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Capitol Perspectives: The Dimming Light of Missouri’s Consumer Movement

Phill Brooks
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Mo Capitol
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I’ve been pondering these days whatever happened to Missouri’s consumer protection movement.

Once a vibrant force in Missouri government and politics just a few decades ago, it has become a faint shadow, a phantasm of a once very public cause for leaders from both political parties.

What’s triggered my memories has been the response to reports of a hacker getting credit card information about potentially millions of customers of the Missouri-based grocery chain, Schnucks.

The delay in informing the public that so many persons face potential fraudulent credit card bills and need to replace their cards would have sparked a very loud public response from Missouri government officials a few decades ago.

Now, however, there has been almost complete silence.

Attorney General Chris Koster’s office is responsible for enforcing the state law that requires companies to promptly inform consumers when there has been a breach of personal information held by the company.

But Koster refused to talk with my reporter about complaints of Schnuck’s response, instead issuing a short written statement.

That is a dramatically different style from a prior attorney general who helped bring the consumer movement to Missouri — Jack Danforth.

Danforth’s consumer protection director, Harvey Tettlebaum, was outright audacious in his efforts to get public attention to consumer issues.

One year when truckers threatened to block I-70 with stalled tractor-trailer rigs to protest diesel prices, Danforth and Tettlebaum drove to the nearest Interstate truck stop to personally deliver court orders against the blockade and keep the highways open for motorists.

Following Danforth for his 30-mile drive to the truck stop was a near caravan of reporters he invited along.

A few years earlier, the attorney general’s office had been given broad powers to enforce consumer rights. Later, in 1974, the Department of Consumer Affairs, Regulation and Licensing was created.

The department’s first director, Al Sikes, was, like Tettlebaum, a young and aggressive attorney who eagerly sought media attention to advance consumer issues.

Sikes’ boss, Gov. Kit Bond, made consumer protection issues a major part of his legislative agenda including home mortgage protections, giving consumers a short period to cancel purchase contracts and tougher regulation of health insurance.

The person recognized as the founder of Missouri’s consumer movement came from outside government. Alberta Slavin’s consumer activism began when she organized a group of fellow St. Louis area housewives to protest and track rising grocery prices.

Next, Slavin took on utility companies, founding in 1970 a statewide group named the Utility Consumers Council of Missouri.

Slavin was prompted when the local phone company cut off her service because she had attached a separately purchased phone. Back then, phone companies argued that outside equipment could interfere with the telephone network and damage their equipment.

As the leader of UCCM, Slavin became the go-to source for reporters throughout the state covering consumer stories.

Later, Slavin was named to the state’s utility-regulating commission by Gov. Joe Teasdale. He had made consumer protection in utility regulation a key issue in his campaign for governor.

A few decades later, it is a far different environment for consumer issues in the state.

Today, Missouri has no department with a name containing the word “consumer.” The House Consumer Protection Committee is long gone. The press corps’ go-to source for consumer issues, Alberta Slavin, passed in 2008.

Shortly before her death, Slavin joined an effort to resurrect her old consumer organization. But that group does not enjoy the statewide attention that Slavin was able to bring to her original group.

I do not want to leave the impression that consumer issues are being ignored by government. The activities of the old Consumer Affairs Department continue in other agencies. Settlements in consumer cases regularly are announced by the attorney general’s office.

But the decline in the visibility of consumer issues coupled with the reluctance of government leaders to take public advocacy roles is profound.

I’m not sure I understand the reasons for this dimming light of the consumer movement. Maybe it’s that our current government leaders lack the dynamic boldness — the audacity — of Danforth, Tettlebaum, Bond, Sikes and Teasdale. They actively had sought, rather than avoided, media attention for their personal efforts with consumer issues.

Or, maybe Missourians today are more concerned about jobs and the economy than in consumer protection.

That certainly would seem the case in today’s Missouri legislature. There, the focus has switched from protecting consumers to helping business, to economic development through tax breaks for business and to providing businesses with lawsuit protections.

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