter. It is broadly presumed that the typical Missourian lives outstate and harbors at least some resentment of metropolitan elites sneering at traditional norms.
This is especially true of the political class. It’s not just that the state is dominated by conservative Republicans, in no small part to gerrymandering. Even when Democrats were in charge, had Missouri politics been set to a soundtrack, the sounds of country music would have been audible.
Politicians presume Missourians are overwhelmingly conservative socially. They presume that they’re steadfastly opposed to tax increases of any kind. They presume wrong.
Yes, Missouri is presently a deep red state, but as recently as seven years ago, Democrats held almost all statewide offices. The state is subject to political shifts, sometimes dramatic ones. Most importantly, it is more divided down the middle — culturally as well as politically — than most observers would assume.
The most obvious recent illustration was the vote by 53 percent of state residents to require that the state join the large majority of its counterparts in expanding Medicaid coverage. Conservative politicians simply rejected democracy on this point, much as they did when a majority of voters thought they were imposing stronger regulations on puppy mills or — many years earlier — outlawing concealed carry of firearms.
Even accepting that there have been more conservative victories than liberal ones on referenda over the years, Missouri is actually more divided down the middle than most assume. Last year, for example, Pew Research reported that Missourians who believe abortion should be outlawed in all or most cases outnumber those who do not by a margin of just 50 percent to 45 percent.
So, let’s assume for a moment that the viewpoints of the residents of Missouri’s 87th House District matter as much as the mythical “typical” conservative Missourian from outstate. It’s the St. Louis County district encompassing Brentwood, Clayton, Ladue, Richmond Heights and University City.
The 87th is overwhelmingly blue, having reelected Rep. Ian Mackey for a second term in 2020 with no opposition in either the Democratic primary or general election. One of the reasons for that is Mackey’s performance — he is second to none in the energy he brings to the uphill life of a Democrat in Jefferson City.
One of the best things Mackey does is to poll his constituents about their beliefs regarding state government and to publish those results for unvarnished, general-public consumption. I think every representative should do this.
So here’s what Missouri might look like if the viewpoints of typical residents from the 87th District had their say. Mackey’s poll was answered by more than 900 respondents, so while not scientific, it’s substantial. And really enlightening.
Here are some of the top line results of the views of 87th District residents:
• A striking 42.5 percent believe Missouri’s current tax rates are too low. Another 32 percent believe they are appropriate, while just 13.9 percent consider them too high. Stated another way, the people who would raise state taxes outnumber those who would lower them by a margin of more than 3-to-1.
• Asked how they’d support raising revenue, 38.2 percent chose higher corporate taxes, 20.3 percent said more taxes on Missourians making more than $250,000 a year, while just 7.3 percent said higher sales taxes. Just 24.3 opposed increasing revenue.
• Some 55.3 percent of residents would repeal a 1996 constitutional amendment prohibiting the legislature from raising taxes over a certain amount without a statewide vote of the people. The number in opposition was 37.5 percent
• By a staggering 76.1 percent to 18.4 percent, residents believe more state funds should be allocated for K-12 schools. Among those answering yes, 61.5 percent favored raising taxes for this purpose, as opposed to 26 percent preferring decreased funding in other areas.
• Increased state funding for higher education was also favored by a large majority of residents, albeit by a small margin: 63.8 percent to 27.2 percent. Among those answering yes, 55.6 percent preferred raising taxes, while 25.6 percent chose decreasing other spending.
• By more than an 8-to-1 margin — 70.7 percent to 23.4 percent — residents believe more state funds should be allocated for roads and bridges (and they favored raising the gas tax, which recently happened, by nearly the same total).
• By nearly a 4-to1 margin — 74 percent to 19.5 percent —residents believe more state funds should be allocated to public health. Those in favor preferred raising taxes to cutting other spending by 58.1 percent to 26.2 percent.
• By more than a 3-to-1 margin — 70.7 percent to 23.44 percent — they favored allocating more money to social services in Missouri, a suggestion almost unheard of in Jefferson City. And by a 58 percent to 25.4 percent differential, those supporting an increase favored higher taxes to decreased funding.
• There was also support for more public safety spending, but just by a 51.5 percent to 33.9 percent differential. For district residents to have more interest in spending for education, health care and social services than for public safety pretty well defies any narrative heard in recent decades in the State Capitol.
• On the matter of public safety, residents were asked to rank the most significant factors when it comes to the issue of violent crime in our region. Their number one choice was “access to guns” — selected by 39 percent of respondents. In order, the residents chose “racial inequality (28.1 percent), “lack of support/funding for law enforcement” (13.7 percent) and “types of prison sentences (8 percent).
Perhaps the last category would be most jarring for “typical” outside residents to digest. Given what seems to be the prevailing outstate view that St. Louis is a war zone overridden with crime, the fact that access to guns is seen as more contributing to crime than support law enforcement by nearly a 3-to-1 margin is not exactly out of the National Rifle Association playbook.
But just imagine what Missouri’s future would look like if we residents of the 87th District had our views regarded as seriously as those in more conservative regions. And once again, if residents of the metropolitan areas were as dramatically outnumbered as the Republicans would have you think, voters wouldn’t have enacted Medicaid expansion over their screaming objections.
A little-known fact from the Missouri Census Data Center is that 51 percent of Missourians live within the bounds of metropolitan statistical areas (MSA’s). You wouldn’t know from randomly showing up at the gallery of the General Assembly when it’s in session.
So why the disconnect? Why are the views of 87th District residents so drowned out in the discourse, such that is it, of Missouri politics? I’ll answer that question with another: When’s the last time you heard a Missouri Democrat passionately campaigning to bring the state into the 21st century by fulfilling its obligations to fund education, health care and social services — even if it meant raising taxes?
Just a thought.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).