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Taylor Beck's Blog in 2012
Medicaid Expansion

Posted 11/30/2012:  This week Governor Nixon announced his support of Medicaid expansion. This had many of us wondering...will it ever go through?

At MDN, we asked some Republican legislators about their reactions. Some were quick to oppose and say they'll do everything in their powers to make sure nothing passes in the House or Senate. Some though, like Senator Kurt Schaefer, didn't. Schaefer told me he'd like to wait and see the numbers, and looks forward to sitting down with Nixon and discussing the options. He said he does have a fear that an expansion in Medicaid could create cuts in educational funds.

Can something like Medicaid expansion pass in a Republican majority House and Senate? I look forward to seeing the outcome in the next session starting in January.


A Thought on the Missouri Public Service Commission
Posted 11/16/2012:  While working on my feature story on the Missouri Public Service Commission's effort to cut rates for low-income residents I came to ponder a bit about the PSC itself.

Many people may not realize the commission regulates prices of your utility bills in Missouri, not your utility company. When a company like Ameren wants to raise their rates, they first must first go through the PSC.

The PSC is currently trying to lower rates for low-income residents. To do this, they're looking into creating a separate rate class for those with low salaries. Rate classes now include residential and commercial rates. Each rate class pays a different rate, depending on a variety of complex factors.

Ultimately, the PSC will decide what goes after having a meeting of all the stakeholders (utility companies, customers, lawyers, and so on). This leads me to wonder...should the public be able to vote on this?

I think it's very similar to a tax hike. While people may think, well who would want to vote to increase their utility bills, it's along the same lines of, who would vote to increase their taxes? Some people do. A lot of people do, in fact. So, with such similarities, should the public be able to vote on this sort of thing to? Or is the content too complex, too elaborate, that it must be determined by the PSC? They do hear people's pleas in hearings and when they eventually have a meeting of the stakeholders, but is this enough? I can see how people would believe in a vote, but I can also see how people would be against a vote. Just an interesting thought.


Pre-Election Bustle
Posted 11/02/2012:  The election is just days away. Not only will we see the results of a tight presidential rates, we'll hear results of some tight Missouri races.

I've lived in Missouri for the past seventeen years, and these candidates' decisions will affect me, my family members and friends. For the past seventeen years those voted into office in Missouri have affected me, whether I realized it or not. This year it's important to me that others inform themselves on the issues before hitting the polls on Tuesday.

The race between Claire McCaskill and Todd Akin has been under the public eye since Akin's controversial remarks about "legitimate rape." Akin refused to give up his spot on the ballot, and the race has been a close one ever since. Tuesday night's results are bound to gain national attention no matter the result.

As I gear up to cover McCaskill's watch party on Tuesday night, I think about all of the things that go into covering a major political event that the public may not think about. First off, the technology must go off with out a hitch. No matter if you're a print writer or a multimedia producer or radio broadcaster you must use technology. We've spent the week learning the technology, troubleshooting, and finding ways to do things that we would typically do from the comfort of our own office on-the-go instead. When requesting credentials we do our best to make sure we are accommodated. Mult boxes for our recorders, WiFi (for a fee...) for producing stories, etc.

Beyond logistics we need to know a lot about our political system. This weekend will be full of research on Missouri politics. Who may show up to the campaign event? What would be a good story line? What do the political players look like? What does the candidates family look like? What is the scoop on the candidate's personal life?

There's a lot to know and a lot that could crash and burn, but I believe the other reporters and MDN and I can handle it. Election night is one of the biggest nights of the year for a political reporter. Go with confidence and go prepared!


Politics vs. Policy
Posted 10/26/2012:  As a statehouse reporter you are expected to cover two things: politics and policy. Though they involve the same players, they are two very different topics.

Personally, I'm more interested in policy. Policy includes the issues affecting citizens every day. Whether or not to raise the cigarette tax, whether or not to give government assistance to farmers during the drought, universal healthcare. These are all important policy issue debated in the past year in Missouri and throughout the country. Stories on policy have a purpose to inform the public and let them know what's going on in their world so they can have a voice. An electorate needs to understand issues before voting on propositions or voting in politicians to represent them.

Politics involves policy, yes. How politicians stand on certain policy issues is a large part of politics. However, there's also a big part of politics, a part that probably gets a little bit too much attention, that focuses only on the candidates. It's a lot of gossip. It's a lot of news on the personal lives of candidates, and a lot of "he said this, I say this." While a look into the personal lives of candidates may be important in determining how they may act in office, I'm more concerned with the policies they support, and I think the public should be too. What's wrong is more people are interested in campaign flubs and personal affairs rather than policy. When Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comments hit the airwaves, he received national attention. What about his policy stances? I can guarantee you half of Missouri still has no idea what Akin stands for.

Another thing about politics is getting answers. As a reporter, you must go through media contacts and constant calling and pleading to get information from a campaign. If their opponent messes up, the candidate or representative for that candidate will gladly make a statement. They monumentally screw up? You'll find yourself calling the office 10 times and nobody will give you a straight answer, or at least wont answer any questions that could harm the campaign. As a reporter there is nothing more frustrating than a block to information. If we had it our way, everything would be open information, and politicians would talk to us themselves. If only we lived in such a world.


What Makes a Good Story?
Posted 10/12/2012:  With a lack of legislators in the building this time of year, coming up with stories is one of the biggest challenges we face at the Capitol. I think what the other reporters and I struggle with the most is coming up with quality, do-able reports.

What makes a good story? It needs to affect people, not a person. Journalism is a business, and the more viewers your story brings in, the better. A story affecting a large amount of people, such as a report on how the government is spending taxpayer money, has potential to be a great story. Taxpayers are going to be curious, and (ideally) everyone is a taxpayer.

Stories that affect people are good, but add complexity, conflict and a human element, and you can have a great story. They aren't always easy to come by, but good reporters know how to produce them.


Double-Edged Sword
Posted 10/05/2012:  A good story has complexity and conflict. Raising the Missouri tobacco tax is on the ballot this November, and complexity doesn't even begin to describe the issue. What a great story to cover.

Missouri currently has the lowest tobacco tax at 17 cents per pack of cigarettes. The state is one of three in the nation that hasn't raised its tobacco tax since 1999 or before. Missourians have had a chance to raise the tobacco tax in both 2002 and 2006, but both ballot measures failed. Why would this year be any different?

So many factors go into this measure. The amount of the increase, where the funds go and demographics. While an increase of 73 cents may seem high, Missouri does have the lowest tax in the nation. Supporters may want to take the "lowest tobacco tax in the country" badge off of Missouri, and put us in a more positive light.

When I talked to Ron Leone, the executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, he said he would support the tax if it wasn't so high. He thinks this big of a tax increase will cause Missourians to lose their competitive tax advantage over other states. If we were to raise the tax, but keep it lower than surrounding states, would we still maintain enough competitive advantage? Would the tax increase make enough money to make a difference? What about the effect on Missouri's reputation? There's a lot of "what ifs."

Some people are supporting the tax initiative because of its promise to fund education and health care. When you think about how many people are in schools in Missouri, how much will the tax really benefit each student? Is the tax high enough to make a big enough difference?

Those opposed are worried people will stop crossing the borders to buy Missouri cigarettes (because of our tax advantage). With four of eight border states (including Illinois) continuing to have higher cigarette taxes even if the ballot measure passes, how big of an impact would this make? Illinois will still have a higher tax by over a dollar, a state that covers much of the border. Kansas, however, would have a lower tax. It leaves me wondering, how much would the state lose? Is it substantial?

Another factor affecting the cigarette tax increase is Missouri's demographics. In Missouri, 25 percent of adults are smokers. Twenty five percent of the people of age to vote in the state will be deciding whether or not to increase a tax on something they purchase regularly. Is this burden more important to smokers than the benefit to education and health care? For some, yes, for some no. 

How people vote all depends on what's more important to each; paying more for a habit, improving the state's tobacco prevention reputation, protecting a tax advantage and business, or increasing education funding. Ultimately it comes down to opinion. I urge voters to consider all aspects of the bill as opposed to just thinking about one before creating their opinion. There are fundamental differences in how much each person values separate aspects, but all should at least be examined to cast an educated vote.



The One Where There Was Breaking News
Posted 09/28/2012:  This week the unthinkable happened-news broke.

Tuesday the State Auditor released a report about the Department of Economic Development having to do with Mamtek, a major news topic of the past year. Thursday, Todd Akin stopped into Jefferson City along his campaign tour, calling Claire McCaskill more "ladylike" in the past. Both events sent the newsroom a buzz this week.

What happens when news breaks? Many questions must be answered, and very quickly. Who is going to cover it? Do you know what's going on? Do you have equipment? Where are you going? Who are you going to talk to? What questions do you need to ask? The beginning stages can be daunting, but there is nothing like watching breaking news develop in a newsroom. As a journalist, I love these kind of high stress situations.

Sometimes there is very little time to do any background research. Tuesday I was thrown into the State Auditor's office with very little prep work. Thursday another reporter was sent to find Akin the minute he walked into the office. A good journalist rolls with the punches and learns as they go as opposed to cracking under pressure. Sometimes more questions develop as you write your story, and you can't be afraid to try and find those answers. You may not understand the story right at first, but it's amazing how quickly you get to know a situation. People should have a lot of respect for journalists will the ability to calmly and correctly report on breaking news on a much greater scale, such as those during 9/11. Most people don't realize how much work and stress go into reporting on such a tight deadline.

It's humbling to see something like Akin's comments on Thursday make it to national news knowing I was in the building when it happened. It makes you realize how reporting from the Capitol is such a great opportunity.


An Informed Electorate
Posted 09/21/2012:  As a journalist, it's our job to give the public enough information to vote. While which way the person may vote is highly based on opinion, they need the facts to create a valid opinion. I think one of the biggest struggles within journalism is getting the public to READ THESE FACTS.

How do we change this? What must we as journalists do to get the public to listen, and care, about the issues that impact them?

While I've been working on a story about the tobacco tax initiative on this November's ballot, I've put a lot of thought into this. How do I get people to inform themselves about the issue? This is something that no matter what will affect a multitude of Missourians. Health, education and business are all a part of the concept. So many people should care. But so many do not. How do I change this? Is my job over after I do my report, or is it my responsibility to then push the information onto the public? If it is, how do I do it?

I don't think there is one complete or correct answer. I'd like to think my job as a journalist is never "over" after I type my last sentence or record my last wrap. There are follow-ups to be written, and content to be spread. What will I do when I finish my piece on the cigarette tax? I'm going to need to spread it around, I want people to make decisions based on facts, that's why I want to go into journalism. Social media is a new tool that makes it so easy to spread news. Every morning I read through my twitter feed to see what's happening. I know many people, especially millennials, do the same. MDN's twitter feature is a great way to spread our content.


Legislators!?
Posted 09/14/2012:  It was our first week of seeing legislators in the building. With the veto session on Wednesday, many committees met in the Capitol on Tuesday. The new reporters were all assigned to cover different meetings and find a story.

I was sent to cover a House Agriculture Policy Committee meeting, and with the recent drought I was hoping for there to be some pretty big news. It was our first time covering a real meeting at the Capitol and our first time really interacting with the legislators.

As the meeting went on, I kept my ears open for something newsworthy. You can't just report on people meeting...unless you want everyone to be bored out of their mind. What at the meeting is important? Most people don't spend their spare time sitting through a government committee meeting because well...they aren't exactly entertainment. It's a reporter's job to pick out the parks of the meeting that will affect their viewers.

What we took from the meeting was how hard livestock owners were hit by the drought, possibly more so than crop growers. The owner of a stockyard teared up during a testimony, and that's when I knew we had found something worthy. While the hardships from the drought are a hot topic right now, the testimony gave the story a human aspect.


Complexity
Posted 09/07/2012:  As a reporter, one thing I'd like to do is break down complex matters for the public to understand. Sometimes in a forty second read, it isn't always possible.

In the past week I've done two stories on utility rates for Ameren Missouri. The average person does not know the intricacies of how utility rates are set, and in my stories I had the challenge of trying to make it simple. If one does not know how utilities in Missouri are figured, how could they understand my stories?

The Public Service Commission regulates pricing for utilities in the state of Missouri. Not Ameren. Not Kansas City Power & Light. To change rates, a utility company must file a case with the PSC, and these cases can take months to be approved. Often times the changes of rates are small, and they are based on what happened months ago.

This week I looked into a reduction of the fuel adjustment charge. After talking to representatives from both Ameren and the PSC, I found the fuel adjustment charge is a part of every customers' utility bill. Simply put, it is used to cover power plant production costs, such as the fuel used to produce power, and the fuel used to transport coal. If a power plants' fuel costs decrease, and their out-of-state profits increase, their fuel adjustment charge will decrease. This means a decrease on a utility bill for customers. Keep in mind though, even if this charge on a utility bill decreases, other parts of a utility bill could increase. It's much more complicated than this, but simply put, that's what it is. The bill is very situational, it's made up of many different parts. Regardless of these parts, a reduction in one part of the bill is a saving. Though typically these changes are small, it is a change. The charge can increase or decrease, and it changes up to three times a year.

Maybe the twenty one cents the average Ameren customer will save is not a huge deal to everyone. Understanding the complex process of setting rates at a simple level though, can be helpful. A reporter must make these complex processes simple for a news consumer to understand. If they don't understand the process, they may not understand the news you are providing to a proper degree. It's not always easy for the reporter to understand, but it's our job. I definitely did not understand the process of utilities before asking questions. I asked my interviewees not only for comments, but also to explain these processes so I could better explain them. Even though reporters like to think we know everything....unfortunately we do not. There is always something to be learned! Keep an open mind and ask questions.


Week One
Posted 08/31/2012:  Though sometimes a struggle, I finally produced my first story this week about the drought's affects on hydroelectric plants. The hardest part of making a story is finding what is newsworthy. What are people going to care about? What affects people? My first day reporting, my focus was blurred. I couldn't pin point a good angle. I knew I wanted to see if utilities prices would be affected, but where do I find that information? Journalism is definitely a process, and if I've learned anything this week it's that you learn as you go.

It was interesting covering something that could have an affect on people. What I found is that hydroelectric plants are producing half of what they usually do. This is a striking statistic that's going to get people interested. With less production, companies like Ameren have to turn to more expensive ways to produce electricity. This sparked my interest. Does this mean customers will have to pay more? I found that utilities prices are regulated by a commission. Companies like Ameren can file cases to raise prices with the commission, but it takes almost a year to go through. This means that if the drought has an effect on prices, we would not see it for at least another year. After talking to experts, they explained hydroelectric power is such a small percentage of what they produce, they doubt the drought will have significant affect on rates. I talked to both officials from Ameren and the commission and they both told me they doubt the effect on prices would be big.


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