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If you attend meetings with the region’s business and civic leaders, you’ll start to hear some consensus about what the metro area needs to strengthen its economy:
- A more technically skilled workforce with STEM-related bachelor’s (or better) degrees
- Universities that produce research that the region’s entrepreneurs can commercialize
- More early-stage funding for high-potential startups
- More people, and given population trends, those people are likely to be immigrants
Basic, Sensible Ideas
Those might sound like planks from the Bernie Sanders platform, but the people I’ve heard make those points are definitely not Bernie Bros. They are at a minimum “small-c” conservatives who are reluctant to look to any government for help—if they aren’t outright hostile to the idea. However, the recognition that the St. Louis region needs a better-educated workforce, more financial resources for startups, a well-funded university system, and (gasp!) more immigration seems to cut across party lines, at least in the civically engaged business community.
But even with widespread agreement, the message apparently hasn’t made its way to Jefferson City.
To its credit, the state legislature did agree to fully restore the $68 million in cuts to higher education proposed by Governor Eric Greitens, but restoring proposed cuts and creating the fully funded university system the state and regions need are two very different things. After all, the legislature did not reverse last year’s $159 million in cuts that came when Greitens was far less politically vulnerable than he is now.
Cuts to higher education hurt the ability to conduct the type of research that drives high-wage, sustainable economic development. Over time, budget cuts have also made getting a college degree far more expensive. In 1999 (the year I would have been a college freshman) in-state tuition at UMSL was $4,796. Next year, when my daughter will be a freshman at UMSL (family planning is not a strength of mine), tuition will be $10,275. When adjusted for inflation that isn’t the same rate of increase experienced in other states, but the recent attack on funding for higher education does more than “just” make college more expensive: It undercuts all the work being done by a whole lot of people to brand St. Louis (and for that matter, Kansas City and the entire state) as a destination for entrepreneurs and startups.
Civic and business leaders are working hard to reinvent St. Louis as the Midwestern Silicon Valley, while the state government consistently undermines that effort with myopic and short-sighted public policy.
Myopia and short-sightedness are obviously not just limited to funding for higher education. The legislature has continually hacked away at funding for the Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC).
Having lived in several other states, I can tell you the mission of the MTC is innovative, rare, and a potential boon to taxpayers. Yet the state legislature just approved another cut in funding. That cut is, of course, detrimental to the startups and support organizations that receive MTC funding. It is also another decision from policymakers that undercuts the effort to position the region as a hi-tech startup hub.
The same dynamic plays itself out in the regional discussion on immigration. Immigrants, as research has repeatedly shown, are highly entrepreneurial, but the region’s need for immigration is about more than just startups and entrepreneurs. St. Louis recently fell out of the top 20 largest metropolitan areas by population.
At some level we just need people.
There seems to be a recognition among select local leaders that welcoming Jose and Maria to the region won’t completely destroy the ability of native-born Americans to enjoy Ted Drewes and afternoon Cardinals games, but that Jose and Maria can be like the entrepreneurs who’ve moved here for Arch Grants and the college graduates who choose to stay here and make their hometown better—an important building block of our collective economic future.
Of course, the dominate political ideology in Missouri, at the moment, is (to say the least) unfriendly to immigration.
Put bluntly, if you were an immigrant looking for a spot on the map to start a new life (and potentially) a new business, would you look toward this particular spot on the map? If you were curious enough to google “Missouri Immigration,” what would you find?
You wouldn’t find a link from Missouri’s policymakers making it clear that immigrants are welcome.
Instead, on the second link down (as of this writing) you would find a horribly written, horribly formatted blog post making it clear that immigrants are not welcome in this state.
(I won’t link it here, but you can google it on your own.)
The point is that there are a lot of people and organizations putting time, effort, and money into building a more competitive region.
Privately Both Sides Agree
As business leaders, civic leaders, and economic developers we need to understand that achieving our regional potential will require moving the conversations we have behind closed doors — where it seems to be okay to voice a need for well-funded state universities and an appreciation for immigrants — to the forefront of policymaking.
We can start by pressuring our legislators to stop catering to national political ideologies and start catering to the needs of the communities and state they serve.