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Elizabeth Billingsley's Blog in 2009
Elizabeth's Blog

Thursday, May 7, 2009

This is my last reporting shift of the semester here in Jeff City.  It's been a very informative, valuable, and enjoyable experience.  I really enjoyed having the energy beat this semester and following the efforts of AmerenUE to get the CWIP bill repealed (an effort which failed when they asked the legislators to cease their efforts).  The best days here are when you have stories to cover.  My least favorite days were ones like Tuesday (and last week), when you are assigned the aimless mission of watching House debate for something "interesting" to happen.  I watched the floor debates for over four hours in the afternoon, and it was largely consent bills and technical drafting -- nothing "interesting" or newsworthy.  Phill says this is why broadcasters don't do "spec stories," meaning attempts to cover something where it is speculative whether there even is anything to cover.  Having sat waiting for something to happen, I can certainly appreciate that.  I don't mind sitting and waiting, but it is frustrating when it is unavailing. 

Today, I'm trying to find out when Missourians can expect to receive their tax refunds.  Last month the state announced that there would be delays, but now the question is how long will those delays be?  I'm running into the problem right now where my sources are out of the office today, but I've left messages.  It leaves me to wonder how long news organizations try to reach a person before it airs some statement saying that attempts to reach so-and-so were unavailing?  

I'm also trying to follow up on the AmerenUE story and find out WHY they gave up on the legislation.  Did the discovery of more natural gas in Louisiana have anything to do with it?  After speaking with AmerenUE's spokeman, Mike Cleary, the answer is no.  And, no, AmerenUE has not made any decisions regarding the license application that is pending with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for another nuclear power plant. 

 

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Today I suffer from reporter's envy.  When I arrived, Phill told me that there was nothing going on.  So, I went to the Senate to see what was going on, but there were already two MDN reporters covering the Senate.  There were also two MDN reporters covering the House.  So, I tried to salvage a story from a session that Valerie Insinna had attended and recorded audio of it, but after listening to the audio for about an hour and a half, I don't think there's much "newsworthy" about it.  During the session, a controversial amendment was added to a bill that concerns the regulatory powers of the Department of Insurance and related accounting rules.  Various legislators expressed concern that the amendment regarding therapeutic alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs would kill the Department of Insurance bill by sending it to fiscal review.  That's all speculation, though, at this point.  It seems that Phill was right -- there really wasn't much going on for me to cover today.  Everyone else seems to have gotten a story out of the day.  But, I've been able to help Valerie with a radio story she's working on, so that makes the day worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today I covered the House session in the afternoon, but the House adjourned without voting on the bill being discussed (HB 296).  The House passed an amendment to the bill that would not require pharmacists to carry or distribute RU486 or Plan B.  Because the House did not vote on the bill itself, it leaves me without much of a story today.  There were school groups that came to visit the House during today's legislation, and it was fun to watch the representatives talk about abortion and reproduction in oblique terms.

There were more exciting developments in the MDN newsroom as Phill Brooks suggested that the broadcast students should re-launch a TV component of the State Capitol reporting program.  I'm on board!

And now to catch up on previous weeks of reporting: 

The April 7 filibuster on the Senate floor over the AmerenUE proposal for CWIP was quite interesting with accusations flying between Republican Senators of undue political influence.  That was the highlight, but there were hours of less interesting fodder on the Senate floor.  I'd not yet experienced a filibuster, and it is as  German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said, 01CThere are two things you don't want to see being made014sausage and legislation."

All the CWIP debate came to an end on April 23 when AmerenUE asked the Senate to cease efforts to pass the bill to allow construction work-in-progress (CWIP).  There are plenty of unanswered questions remaining, though.  The company has paid over $75 million to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but they have not said whether they are abandoning efforts to obtain the license.  It certainly wouldn't seem to be a prudent business decision to abandon the licensing efforts, so it leaves the question of what happens with the licensing efforts.  There was previous discussion about possibilities of selling the license, if obtained, to another entity.  Perhaps that is Ameren's plan. 

I also covered a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that prohibits sex offenders from having custody or unsupervised visitation with children.  The facts of the case were particularly egregious, and the Court made the right decision in my opinion. 

 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's Wednesday at 12:35 a.m. now, which is only remarkable insofar as I came in here at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.  The Senate debated the CWIP bill, but ultimately laid the bill over for another day with a deal to be worked out behind closed doors.  There were some remarkable moments, and a lot of unremarkable ones, during more than 10 hours of debate.  More on all of this later, but for now, I'm heading home. 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My biggest challenge in covering the Missouri Senate continues to be condensing complex topics to thirty-second radio stories.  On Tuesday, I covered the passage of the CWIP bill from the Senate Commerce Committee.  Of course, the previous sentence makes no sense unless you already know what I'm referring to, and I must presume that the radio audience does not.  I'm talking about the existing state law that prohibits energy providers from passing financing costs for a new nuclear power plant to consumers before the plant has been build.  CWIP or construction work-in-progress would allow costs to be transferred to customers while construction is underway.  Those last two sentences would make up 1/3 to 1/2 of a thirty-second story, which leaves little time for what happened in the committee and its implications for Missourians.  Hence, I sweet-talked my way into producing one feature story of 1 minute and 45 seconds and two 45-second short pieces.  Even still, such short time allocation leaves no time to analyze the issue, which frustrates me.

It's an important issue for Missouri  and its future energy needs, and the Senate Commerce Committee deserves credit for pushing the substitute bill, drafted by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, out of the Committee.  The Senate floor debate will likely be a vigorous and feature lots of lawyers and lobbyists weighing in from all sides -- with AmerenUE, the state's largest energy provider, in favor of the bill, and industrial consumers like Noranda Aluminum, consumer groups like the AARP, and anti-nuclear power folks in opposition. 

Today, I covered the House floor passage of a bill that would require Missouri school districts to adopt allergy prevention and response policies.  Representative Patricia Yeager voiced concern that the bill would cover all allergies, not just food-borne allergies, and I think her point is well-taken.  The bill as written, mandates that each school district "adopt a policy on allergy prevention and response, with priority given to addressing potentially deadly food-borne allergies."  As written, the bill does encompass all allergies, not only food-borne allergies, which is the stated intention of the bill's sponsor, Representative Joe Smith.  Witnessing the legislative process leaves me doubting the rules of statutory construction that the courts use when interpreting statutes.  Here, two legislators confirmed from the floor that the bill is limited to food-borne allergies, but the written bill is not that clear.  Instead, the bill dictates that the school districts simply give priority to developing policies for food-borne allergies, but does not limit policy development to only that category of allergies.  Another legislator voiced concern that a new policy would spawn lawsuits against the school districts, a valid concern that was seemingly shrugged off by the House as it voted in favor of the bill 106 to 41.

 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Today I will be covering a MO transportation commission meeting, and right now, I am waiting for the meeting to start.  As I am sitting here, though, I learned of an interesting trial going on down the street and it's a shame that someone (ahem, me) isn't covering it.  It's the trial of former state representative Scott Muschany who is accused of having "deviate sexual intercourse."  He pled not guilty.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that the victim was the 14-year old daughter of a state worker with whom the former representative had a relationship. 

Earlier this week, I covered the cases decided by the Missouri Supreme Court.  There were five cases whose decisions were posted electronically at 1 p.m. Of the five, I chose to report about a case of excessive police force by an officer who punched, dropped, spat upon and cursed at a handcuffed DWI suspect during the arrest in September 2004.  The police commissioners board had voted to terminate the officer, despite the hearing officer's recommendation that he had not used excessive force.  The Jackson County Circuit Court reversed the board's decision, reinstated the officer and order back pay.  On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the administrative decision was supported by sufficient evidence and had been appealed properly.  I spoke with the officer's attorney, but he was vague about what the decision meant for the officer personally.  I thought the story was newsworthy and would be of interest.  I was interested, then, to see that the local television stations opted to cover a different case where the court upheld a conviction for a sex offender's who failed to register within 10 days of moving.  I didn't think that the case would be of much public interest, but I suppose I was wrong.

 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Tuesday, Christine Slusser and I covered the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on a bill that would provide liability protection for entities involved in carbon dioxide sequestration, that is, pumping CO2 emissions from power plants underground instead of into the atmosphere.  The proposal would limit liability for personal injury and death at a $2 million dollar aggregate and $300,000 per individual. It would not shield the entities from property or environmental damage caused by the sequestration projects.  Senator Kurt Schaefer proposed the bill as a way to encourage research in this field.  The Missouri Trial Attorneys' Association opposed the measure because it didn't want to limit liability in the face the unknown risks and unknown casualties.  Christine Slusser covered the environmental aspects of this proposed measure, while I focused on the legal issues.  I would be interested to learn, as was Senatory Timothy Green, the full scope of environmental concerns that are raised by such a proposal.  Do we know what we would be doing to the Earth and the environment by pumping carbon dioxide thousands of feet underground? 

Today, I worked on a new feature story on the bill that would allow concealed weapons to be carried on college campuses in Missouri.  Although I attempted to reach several sources, I was unable to connect with any of them, but I do have background research for the future.  Then, I covered the House floor as it voted on several measures before adjourning for its spring break.  Following the adjournment, I covered the press conferences held by the House Republicans and House Democrats.

 

Friday, March 6, 2009

This week I ended up covering a Senate hearing on a plan to update and enhance wireless 911 technology in Missouri.   I was surprised to learn during Tuesday's Senate hearing that Missouri is the only state in the nation that has not funded technology that places 911 calls made from cell phones to the nearest cell phone tower or to use GPS to locate the caller.  It was also very surprising to hear that there are seven counties in Missouri without any 911 emergency call centers at all.  Given the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of cell phone use and coverage these days, it seems irresponsible and reckless for the legislature to have failed to provide for these services for Missourians and those traveling through Missouri. 

I also covered Rep. Schaaf's bill to adopt the American Society of Reproductive Medicine's guidelines that recommend certain limits for the number of embryos that should be implanted in a woman during fertility treatments.  This bill is in reaction to Nadya Suleman's giving birth to eight children after her fertility clinic implanted more than the two embryos recommended for a woman under 35.  There is a similar, though more strict, bill in the Georgia legislature as well. 

 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Last week, I finished my feature story on the public interest in the AmerenUE proposal to build a second nuclear power plant and the company's reluctance to commit to building the plant unless the legislature approves its plan to pass along financing costs to ratepayers.  I found writing and producing a three-minute feature piece with four soundbytes easier than creating the thirty-second day turns.  I enjoyed having the ability to incorporate multiple perspectives into one story with the back-and-forth banter between the sources themselves.  I think allowing the sources to tell their story for themselves is preferable than having the reporter relate it. 

Today, I will attend a Senate hearing on the AmerenUE issue.  Rumor is that the Senate might vote on it soon. Stay tuned! 

 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

During the past two weeks, I have covered hearings in the Senate and the House regarding bills that would allow AmerenUE to increase its customer's rates to pay financing costs during construction of a proposed second nuclear power plant in Callaway County.  I have also attended a public hearing held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where the public had the opportunity to provide input for the NRC's environmental impact statement, which will be issued in 2010.  All told, that's over ten hours of hearings distilled down to about three minutes of combined radio coverage.  The challenge for me is that I want to delve into the details and explain the arguments presented during debates so that the public can assess their merits.  But, that is too ambitious for approximately 30 seconds' worth of news stories. 

At the public hearings last night, I was asked by three gentlemen what seems to be the consensus out there.  For what it's worth, the debate does not seem to be focused on whether or not another power plant is needed or even whether another power plant should be nuclear, but who should pay for it and how.  Whether or not this is the proper focus of debate was raised by two advocates during the House hearings on Tuesday the 17th, but their concerns were shelved as the only relevant debate in front of the committee was House Bill 554 (regarding the reinstatement of "construction work in progress" or CWIP, which would allow the energy company to pass along financing costs to customers during construction of the plant; current law forbids rate increases until after the plant is completed and online). 

The most accessible issues of debate are whether it is better policy to allow the company to increase rates incrementally during construction (with the risk that the plant is never completed) or to postpone rate increases until after the plant is built, in which case the total amount passed along to the consumer will be greater because the interest accruing during construction will effectively be capitalized at that time.  With a $6B - $9B project at stake, those numbers could add up quickly!

But Sen. Kurt Schaefer and Rep. Jake Zimmerman have raised important concerns about the proposed changes to the review process conducted by the Public Service Commission.  The issues may not be very exciting to the average Missourian, but the proposed changes would have a significant, practical effect on utility rates in the future.  AmerenUE has signaled that it is open to compromise on some issues in the bill, and I suspect this may be one area where they will compromise.

One easily identified topic of consensus:  many Missourians appear excited at the prospect of the new job creation and growth that will accompany a new nuclear plant.   

 

 

Friday, February 5, 2009

Tuesday was my first day doing radio reporting.  I arrived at the state capitol somewhat harried after having a locksmith jimmy into my locked car because I'd unfortunately locked my keys in my car.   Moving beyond my morning misadventure, I got to the station's office to find everyone at lunch.  Shortly, though, I had an assignment to cover a press conference held by opponents to a proposal to build a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County.  Having moved from northern Virginia just a few weeks ago, I had to brush up quickly on Missouri energy needs and the brewing fight over the second power plant.  I also had a lot to learn about the technical aspects of radio reporting.  Fortunately, the other student reporters were gracious enough to walk me through it step-by-step until I'd produced two stories.  It took a while, but now I know how to do it. 

Today is my second day.  Having covered the Callaway-II project on Tuesday, I've now been assigned the topic for my enterprise (feature) stories this semester.  I will delve into it, but it appears as though there will be plenty of stories to cover this semester.  Here I go....


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