Statehouse Reporter Reflects on the Legacy of Former Congressman Mel Hancock
Shelton: Phill, on this program, we often talk about how historical events continue to shape what we see happening in state government and Missouri politics. Talk to us about what Mel Hancock did, even before he was elected to Congress, that still impacts public policy and what lawmakers can and cannot do.
Brooks: Mel Hancock left a legacy with this state that was tremendous. I think it’s difficult to exaggerate, and it wasn’t just because he was what I think of as one of the Tea Party people, but it was this amendment to Missouri’s constitution called the Hancock Lid. He led the campaign to get that thing passed, was the chief spokesman for it, and it has had a fundamental affect on state government…actually, not the revenue lid, for which he gets the credit, that led to tax refunds, income tax refunds because in actual fact, the state’s tax structure and the economy have reached a point that that lid is now meaningless. Within our lifetime, it’s unlikely the state will ever come close to that lid. What he did change was the fundamental relationship between state government and local government because as part of that lid, he put in a prohibition on the state forcing any new program, any new requirement, any expansion of a requirement, on local government without the state paying for it. His fear was that the state would just offload some of the added expenses they wanted to have. With the Hancock Lid, they’d just put it onto local governments. So, Mel Hancock included in the provision that you can’t force local government to do stuff without picking up the tab. That gave a level of independence to local government. It constrained state government in ways I don’t think the framers of our state constitution ever imagined, and this state lives with it to this day.
Shelton: I never had the chance to cover Mel Hancock. You did, of course. I’m wondering, from your experience, was he a true believer in what he was trying to accomplish with this amendment or was it about politics?
Brooks: Oh, absolutely not the latter. I grew fond of Mel Hancock, and we had some heated interviews at times because he’d say things about what his amendment would do that just wasn’t the case, but he always took it in stride. This was somebody who was blunt, candid, always accessible, dramatic in his statements. He was in some ways, the personification of the Tea Party person. Mel Hancock really, really did have a fire in his belly about holding down the growth of state government, and particularly the budget of state government. There’s something else about the legacy of Mel Hancock that I think a lot of people have forgotten. After Mel Hancock’s amendment gets adopted into the state constitution, that creates a fear in politicians in this state. Everyone wanted to rush to hold down taxes, provide tax cuts. Mel Carnahan, the democrat who became governor, pushed through a package of tax cuts at a time when the state was rolling in money, and there was a significant growth in the state’s budget. The consequence of that was that it cut the tax base for the state of Missouri below which the state can sustain its legal obligations on a long term basis. That’s not just me saying it. It’s the former state budget director under John Ashcroft, a Republican governor, in what’s called the Moody Report was warning the state had gone too far in cutting its tax base. And we see that to this day. To this day, the state school funding formula is not legal because the legislature can’t come up with the money to meet the minimum amount that’s required to fund that formula. That was not Mel Hancock’s amendment, but the reaction to it. He was a powerful figure in this state that got a lot of attention, and as a reporter, he was just a fun guy for me to interview. I truly grew fond of him. There was a degree of candor with him that we don’t see in many politicians.