John Wright Interview
COLUMBIA -Democrat John Wright is running for the 47th district seat in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Wright is a Columbia native and graduate of Hickman High School. Wright graduated from Yale with a degree in economics and law. Wright is the founder of Rollins Reading, a non-profit organization which develops programs to promote early childhood literacy and education in mid-Missouri. He served on Advisory Boards of Jumpstart, an organization dedicated to youth literacy.
KOMU 8 News sat down with Wright as a part of the Smart Decision 2012 series.
Can you tell me a little about the first things you would like to do if you are elected?
I think in Missouri and in particular mid-Missouri, education has got to be a top priority for many reasons but we know here in Mid-Missouri full-well that education and particularly higher education is what creates jobs today and the job creators of tomorrow and that's why we've had greater job creation here in mid-Missouri over the last couple of years than the entire rest of the state combined. The first thing that I think a legislator from mid-Missouri needs to do is work with other leaders from around the state to make sure we protect our investments in education that includes our K-12 education system and it includes certainly our university whose budget is on the chopping block year at the beginning of the legislative session and it's up to the legislators to work to preserve our resources that are so important to not only our economy in mid-Missouri but to the economy in Missouri as a whole.
Continuing with education, there was some talk last session with the unaccredited schools in St. Louis. Was there anything you would like to do to help improve those schools?
There are a couple of issues that educators face in Missouri. One issue that educators face is funding. At a state level, we rank 46th out of the 50 states in term of our state investments in education. Whereas some districts such as our Columbia district tend to do pretty well, because we have a very strong local commitment to our education system and we have a property tax base that enables us to make sound investments in education. Other districts don't have those luxuries. So I remember as a kid here in mid-Missouri, being so excited to follow our Tiger basketball team during the days of Derrick Chievous and Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler and watching that team move up in the national rankings every year and I think we need to take that same kind of energy and that desire to win into our education rankings as a state. In terms of the particular situation with the St. Louis schools, I think funding is an element. I think school choice is an element. I think there are certain districts that can benefit from school choice when existing schools are not doing the job. I think St. Louis has had some good experiences and some bad experiences expanding their educational options but we are learning and developing as a state and I wish them the very best.
How would you improve funding for public schools?
There are a couple of things that we can do. One thing that we can certainly do is take a look at our tax credit regime. As a state, we have gone from allocating 2 percent of our general revenues to almost 8 percent of our revenues to special tax credit programs and these are 61 different programs that provide credits to a variety of industries ranging from charcoal producers to grape growers to the film industry and I think that we should look at creating a more level playing field for all Missouri industry. The governor appointed the bi-partisan commission to look at our tax credit programs. That commission made a series of I think pretty sensible recommendations to limit some programs and allow others to sunset and doing that will not only create a more level economic playing field in our state but also free up funds to preserve investments in our educational system.
What about education at the university level?
Wright: Our institutions of higher education have been under some degree of budget pressure as well. Since 2005 our student faculty ratio at our public colleges and universities in the state of Missouri has increased by more than 20 percent. The university is doing a good job of managing in a tight budget environment but I think it's important that legislators from mid-Missouri, whether they are republicans or democrats stand up to protect those institutions that are most important to our mid-Missouri economy and our mid-Missouri families and the university is certainly on the top of that list.
What about the economy? Do you have anything you would like to do to help with jobs and the economy in Missouri?
Wright: The first thing is we and Mid-Missouri understand that education and the economy are two-sides to the same coin because the best way to create a robust economy over the long term is to empower our young people with the skills they need to be successful. We truly live in a knowledge economy today where our biggest economic input as a society is the talent and creativity of our people. We are continually moving away from an economy based on an assembly line to an economy based on engineers and technicians who are programming and maintaining the robots on the assembly line so increasing our high school education rates, increasing access to college through student loan programs and scholarship programs are certainly part of the picture. Continuing to invest in our worker retraining programs at the Moberly Community College and other great community colleges to enable our local communities to have a dynamic skill base that evolves in lock step with the changing needs of the economy. So education is a big part of it. Another thing that we can do to promote economic growth, in our state, I believe is to take steps to create a more level playing field by simplifying or tax field. One good example of that is our current regime for out of state sales made over the Internet. So currently in our state if a local merchant makes a sale; if you go downtown to and buy a book from a local merchant, that sales transaction is taxed at a full tax rate. That same book on Amazon or another out of state merchant via the Internet technically a use tax is supposed to apply to that transaction but in fact those taxes are almost never collected so what we've done is create an unequal playing field in which we are assigning a tax to sales by local merchants but not taxing similar sales for out of state merchants so I believe by leveling out or tax regime we can create a better environment for local merchants and at the same time sure up our revenue base that's eroding due to the loss of these sales to out of state merchants.
Are there any taxes that you want to increase?
In terms of headline taxes, personal income, corporate income taxes, property tax rates, I don't we need to increase any of those tax rates to continue to balance our budget. We have done a good job as a state maintaining a balanced budget over the last several years without raising our headline tax rates. We are one of just a few states that still have a AAA credit rating. I think that's something to be very proud of as a state and when looking at our numbers it appears to me that we can solve any potential shortfalls in our budget by means of leveling out some of the smaller loop holes but I don't think there is a need to increase our headline tax rates.
Is there anything else you would do to improve the budget?
Wright: You know, those are the big ones. In terms of revenue generation, I think it's a matter of closing loopholes and special arrangements that don't apply to everyone, but those are the big ones. I know the cigarette tax is a ballot initiative that voters will have a chance to evaluate, coming up in a week and a half. If voters do decide to vote for the cigarette tax increase, that would be another source of revenue for education in the state but that's up to the state of Missouri.
Missouri has the potential for renewable energy sources, like wind energy. What is your opinion on using that kind of energy?
Wind energy, solar, these are a part of our energy future. It's not a matter of if but when. We have some special opportunities in our state to take advantage of these renewable energy opportunities because we have certain areas in our state that are particularly suited for wind and solar. On the other hand, we are still relatively early on in the life cycle of these newer technologies and we need to make investments that are economically sensible so I think as time goes on we are going to continue to see several different sources of energy. I think wind and solar will grow but I don't think that we will overnight, quickly change from our existing reliance on traditional energy sources. I think that alliance will be supplemented by these newer opportunities over time as costs come down, they become more economically viable.
South Callaway has the potential for nuclear energy. What is your opinion on using nuclear energy?
I think it's a very exciting opportunity for mid-Missouri. Nuclear energy has pros and cons. One of the good things about nuclear energy is that it's cheap and produces no carbon emissions into the atmosphere. One of the negatives of nuclear energy is it produces nuclear bi-products that have a very long life and have to be stored for a long period of time and those are things we have known about for a long time. But here in Mid-Missouri over the near term, nuclear gives us an opportunity to create a lot of jobs in the development of new facilities and also develop a local energy source with relatively low cost that produces no carbon omissions so I think that's an exciting opportunity.
Last session, I-70 was proposed to be a toll road. Is that something you would support, or no?
I don't favor turning I-70 into a toll road and this is why. I-70 has a significant amount of deferred maintenance and so we need to take steps to make the repairs and the upgrades to I70 that we've been putting off for a long time. The problem with the toll road is several fold. Number one it costs much more to build out the toll infrastructure so you have to build toll booths, ramps and other things so the total cost of the project is increased through the toll structure. The other thing is that toll booths can create incremental traffic, back log, and jams and so I think there are better ways to fund the repairs for I-70. I've been on the record numerous times suggesting that I think we should do a bond issue to fund the repairs and maintenance on I-70. Now is a good time with interest rates being a historic low, with a AAA credit rating and while we are still below full employment, now is a good time to make those kinds of investments in our state's infrastructure.
Is there any changes that you would like to make to Missouri health care laws?
Well changes are coming as a result primarily of the changes at a federal level. One thing I think is very important is that there has been substantial national debate over federal health care legislation from 2010 and it's a very big, very controversial piece of legislation. What I think is most important at this stage is that current or prospective state legislators do everything we can to bring as many resources as we can into our mid-Missouri community so there are some decisions that the state legislature will be facing as the ACA is implemented over the next couple of years in which we can either choose to bring incremental dollars and resources from the federal government into our community and into our hospitals or we can turn those dollars down in protest of the federal legislation. I think it's important, given where we are, to bring those dollars into the community because I think that's what is right for mid-Missouri.
This past summer we experienced some pretty harsh drought. Is there anything you would do to help agriculture production?
Weather patterns have been part of farming since farming began 10,000 years ago. I have a long history in my family of farming in Missouri. My family first moved here in the 1830s and we had a family farm in our family from the 1830s until about 25 years ago. Hopefully we won't see a lot more years like this past year. I don't think the fact that we had a difficult year this past year means that we need to take incremental steps or change our current agricultural policy.
At a public debate that I watched on-line, you said that you wanted to limit campaign contributions. How much would you want to limit them by?
I think we should go back to the regime that we had prior to 2008. A couple of things have changed in campaign finance over the last five years. One of the biggest things that changed is that we as a state lifted our campaign contribution limits in 2008 so we are now one of only, I think, four states in the country that have no campaign contribution limits for state races. When I was an intern in the state treasurer's office in the mid-90s, when I was an intern in the governor's office in the early 2000s, I remember that contribution limits were I think, 325 dollars or thereabouts for a state house race they were a little over 1000 dollars for a state wide race and I think that was a sensible system and I would favor going back to a system like that.
Did you do anything to limit the contributions that you received?
No, we have to play with the ground rules that are given to us. One of the problems with having lifted campaign contribution limits is that it puts an immense amount of pressure on campaigns to raise money. So I think if we went back to a regime of sensible contribution limits, it would create for better campaigns and a better political process.
Did you give money to Nancy Copenhaver to drop out of the primary election?
No, absolutely not.
Ok, can you explain that?
I don't know a lot more than what others have read in the news so I would just refer back to my comments that I've made in the press previously and I would just say you see a lot of crazy things in politics and news stories and I don't know how to count for all of them but it's entertaining.
So do you have any idea of how that surfaced? Where that came from?
I think you have to ask the folks involved but what I would say as a first time candidate in local politics. You know, I grew up in Columbia but this is my first time as a local, political candidate and I've noticed, I think, I don't know if it's because of my academic background or because I work hard or my business background but I've noticed that sometimes folks imagine that I will either be a big source of potential help or they will see a big bullseye and I don't know which one is worse but there are a lot of rumors that float around and myself, my campaign team, we've found it to be pretty good entertainment, just like a lot of other folks in mid-Missouri.
Do you have any other feelings about those allegations?
I just think it's politics and it's silly but I really trust in the press and the political process to get to the right answer.
Is there anything legislation that is important to you that I have not asked you about?
There is, as a matter of fact. I think we have big opportunities in early childhood education. This is an area that I am particularly passionate about. We now know based on research from the last 20 years that we can predict children's high school graduation rates to a fairly high degree of accuracy based on their reading levels in kindergarten and first grade because it turns out once kids fall very far behind in the basic skills, it can be very difficult for them to catch up and so other states have found through study that every dollar they spend in high quality early childhood education saves them as much as 7 dollars over the long term in the form of lower special education costs, fewer skipped grades, higher high school graduation rates and lower social costs overall. I think this a big opportunity for the state of Missouri and one of the first things I plan to do as a legislator is to introduce legislation to increase access to high quality education in our state.