Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL124 - The Value of Outside Fiscal Experts for Government«MDNM»
Missouri lost this month a man who had been one of the state's major tax leaders of decades past, Bob Van Ark, who passed away March 20 at the age of 83.
Van Ark did not hold public office. He never had been a politician.
Yet, he and his colleague Bob Knuth were some of the most influential leaders in Missouri public policy on state tax issues for about three decades starting in the 1960s.
The two men were leaders of a organization called the Missouri Public Expenditure Survey.
It was founded in 1940 as a private think tank on revenue issues.
The organization was business-financed. It focused on issues of impact on business.
But it was an organization quite different from traditional business lobbying associations.
Although they did lobby, Van Ark and Knuth spent much of their time gathering information and conducting detailed analyses on a wide variety of revenue issues that ranged far beyond matters of immediate concern to business.
Problems with the tax-assessment process was one of their major issues. They spoke out on the conservation sales tax ballot issue, warning about the dangers of earmarked taxes.
I still recall Knuth's impassioned arguments that an earmarked tax was bad fiscal policy because it prevented the legislature from adjusting expenditures to address changing needs in the state's budget.
That streak of independence in their studies earned them a tremendous level of respect from legislators of both parties.
That independence also earned the trust of reporters. They won us over because of the depth of information they collected, the sophistication of their studies and, most importantly, their avoidance of 'spin' and their dedication to accuracy.
In research for this column, I was reminded of that commitment to accuracy when I discovered a 1972 Vernon County newspaper story on the organization's continuing review of problems with the state's property assessment system.
The Nevada Daily Mail had found a mistake in the Vernon County information. It was just one county in a statewide study. But when the newspaper contacted Knuth, he promptly offered an apology to the county residents.
Knuth and Van Ark were not the only outside financial experts who became information resources for the state.
One was Ed Robb, a professor of accounting at the Columbia campus of University of Missouri. He specialized in government financial issues.
His tax-collection projections were treated as near Gospel by the legislature. For a while, his predictions had more credence among some in the legislature than the estimates of the state administration's official budget office.
Another outside, influential revenue analyst was Jim Moody. He had been a state budget director and Office of Administration commissioner before becoming a lobbyist.
While lobbying for business clients, he also authored an insightful report on the lasting budget problems arising from the Hancock revenue and tax lids in Missouri's Constitution.
Moody continues to this day as a lobbyist. Robb, after retiring from the university, served in the Missouri House for four years and later died in 2011. Knuth retired to Flordia.
The old Missouri Public Expenditure Survey was renamed the Taxpayers Research Institute of Missouri and then absorbed by the business-lobbying organization, Associated Industries. The other organization, the Missouri Budget Project, has a definite pro-tax liberal slant that is in direct contrast with the views of a Republican-dominated General Assembly.
Neither organization, however, enjoys the respect, influence and visibility of the Missouri Public Expenditure Survey.
I've often wondered these last couple of years about how state government's current debate about cutting income taxes might be affected if the state had the benefit of the advice and insight of those two revenue wizards.
There is a need for clarity in the conflicting arguments as to whether tax cuts will grow the state's economy, hurt state services or both.
I think, that tax debate has suffered from the absence of Bob Van Ark and Bob Knuth.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.