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Chrestman: Symbolic vote to fund abortion travel ignores St. Louis' pressing needs

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St. Louis police respond to a shooting in Dutchtown

St. Louis police officers investigate a shooting in the 4700 block of Virginia Avenue in the Dutchtown area of St. Louis, on June 15. 

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen on July 15 voted to establish a new fund that would help women in the St. Louis area travel to neighboring states to obtain abortions. The new Reproductive Equity Fund was funneled into a vote distributing money from the American Rescue Plan.

The federal funds from the American Rescue Plan were provided to St. Louis as a way to help the city bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of focusing on that goal, aldermen elected to make a political statement that I feel certain will ultimately be struck down as illegal, thus delaying funding for many other needed resources.

St. Louis was provided nearly $500 million as part of the American Rescue Plan. The controversial Reproductive Equity Fund was appropriated $1 million dollars from that pool. Skirting the debate on the question of abortion itself, aldermen are attempting to circumvent the law in Missouri, which states that the government cannot use public funds to perform or assist abortions. The aldermanic vote is just wrong.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has already signaled the intention to sue the city for the passage of this bill. This lawsuit will undoubtedly leave the rest of the money appropriated from this bill for other causes tied up in court as well.

The argument made by the sponsor of the bill, Alderman Annie Rice, also appears rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the law. Rice contends that the Missouri law that prohibits the funding of abortions only applies to money from the state government and therefore cannot be used to prohibit this money given to St. Louis by the federal government. However, there is also a federal law against using certain federal taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. It is called the Hyde Amendment and has been the law of the United States since 1976.

Citizens of St. Louis have many pressing concerns that must be addressed. Concerns over the abortion debate are real, but focusing on areas where there is little controversy and no disagreement would be a better use of time and money.

For example, in 2020, St. Louis had the highest murder rate it had seen in the last 50 years. There has been a national uptick in crime the last two years, and the city police force is not equipped to handle it. The police department is currently 150 officers short of full staffing. Officers leave the city police force for higher paying jobs in the county and other neighboring departments. The feeling among the public is that crime is nowhere close to being controlled. Meanwhile, instead of trying to rectify this situation, in the St. Louis budget for 2023, all city employees get a 3% raise, while the budget for the police is being cut by $7 million.

In April, only half of the city’s paramedic positions were filled. The Emergency Medical Services vehicle fleet is also outdated and in desperate need of replacement. Between the staffing issues and vehicle maintenance, it is normal for only 10 out of the 12 ambulances in the city to be running calls on any given day. In a 12-hour shift, the average paramedic in the city can expect to run 12 to 15 calls.

Despite these efforts, a report commissioned by the city has recommended that to safely meet the needs of the population, the city should operate 18 ambulances every day. Calling 911 for an emergency should be met with an operator on the other end of the line immediately, and an ambulance heading towards the caller in a timely manner. As it stands now, that phone will ring for too long and that ambulance might not arrive for up to 40 minutes.

The Board of Aldermen could choose to tackle any of these problems if they wished. The money is available, and cities have been given extensive leeway on how to allocate it. Focusing on divisive issues, such as abortion access, which will only result in litigation and public ire, is a mistake.

Keeping the public safe by funding our first responders, working on the trash collection problem, combating homelessness, fixing the roads, fighting the opioid crisis, are examples of several very essential issues that every citizen of this city would agree on improving. It is time for aldermen to stop with the political theater and work on the priorities that the residents of St. Louis need addressed.

Tyler C. Chrestman is host of The Chrestman Conversation podcast and blog.

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