If Missouri didn’t possess some singular characteristics, then the involvement of an obscure academic unit in state government would be no big deal.
The University of Missouri’s Economic & Policy Analysis Research Center, or EPARC, would estimate the cost of certain legislative proposals without ruffling feathers. Lawmakers could be expected to objectively weigh the center’s analysis against other pertinent information.
But Missouri is Missouri, where one man looms larger than he should.
Rex Sinquefield, the meddling multimillionaire from St. Louis, has manipulated state government with enormous campaign contributions and self-financed ballot initiatives. Through a web of non-profits and political committees, he has created a vast structure to turn his beliefs and agendas into public policy.
So when we learn that the director of EPARC spent at least three years on Sinquefield’s payroll and has also collected consulting fees from the retired investment banker, yea, that sounds like a big deal.
Joseph Haslag, EPARC’s director and the Kenneth Lay chair in economics (endowed by the late MU graduate and Enron CEO) at MU’s Columbia campus, is also chief economist at Sinquefield’s Show-Me Institute.
He told Star reporter Jason Hancock that EPARC’s fiscal estimates on bills altering the state’s income tax code are a mechanical exercise, a matter of plugging information into a model and coming out with an analysis.
The center has been doing this work since 1972, long before Haslag got involved about 10 years ago.
But, as Hancock’s story notes, “Critics counter that the group’s projections rely on the assumptions that analysts make — in both building the model and interpreting legislation in question.”
Given Sinquefield’s outsized role in Missouri government, and his commitment to getting rid of the state’s income tax, I’d like to know more about how someone so closely tied to him landed a university position that routinely weighs in with estimates on state tax policy. I believe in coincidences, but this doesn’t seem like one.
Haslag’s role matters because the Missouri legislature is loaded with Republicans who very much want to believe projections that they can lower income taxes even more than they have without dire consequences to the state budget. If the projections are wrong, you get Kansas.
EPARC is staffed with economists who have strong academic credentials but also an alarming inclination to work for corporate interests, some of which are trying to shape public policy in Missouri. Haslag has done work for the Missouri Petroleum Markets and Convenience Store Association and for a political action committee formed by the payday lending industry. Another EPARC staffer has received $88,500 in research grants from the Koch Foundation. Others have done work for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, founded by a former Enron executive with an interest in altering public pension structures.
Missouri has the loosest ethical laws in the nation, so corporate interests already have too much influence in Missouri government, as does Sinquefield. Their influence in evaluating Missouri fiscal policy should be watched very closely.
(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 2/23/15)