Last week sat down for the first in our Exit Interview series with term limited legislators leaving state government. We expected our conversation with State Senator Jason Crowell to be candid, but he answered every question even more straight forward than even we expected. He was candid on nearly every subject from his relationships with others in the republican party to his biggest public policy mistake.
After reviewing the interview we decided no bring you his remarks basicly unedited in conversation form. In fact some of his more noteworthy comments were off the topic of the question, but frankly too good to leave out. When we were through we broke the interview into three parts.
Enjoy the first of three parts of our conversation with term limited state senator Jason Crowell.
SEMO TIMES: Senator Crowell thank you for joining us. Let’s start on a positive note what was the best thing that happened during the previous session?
Senator Crowell: It ended. It never ceases to amaze me the vision of the founding fathers, if you will, of our state constitution when they set a concrete constitutional deadline for adjournment of the General Assembly. You know I say it half-jokingly, but Mark Twain had something when he said, ‘Every man, woman, and child is safe- the General Assembly has adjourned.
SEMO TIMES: What’s the worst thing that happened last session?
Senator Crowell: It seems to me to be a continual trend whether republicans are in charge or democrats are in charge, maybe it’s better to say it this way, ‘what do you think the number one priority of any politician is?’ It’s not job creation, it’s not conservative values, it’s not liberal values- it’s getting re-elected. And as hard as I worked to make republicans the majority party, it didn’t take any time at all for us to make that our number one priority as well. With term limits it’s gotten even more complicated. 163 state reps think they are a state senator, and 34 state senators think they are a governor, or a lt. governor. Every governor thinks they’re a presidential or vice presidential contender, and what’s the inherent problem with that? Every one of them is focused on what they need to do to get to the next office, and then they will do what is the right thing once they get there. Instead of thinking we’re here for two or four years, let’s go do the right thing. It’s not one thing, but it’s the disappointment of seeing what imperfect politicians believe will help them get elected that deviates from any principal or guiding philosophy that they say they have when they put a little republican, or for that matter, a little democrat after their name.
SEMO TIMES: While what you describe is obviously true in many instances, some point to the fact Missouri is in better financial shape than many other states. Some also point to decisions, such as the Medicaid cuts of the last decade, as an example of politicians making tough decisions to impact the long run.
Senator Crowell: I agree to an extent, but I believe, and I have said this from the moment I got elected, that Governor Carnahan with President Clinton in the White House made strategic decisions that he knew, and the people voting to implement them knew, were unsustainable. It got to the point of how to measure compassion. The democrats, at the time, wanted to measure compassion, not by the quality or access to healthcare, but whether you could put them on a government roll. It didn’t matter that anyone in southeast Missouri with a Medicaid card couldn’t see a doctor and had to go to the ER anyway. When Matt Blunt was elected and Republicans controlled the General Assembly, we were really able to reign in a lot of spending that was unsustainable.
Some of us had the philosophy that ‘I am here to represent taxpayers’. Not very many people want to step up for those paying for government- they want to stand up for those living off the largess. I’ll give credit to Governor Blunt, because he hired the individual, but it was a southeast Missouri native Mike Keathley that did the lion’s share of it as OA commissioner. Mike Keathley was one of the unique individuals who rolled into state government with the influence and the bandwidth capacity that helped put Missouri on the right track. It’s no accident that while campaigning, Jay Nixon criticized what Blunt did. Since elected, Nixon hasn’t undone any of it.
SEMO TIMES: Campaign finance reform was done on your watch, and since the influence it has seems to have been consolidated amongst fewer and fewer. Has it been a good thing for the state?
Senator Crowell: It has not. It is almost impossible to get a politician to say ‘I missed one, I got it wrong’. Based on the information available at the time, I thought getting rid of limits in favor of transparency was a good thing, but it hasn’t been. Under citizens united, politicians can’t get their hands on the money, but the money is going to come in.
SEMO TIMES: How do you limit the not-for-profit groups who inhibit the transparency?
Senator Crowell: I think if you play in those circles, if you set up God’s on our side not-for-profit to avoid transparency, there needs to be increased levels of scrutiny to hold people accountable for their expenditures.
SEMO TIMES: What statute could you actually enact to accomplish that?
Senator Crowell:I think that if someone establishes a non-profit, and it is tax exempt and enjoys those benefits, then I think it
abundantly fair to say that if you are going to spend on influencing the political process, then where are you getting the revenue to do this? Is it coming from a legitimate business, or is it a shell game from some individual who wants keep his activity secret? Be a man and stand up. If you want to give $100,000 to call a candidate the most-vile person in the world, be a man and stand behind it. That is what I admire about Rex Sinquefield- he is transparent as all get out. People may not like him but he stands behind what he does, and a lot of people don’t have the courage to do that.
More to the point, I don’t have all the answers here, but through the legislative process we could do more to bring about transparency. In the end, I do not think removing the limits has been good. I think we should model the federal level, and not allow candidates to take contributions directly from corporations.
An interesting dynamic will occur when the politicians no longer control that money in their campaign account. When I tried to help the general assembly turn republican, we drove our own cars and stayed on couches, we traveled cheap, cheap, cheap. The whole philosophy was ‘anyone can win a state rep seat with $100,000, but can you win five seats with $100,000 so you have to spend time on the ground to use those resources wisely?
Two things have happened with the politicians being able to keep donations without limits:
1. Politicians have stopped talking to their constituents. When I was a state rep, when I got a $100 check or a $300 check, it was a fist-pump moment. You would immediately write a thank-you note or call and thank that voter. I don’t even know if candidates still do that. I’ve seen freshmen state reps ask for $15,000 checks…..that’s crazy. I think candidates chase these mega-donors and forget about support from their constituents.
2. I think politicians have used their campaign accounts to become accustomed to a lifestyle that they have no business being accustomed to, all paid for by their campaign accounts.”
SEMO TIMES: A lot of the same people who admire you also admire Steve Tilley. The urban papers seem especially interested in conflict between the two of you. What is your personal relationship with Steve Tilley?
Senator Crowell: We were never really friends outside of politics. Our disagreements over policy primarily began over the redistricting of the 8th district. To me, we have nothing in common in southeast Missouri with Jefferson County, and much more in common with other southern Missouri counties.
SEMO TIMES: Explain how that would affect the representation of the 8th district?
Senator Crowell: Jefferson County is full of hard core pro-union democrats, and Jo Ann Emerson, who is a pro-union republican, said ‘sure I’ll take em’. We shouldn’t redistrict over what a member of congress wants, but over the best interests of the district. This is something Ryan McKenna and I agreed on- that Jefferson County didn’t need to be cut up into three counties. I opposed it and was successful in preventing what other republicans wanted to do, which was make the population center of the 8th congressional district Jefferson County, and it today remains in southeast Missouri. That is where my perception of Steve changed. It then started on many other issues. The special session was a very bruising session. We have never seen eye-to-eye on tax credits, particularly on the China Hub. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with him on low income housing tax credits, or with Jeff Smith, the former senator who is now a lobbyist, for low income housing. When that changed, he changed, it all changed.
There has been an awakening for me about political parties. I used to think ‘rah-rah’ the Republican party has the right philosophy and the right ideas. I have come to find out there are just as many, if not more, Republicans who are worse than the Democrats. I never cared about getting re-elected; that was not my priority. I represented southeast Missouri. We didn’t want to build baseball or football stadiums for billionaire sports owners. No one in southeast Missouri owes their existence to tax credits or redistribution of wealth programs. What was really odd, was when I was waging this war, many of the local dentists realized the tax credit system wasn’t right and the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. It wasn’t until Russ Oliver, the prosecutor in Stoddard County, began to prosecute this guy over the Watch Me Smile scheme that made people start to wake up and take notice. The dentists who had sponsored the tee ball teams, sponsored the soccer teams, and been good corporate citizens were watching the state government use the taxes they had paid to put them out of business. That is when many people in Cape Girardeau began to realize that hey maybe Crowell isn’t crazy after all. It was the government picking winners and losers, and those people who support these tax credits are wrong.
SEMO TIMES: Now that you have both left elective office, do you see a time where you guys sit down over a cup of coffee and rekindle a friendship?
Senator Crowell: No I don’t. Steve is entering a different circle from what I am getting into in my life.
SEMO TIMES: What is the circle Jason Crowell runs in?
Senator Crowell: My friends from high school. I made one friend in politics and that was Rod Jetton, and he has been through a lot, but that was a unique thing for me. I went into Jeff City and didn’t expect to make any friends. All of my friends now knew me before I was a state senator or majority floor leader. You have got to be out of your mind if you believe that when you have votes over billions of dollars, that the lobbyist and special interests that come to you are your friends. They’re not, and you better understand that as soon as that title is away from your name, then your calls don’t get returned and your jokes aren’t funny.
SEMO TIMES: I remember when there was a feeling that only one of you could be in leadership because you were both from southeast Missouri.
Senator Crowell:Yeah, and a lot has been written about it, and a lot can be criticized about what I’ve done and what he’s done. But
at the time we both ran for state rep., we both had skills and assets. I think both of us, after a very cautious foray into it, came to the conclusion that together we complimented each other and it was a better asset to the overall team than what can I personally get out of it for me. I’m not going to lie, I would have loved to be Speaker of the House. But what I believed is what the caucus needed was not Jason Crowell, but Rod Jetton. Now Rod has admitted his own shortcomings, and despite what many successors may have been reluctant to admit, much of what Rod instilled as speaker has enabled and carried on individuals to be successful- such as Ron Richard or Steve Tilley. Now, for the first time, we are beginning to get out of the Jetton-era.
SEMO TIMES: You have had a more combative nature; with that in mind do you feel that you have set in place successors to carry on what some would call a “Crowell-era” in the senate?
Senator Crowell: I am a glass half empty guy. I have a very hard time saying we were very successful in a certain endeavor. However, look at three major moves:
1. Medicaid reform. It was an idea that was spawned in my office with a lady named Jodi Stefanik, and Matt Blunt was against it. Peter Kinder was against it, and every Republican Senator hated it, but looking at the budget I looked at it and said it was unsustainable. The focus was putting able-bodied adults at 300% of the poverty level to pay their own way. Did it get done in one year? No. Two years? No. But, does Jay Nixon say thank you today publically? No, but he should. And the proof is that he hasn’t said a word on the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Many of the great society programs LBJ started to implement were unsustainable partnerships foisted on the state.
2. Tax Credits. I’ll admit at first I was not as smart. I didn’t realize that tax credits were outside of the budget. There is the mythical other section of the budget labeled entitlements. It’s done sneakily because the people who benefit know that if they had to go get 18 votes in the senate, and 82 votes in the house, they would never get it. So they set it in state statute that they get it right off the top with no accountability and no transparency, and it’s now up to $700 million a year. There is no way to control it without making it go through the appropriations process. I believe its campaign contributions that keep it from happening.
SEMO TIMES: Who was an early supporter of your fight against tax credits?
Senator Crowell: Early on it was Matt Bartle, then Chuck Purgason then the others started to fall in the Jim Lembkes and Jane Cunninghams came on board, after that Will Kraus after that then Eric Schmidt and John Lamping finally said something had to be done.
SEMO TIMES: You mentioned a third.
Senator Crowell: Third was pension reform. For whatever reason when I was first elected to the Senate, they put me in charge of pensions. I had a chip on my shoulder that I was never going to get any social security, and I saw all of the nefarious deals that legislators had put into the pension system to line their wallets. We all remember because one of our dear friends, Bill Foster, took advantage of the state system. He served in the House and Senate, then served a couple days on the Labor Relations Board, then retired converting all that time of service to the higher number giving his pension a huge increase. Kenny Legan is another Republican that did it, as well as Ken Jacob and David Klarich- you could trace all of these individuals back not to an evidentiary standard, but enough for me to conclude that some votes were cast and some jobs were given. It had an incredible financial benefit to the individual politician. When I had guys like Delbert Scott, John Greisheimer and Jon Dolan who had been there and seen how all of the previous colleges had got these benefits, it was no small order to move these reforms forward. I decided it was better to be a hard liner to get things accomplished than to be buddy buddy with everyone. So that’s where it was really cemented into my mind, the only way to get to the votes I need to reform was to shame them.
SEMO TIMES: Was it effective?
Senator Crowell: You’re darn right it was.
SEMO TIMES: Whenever Jon Dolan’s name is mentioned anyone from Poplar Bluff has to stand up and speak up for him for helping save our highway bill.
Senator Crowell: You’re right, and Dolan wasn’t really a problem at all. It was really more senior republicans and democrats. The argument was with term limits, you can’t close those avenues and doors. It was all ‘what’s in it for me’. Many politicians can self-rationalize deviations from the principals they say they have to get your vote, because it will help them move up the ladder. But we succeeded in passing the legislation and it is projected to save Missouri over $600 million over the next 10 years.
SEMO TIMES: Do you feel you have brought along others to follow you so that when you’re gone there are others who will fill your void of speaking truth to power, such as in the Ameren UE debate?
Senator Crowell: Truthfully, no. In the Ameren UE debate, basically what they wanted to do was raise taxes on a small part of southeast Missouri and spend that money elsewhere. 80% of the senators’ constituents wouldn’t have been affected. I didn’t give a rip about what Ameren said. I knew they were never going to build a new power plant, they were just scared of cap and trade. But after Joe Manchin, a democrat, took a rifle and shot a hole through the center of cap and trade, everyone knew Ameren had spent tens of millions of dollars on a stupid mistake and they just didn’t want to go to their board of directors and say we made a stupid call.
SEMO TIMES: Our Ameren story was special to the SEMO TIMES because it was the first piece we did that was good enough to make johncombest.com.
Senator Crowell: Right, and it was a good one.
Check back to www.semotimes.com for part two Monday night at 6:00 p.m. and part three Tuesday at 6:00 p.m.