May 30, 2013

Columbia Could Pave The Way For Food Trucks

It’s food truck season again. As food trucks grow in popularity, more cities are working on policies to set guidelines for these mobile eateries.

Columbia’s Downtown Community Improvement District (CID) hopes to update a city ordinance to allow food trucks on downtown streets. CID board members, restaurant owners, and food truck representatives worked together to find a solution that should please all parties.

Hopefully regulations will not look like the 75 pages of food truck rules that the Council of Washington, D.C., recently introduced. Several food trucks staged a protest a few days before the Council hearing (short video here). Trucks parked at their normal lunch spots, but refused to open for business during the lunch rush. These trucks wanted to show what lunch would be like in their absence if the city imposed overly burdensome regulations on the trucks.

Columbia’s food truck business, on the other hand, is only just beginning. The city has two food trucks operating right now, Pepe’s and Sunflower Waffle Co. But the CID is smart in thinking ahead, looking to prevent issues before a problem starts. The CID board members, restaurant owners, and food truck  representatives all agreed on certain public areas that would be best suited to food truck occupancy.

While it is helpful that varying interests are working together, the city can best encourage food truck business by imposing as few regulations as possible. Excessive rules or fees would deter entrepreneurs from starting up new food trucks. Confining the mobile vendors to specific areas of the city may help keep restaurant owners from complaining, but it also may limit the success of food trucks, if they can’t freely go where customers want them.

May 21, 2013

The Right Direction On Occupational Licensing In Missouri

The Missouri Legislature passed Senate Bill 330 last week. I hope the governor signs it (I cannot see a reason for a veto). SB 330 makes several small but worthwhile changes to state licensing rules. Generally speaking, the legislation expands the practice areas of certain jobs, allowing them to do things they were previously prevented from doing. Nurses, dental assistants, and counselors now all have slightly expanded practice areas and slightly reduced regulatory control of their jobs. This is a good thing. Furthermore, there are now a few more ways to become licensed as a hearing instrument specialist in Missouri. This is also a good thing.

What is a VERY good thing is that we appear to be moving in the right direction on the larger issue in Missouri. To the best of my knowledge, we have not passed wholesale licensing requirements for a new occupation in Missouri for a few years. (I may be overlooking some, but I do not think so.) Last year, due to prompting by court rulings, the state significantly reduced the licensing burdens to open a moving company in our state. This year, we passed SB 330, with its entirely positive changes. At the state level, we have leaders such as Missouri Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Dist. 133) who care about the personal and economic harms when government makes choices that markets and customers should be making.

At the local level, we still see an expansion of licensing abuses, from street performer auditions and valet parking licenses in Saint Louis to totally bogus HVAC rules in Saint Louis County. But at the state level, we are doing the right thing. Remember, occupational licensing of most occupations benefits current practitioners at the expense of future competitors and the public. We need less of it in Missouri.

May 14, 2013

The Ayes Have It: Volunteer Health Services Act Passes

The Volunteer Health Services Act has passed in the Missouri Legislature. If the governor signs it into law, the legislation would allow out-of-state medical professionals to easily provide free, charitable care to Missouri’s neediest — an activity that Missouri license law currently complicates. It is an issue I have talked about a lot, both this year and last. I am glad the bill gained the legislature’s approval.

Some bills are legitimately tough calls, but the Volunteer Health Services Act is, I think, a no-brainer. Missouri should be letting people help people, and in this case, the helpers are highly trained for the purpose. The bill’s passage is a great call. Kudos, Missouri Legislature.

May 3, 2013

Volunteer Health Services Act Moves Toward Final House Vote

A quick “kudos” goes out to the Missouri House Health Policy and Rules Committees, both of which in the last week voted to send the Volunteer Health Services Act, or VHSA, to the full House for a final vote. The Senate passed the bill earlier this year, meaning that if the legislation passes without any amendments through the House, it will go to the governor, who I expect will sign it.

I have talked about the VHSA many times in the past. Missouri should not stand in the way of doctors from other states who want to provide free health services to our citizens, and it is heartening to see such a simple reform to our licensing laws so close to being enacted.

April 23, 2013

Part II: Squaring The Circle Of Tenure Reform And Local Control

In my last post, I noted that I would like teachers to be evaluated based on their ability to improve student achievement and removed if they are ineffective. I also noted, however, that it is difficult to support legislation that mandates these things at the expense of local control. The question then is, how do we square this? How do we ensure that school districts have the ability to evaluate teachers rigorously and remove those who are not performing up to snuff, while at the same time adhering to local control?

In my opinion, there are three things that must happen for our district schools to be able to effectively manage their teacher workforce and for them to have the incentive to do so.

First, we must remove state restrictions that make it incredibly difficult to remove a teacher after their fifth year in the classroom.

Second, the state must make it possible for school districts to develop value-added measurements of teacher effectiveness. After all, these are sophisticated analyses that must be conducted and not all districts have the resources necessary to compute these measures. While the state should provide guidelines and assistance, local districts must have the flexibility to make these teacher evaluation systems their own.

The first two points will be moot if school leaders lack the appropriate incentive to actually evaluate and remove ineffective teachers. This, however, does not mean that accountability should come from on high. The best way to ensure school leaders will put in place effective evaluation practices is through market pressure. Providing families the ability to choose where their child goes to school encourages school leaders to constantly look for ways to improve. If they do not, they risk losing students.

A good example of a bill that attempts to balance these issues is Senate Bill 408. In my estimation, it is much more in line with local control than the current state provisions regarding teacher tenure.

April 22, 2013

Part I: Squaring The Circle Of Tenure Reform And Local Control

Over my next two blog posts, I examine the issue of teacher tenure reform and local control.

It is no secret that I support reforming teacher tenure, using value-added student achievement to evaluate teachers, and removing ineffective teachers from the classroom. Therefore, you might expect me to completely support a bill that would do these things. Yet, I find it very difficult to support legislation that does these things at the expense of local control.

While it is true that some tenure reform proposals in the Missouri Legislature may not be completely pro-local control, we must remember that the status quo is not pro-local control, either.

Last week, the Missouri House of Representatives voted down a bill (102 to 55) that would have changed the way teachers are evaluated, tenured, and dismissed. In response to the vote, Missouri State Teachers Association lobbyist Mike Wood stated, “We were very excited to see that kind of support for local control of public education.” This sounded very much like comments from former Missouri Speaker of the House Jim Kreider. In a recent opinion piece, he wrote, “We want less government in local schools, not more needless government mandates.” You can read my reply to Kreider here.

The problem with both of these arguments is that doing nothing to reform teacher tenure is not a pro-local control position; it is a pro-tenure position or a pro-state restrictions position.

When it comes to tenure, a true pro-local control position would support:

  • Removing provisions from state statutes that require districts to award permanent contracts after a teacher’s fifth year.
  • Removing restrictions that prohibit schools from laying off low-performing veteran teachers before high-performing novice teachers during a reduction in force.

Local school districts are limited in many ways and the bill that was voted down did not infringe on local control any more than the current policies do; the bill simply infringed in a different manner.

In my next post, I will discuss how we square the circle. How do you get school districts to implement rigorous evaluation systems and remove low-performing teachers, while still giving school districts maximum local control?

April 11, 2013

Should The Government Force Longevity?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Columnist Bill McClellan takes a hard line against an overprotective government in his piece, “Government should let us eat, drink, smoke and be merry.” Who knew that the Post-Dispatch would take such a stance?

He poses the problem that Social Security and Medicare costs continue to grow as we live longer. In 1935, life expectancy was 59.9 years old for a man and 63.9 for a woman. More than 75 years later, life expectancy has grown to 76.2 and 81.1 for men and women, respectively.

So what is McClellan’s tongue-in-cheek solution? The government should stop encouraging healthy behavior and just let everyone do what they want. If people want to smoke themselves to death, eat themselves to death, drink themselves to death . . . so be it. “If somebody wants to opt for enjoyment over longevity, the government ought to leave that person alone,” McClellan wrote.

While McClellan’s overall tone is a bit morbid, he has a point. What should the government’s role be in our lives regarding our personal health choices? My natural reaction is to want all the people in my life to make healthy choices. Heck, I am a personal trainer. I spend a few hours every week educating people about healthy choices. But I am no Michael Bloomberg — I respect people’s choices and do not believe in forcing behavior that I want. The government should not have the right to do this either.

April 5, 2013

Small Business Friendliness Survey: Kansas Gets ‘A,’ Missouri Gets ‘C,’ Illinois Gets ‘D’

The usual suspects are out in full force with the Parade of Economic Horribles they say would come from Missouri enacting Kansas-style growth policies. However, a survey by Thumbtack.com and the Kauffman Foundation published this week throws yet another bucket of cold water on those warnings. The survey asked more than 7,000 small businesses how states are doing in facilitating small business development . . . and the results are not good for Missouri.

Kansas was viewed favorably for its support of small business, improving upon last year’s A- ranking. The state graded well for the ease of starting a business, especially its regulatory systems.

Missouri slipped slightly in 2013 after earning a B- a year ago. That decline can be attributed partly to issues with licensing and permitting requirements.

You can find an interactive map that looks at all the aspects the survey examined — including regulations, health and safety, licensing, and more — here. As with any index, all of the survey’s findings have to be put in the proper context: survey methodologies, assumptions, and objectives do matter, so your mileage may vary on whether you think Thumbtack.com and the Kauffman Foundation are balancing their factors credibly. In that context, I think it is still worthwhile to highlight their topline results, visually represented in the screenshot below and available on Thumbtack’s website.

That Midwestern section sure looks like the kind of growth corridor I have discussed in the past, but unfortunately, Missouri sticks out like a sore thumb on the map. The question is, will Missouri be a part of this growth corridor? Will Missouri go the way of Kansas . . . or of Illinois?

March 6, 2013

Is Legislation The Only Answer?

I was wrong when I thought the Thanksgiving Family Protection Act would be the most ridiculous bill introduced in the Missouri Legislature this year.

Now some legislators want to get bicyclists off the roads, presumably so cars can drive faster. The cyclist ban would apply to state roads within 2 miles of a state bicycle path or trail. Missouri Rep. Bart Korman (R-Dist. 99), who introduced the bill, said that its purpose is to “encourage people to use the bicycle trails that are for the bicycles and pedestrians and not for motor vehicles.”

Should the answer to our aggravations always be to make them illegal? With the Thanksgiving Family Protection Act, lawmakers sought to close retail stores on Thanksgiving because they felt workers should spend time with family. That is a reflection of their ideals and their preferences— but not necessarily everyone else’s. The same is true with the proposed bicycling ban. Korman would prefer that cyclists stay off the road, but many cyclists would like to share the road. Why can’t they? He is not saying it is incredibly dangerous. Even if it were, people do incredibly dangerous legal and illegal things everyday, and whether we like it or not, that is their own choice. We cannot restrict people from doing everything we do not like.

This is a situation in which legislators should ask themselves whether we actually need a law. Making things illegal is not the only way to impact behavior. Look at texting while driving, for example. Which method do you think is more effective in reducing texting while driving, Oprah’s No Phone Zone Pledge or a state law? I think we all know the answer to that. Let’s just say I doubt Stedman ever texts, “U were gr8 on tv 2day O,” while driving.

February 22, 2013

Volunteer Health Services Act Returns To Legislature

We often write about innovative reforms on this blog, and last year, I highlighted the proposed “Volunteer Health Services Act,” or VHSA. The act would have ensured that licensed out-of-state doctors who wanted to provide Missourians with free health care could do so without unnecessary government interference. Missouri’s current licensing laws make such activities nearly impossible — keeping charitable groups such as Remote Area Medical out of the state. The VHSA, which would have reformed the law, was on track for passage until it was unexpectedly derailed in the waning days of the 2012 session.

The good news? The proposal is back. To be clear, this is a reform that allows doctors to make a difference in the lives of Missourians without unnecessary interference from state bureaucracy — and would not impose a cost on the state.

Suffice to say, I am following the trajectory of this bill with great interest and will update our readers on its progress.

January 28, 2013

An Impromptu Follow-Up To ‘Responsible Bidder’ Blog Series

I recently wrote a two-part blog series about new Saint Louis County regulations that would prevent most non-union contractors from bidding on county construction projects. The County Council redefined what a “responsible bidder” is for county construction projects, adding provisions (1) that were purpose-built to get union contractors special treatment, and (2), which had nothing to do with the “responsibility” of contractors who would bid on the projects. At the time, I criticized the move as one that subverted the public interest of getting the best deal for construction projects for taxpayers, and instead changed the law to benefit a narrow private interest.

How narrow of a private interest? Last Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data showing that of all construction labor, only 13.2 percent is unionized, a drop from 14 percent last year, and a near-record low. Put another way, Saint Louis County rewrote its “responsible bidder” definitions to protect the one-eighth of the national construction industry that is unionized, leaving the vast super-majority of labor —which is non-union — basically in the lurch for county contracts. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Dave Nicklaus reported, union rolls in the state dropped by 51,000 members over the last year, putting overall Missouri union enrollment at “8.9 percent [of the workforce], down from 10.9 percent in 2011.” That fits the national trend lines.

Saint Louis County is trying to direct more money to fewer people, and the special interest nature of the change in the law is accentuated by last week’s construction employment data. Saint Louis County officials should reconsider their decision.

January 17, 2013

Part Two: ‘Responsible Bidder’ Does Not Mean ‘Union-Only’

Yesterday, I wrote about St. Louis County’s new restrictions on who could be considered a “responsible bidder” for construction contracts. The county is imposing requirements on businesses that, in substance and practice, have nothing to do with the responsibility of the bidder and everything to do with benefiting organized labor. To do so, the county had to warp the intent of the existing law. ”Responsible bidder” as a form of legal art is intended to restrict bidding on a government project to those who (1) can reliably perform the services needed, and (2) can do so at the price promised. In other words, the “responsible bidder” construction is intended to ensure that government needs are met promptly and at the best price, to save and maximize taxpayer money.

The county’s apprenticeship requirement, which I discussed yesterday, is onerous enough, but the “no independent contractors for on-site work” requirement makes the intent of the ordinance — to advantage union labor — all the more explicit. In fact, Saint Louis County’s new regulations may actually hurt many small Saint Louis businesses that are not unionized. Adolphus M. Pruitt, of the St. Louis American, offered this blistering response to the ordinance late last month (the whole thing is worth reading):

Additionally, the bill forbids independent contractors from County construction worksites, specifically those who are self-employed. Most African-American truckers who own their own trucks operate as “independent contractors” and thus are forbidden from working on County worksites.

The bidding process is intended to get taxpayers the best deal for their money, not guarantee a special interest seller special privileges over another interest. Union and non-union labor should have to compete on even terms with one another, and the St. Louis County Council was wrong to give unions this sort of preferential treatment in a process meant to protect the buyer’s interests, not a seller’s. Taxpayers deserve better than this.

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