The race to replace Missouri Sen. Rob Schaaf has come down to two millennials who knew each other while attending Mizzou.
One is Republican Tony Luetkemeyer, a soft-spoken attorney who’s seeking his first elective office and has deep political connections — he’s close to party leaders and his wife, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, was general counsel in the office of former Gov. Eric Greitens.
The other is Democrat Martin T. Rucker II, a former Kansas City Chiefs and Mizzou football player who co-founded a Democratic-leaning political club in the Northland and ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat in 2016.
The 34th district, which takes in parts of Platte and Buchanan counties, could be a place for Democrats to pick up a seat in the GOP-majority General Assembly, especially considering Schaaf was politically conservative but often at odds with Republican party leaders over so-called “dark money” groups — non-profit organizations who buy political advertising, often attack ads, without disclosing their donors.
The following is an edited excerpt of a Statehouse Blend Missouri conversation that touched on issues like campaign finance, education funding and transportation. Hear it all here.
What the district’s voters want
Luetkemeyer: They want better schools for their kids. They want safer communities. We've seen an increase in crime both in the northland and certainly in St. Joe. … I think the people just want a safe place to raise their kids, send them to good schools and make sure that they could get good jobs whenever they get out of school.
Rucker: We care about really good schools, access to quality, affordable health care. That's another thing: St. Joseph's been hit extremely hard by the opioid crisis and so expanding access to Medicaid so that we can bring in a prescription drug monitoring program. … I feel most people feel safe in the Northland; that's not a big issue whenever you're at the doors. But there's a lot of industry up there and we want to make sure that these are good-paying jobs.
Rucker: We've been underfunding K-12 education in this state for a long time. We underpay our teachers. We've been doing that for a long time, as well. We have this foundation formula that we use to fund the schools, and we never fully funded that formula since its inception until two years ago. And they just came up with an arbitrary number and said “this is how much money now that it takes to fully fund schools.” …
We have over 20 school districts in the state of Missouri that go to school four days a week because they can't afford to go to school five days a week. Education brings jobs. Education brings innovation. Education brings opportunity.
Luetkemeyer: I agree we should be funding education. I'm a product of public education. … I do think that always throwing more money at a problem is not always the solution though. I think it's a great thing that the legislature is fully funded the foundation formula, but you know, we have a lot of systemic problems with some of the schools. … I think that we should be demanding accountability from our schools. … I think that taxpayers, regardless of whether you're talking about schools or you're talking about any other institution of government, should be showing that they're good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Would you support raising taxes for schools?
Luetkemeyer: I do not, with the current funding structure, support raising taxes to fund schools.
Rucker: I do support raising taxes, but here in Missouri we have the amendment where we cannot raise taxes without going to a vote of the people … I would support putting it on the ballot and letting the people in Missouri decide.
Rucker: I think that we've cut taxes and cut taxes and cut taxes before we understood what the implications from the previous tax cut were. I think we need to let the dust settle a little bit, figure out where we are, figure out the needs that we have in the gaps in our current revenue streams and in the current budget for things like K-12, for our infrastructure, for our roads and bridges.
Luetkemeyer: So I think that tax relief is something that's really important to get the economy going. We've seen the effects of the federal tax increases where people got pay raises. The economy is moving along, certainly compared to the last eight years of stagnation that we had had during the prior administration. We made some modest gains with the legislature this year with the tax package that they passed. I think we have to be responsible about it if we're going to pass tax reform, which I do think is important. I do think it's a way to create jobs in the state.
Gas tax referendum
Luetkemeyer: Infrastructure funding is a critically important issue to the state … as an economic development issue. I don't know that the gas tax is the right way to go about it. The reality is, I think, the gas tax is a bit outdated and outmoded. Cars are getting more fuel-efficient. Electric vehicles are not a thing of the future, they are a thing of now. … So I think we need to be looking at other ways to fund infrastructure. I think part of that is making tough budgetary decisions … I think part of it is looking for public-private partnerships as a possibility too.
Rucker: The facts are, we have the seventh-most roads and bridges in the United States under state control and maintenance, but we fund it 49th (Editor’s note: federal highway statistics say 46th), and with this increase it'll still only put us in the middle of the pack. This is something that should have been raised long ago, and if we can pass this in November, it'll still only put us in the middle of the pack … economic development, transportation and infrastructure is how you get your goods and your services, your clients to and fro. It's what brings in new companies.
Brian Ellison is a host/contributor at KCUR, and host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri. Follow him on Twitter @ptsbrian.