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Rebecca Berg's Blog in 2010
Reporter's Notebook

Posted 05/05/2010: 

Quote of the Day

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know."

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, quoting Abraham Lincoln.  Bartle said he would finish out the legislative session by presenting occasional "comedic interludes" on the Senate floor.  It appears most of the interludes will consist of interesting quotations.

Posted 04/23/2010:

At long last, I'm back to blogging -- and Earth is celebrating with me!

OK, not quite.  In actuality, the Department of Natural Resources celebrated Earth Day today -- one day late -- in front of the state Capitol.  The event drew elementary school-aged children (official estimate: a lot) and resulted in a smattering of tents on the statehouse lawn.  (The press parking lot was also roped off, much to my chagrin.)

(Above, a to-scale representation of Missouri, the sun and planet Earth, courtesy of DNR.)

One Earth Day activity promoted by the DNR was aptly advertised as "Earth Rocks."  You know, "rocks," in the geological sense.  It's only fitting, of course, seeing as Mother Earth has been getting her seismic on, shaking and erupting until we were forced to take notice.  Just kidding.  In fact, according to the DNR website, the activity was meant as a teaching tool: "Teachers, please encourage your students to bring their favorite rocks, minerals, fossils or 'dinosaur eggs' to Earth Day to our 'Ask a Geologist' booth where our geologists will properly identify their treasures," the site read.  (Sadly, I left my rock at home and, thus, was not able to participate.)

So, dear readers (all two of you), here's wishing you a happy Earth Day (plus one day) from the Missouri Capitol.

Posted 03/19/2010:

With the legislative spring break in the rear-view mirror, the session has suddenly accelerated dramatically. This week, the budget was the focus of intensive discussions and closed-door meetings as lawmakers attempted to solve a deficit hundreds of millions of dollars deep.

At an event Friday at the University of Missouri business school, Attorney General Chris Koster threw out a suggestion of his own to increase the state's revenue: Raise the tax on cigarettes.

Currently, Missouri has the second-lowest cigarette tax of any state at a mere $0.17 per pack. Only South Carolina's cigarette tax is lower.

In his address to an audience of accounting students, Koster said the state could earn $400 million per year if the cigarette tax were raised to the median level. Koster did not cite the source of that figure.

But Koster wasn't optimistic that legislators will pass a tax anytime soon.

"Our priorities around these things are completely screwed up," Koster said.

Koster also noted that the percentage of the state's budget devoted to Medicaid has gone up, while funding for education has decreased.

Overall, Koster's message regarding the budget was one of foreboding.

"You are going to see an elimination of services this state has not seen since its founding," he said.

Look for such cuts to be proposed in the coming days as legislators in Jefferson City continue to hash out a solution to the state's budget crisis.

Posted 03/08/2010:

The Capitol halls, typically filled with legislators and lobbyists and reporters, were empty today. Outside of the Senate coffee room, a gaggle of students stood in for legislative aids. Finding a parking space, for once, was not a problem. And walking to Central Dairy in the middle of the day didn't seem like such a crazy idea.

So goes Spring Break at the Missouri Capitol.

But it wasn't all play and no work, to be sure. In fact, I relished the extra time and slower pace to work on longer-term stories.

Now, if only I -- like the state's legislators -- could work on my tan.

Posted 03/02/2010:

Quote of the Day

"I'm a legislator, not a scientist."

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, on why he isn't the most qualified to comment on the science behind water quality testing at the Lake of the Ozarks. Green was one of three Democrats on Monday to criticize a Republican committee report on the issue.

Posted 02/24/2010:

I'm beginning to realize that some of the most compelling moments in political theatre take place behind the scenes.

That content which ultimately reaches the masses is but a small percentage of a fascinating whole. Journalists tend to favor the big picture, and it's what the public most needs to know. But minor vignettes can sometimes be equally informative, and even more telling.

I sat in on the Senate again this evening to report on the ethics debate taking place therein. It was the subject of my second radio story today.

Because I was wearing my broadcast hat, so to speak, I lacked a platform to report on the finer points of the debate as well as on some of the off-mic moments taking place on the sidelines. But I recorded them nonetheless, and will touch on a few here.

Towards the beginning of debate, Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, proposed an amendment that was met with a bit of controversy -- just enough to halt discussion for a few minutes as senators hashed out the details. During this short intermission, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, the sponsor of the night's overarching ethics legislation, approached Green at the side of the room.

"This is a good way to kill time, isn't it?" Shields asked.

"I'm not trying to kill time," Green replied.

It was a candid moment of strategy held just within earshot. Both senators were off-mic as they spoke.

Later in the session, Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, came forward with four back-to-back amendments -- and was stopped in his tracks by procedural motions from Majority Floor Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. It was a show of force rarely displayed in the structured environment of the Senate chamber, and the political tension was tangible.

But after the back-and-forth of amendments being presented and immediately shut down, Engler walked over to Crowell's desk. Together, the two shared a good laugh (although each man's sincerity could surely not be judged from across the room).

For a time during the debate, Shields disappeared from the chamber. Later, a reporter asked him where he had been during his absence from the floor.

Shields replied that he had retreated to the quiet of his office, where he watched a few minutes of the U.S./Switzerland Olympic hockey game.

Not yet halfway through the evening's debate, amendments were still being filed and parsed out. Minority Floor Leader Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, brought one to the floor to prohibit campaigns with debt to transfer funds to political committees. A number of sources would later confirm the amendment was a direct shot at Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, whose campaign made a political donation while in debt during the 2008 election season.

On the floor, Shields and Callahan butted heads over the amendment.

"No offense, but I don't think it's particularly pertinent," Shields said.

During another short intermission of sorts, Engler could be seen walking across the chamber simply smiling and shaking his head.

"It's a process," he said off-mic.

In the end, the predictable political outcome won the night. The ethics legislation passed with scarcely any amendments, and Shields held a small victory presser beside the media table.

But in Jefferson City, political theatre is as constant as the austere dome atop the Capitol -- and in theatre, scenes conclude with suspense.

Just as Shields was about to exit the chamber, my editor asked Shields if he'll be applying for a job with certain Missouri business advocacy organization.

Shields just smiled, gave a canned answer, and left the metaphorical door ajar.


Posted 02/24/2010:

Question: What do a card check resolution and China have in common?

Answer: A Senate filibuster.

A wandering discussion ensued this morning between Senate Minority Floor Leader Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, and Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County when the two legislators decided to filibuster. They monopolized the floor for the entire morning session.

The chamber emptied out as it became clear that nothing was going to get done, but I managed to remain productive during the lengthy debate. In fact, I compiled a handy list of the topics covered during the back-and-forth. Here, a sampling:

If these topics don't seem to be particularly related, don't worry: They aren't.

Somehow, I got a radio story out of the morning's session. Go figure.

Posted 02/22/2010:

A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this evening made headlines largely due to a proposed smoking ban and two abortion bills.

But another bill discussed at the meeting was, I would argue, equally compelling.

Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Clay County, brought a bill before the committee that would allow the option of a jury in votes to terminate parental rights (i.e. forcibly remove a child from a parent's care). Currently, such decisions are made by single justices in juvenile courts.

Ridgeway filed a nearly identical bill last year. Now, one senator says she regrets having voted in favor of the bill.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said she hopes to proceed with more caution in reviewing the legislation this session.

"We really need to make sure we protect these kids, and a permanency plan is really important," Justus said, referring to the problem of foster children being shuffled between temporary homes.

Justus brings a unique perspective to the debate: Her father is a juvenile justice in southwest Missouri.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, is the chair of the Judiciary Committee. He said he thinks the ideas at the foundation of the bill make sense.

"If you're facing losing a child forever, wouldn't you rather be charged by 12 than by one?" he said.

Last year, Ridgeway's bill stalled in the Senate. It will be interesting to watch where the issue goes this year.

Posted 02/17/2010:

Quote of the Day

"We are precluding people from service. It's getting to the point where I'm wondering why anybody with any sanity at all would want to come down here."

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, on an amendment to ethics legislation that would make it more difficult for ex-legislators to become lobbyists. Bartle said he worried people would be discouraged from running for public office if they would afterward be barred from holding government positions.

Posted 02/15/2010:

U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, ever the romantic, is dumping Congress the day after Valentine's Day.

Bayh, D-Indiana, announced today that he will not seek a third term in the Senate. According to CBS reporter Mark Knoller, Bayh said he enjoys public service but, "I do not love Congress."

Bayh would have faced minor opposition in running for reelection. A recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll had Bayh ahead of his potential Republican opponents by double-digit percentages.

What will this mean for Missouri's mid-term elections, and for Democratic candidates nationwide?

Posted 02/14/2010:

Happy Valentine's Day, Missouri!

Earlier this session, I reported on a bill that would exempt Valentine's Day from state liquor laws when it fell on a Sunday (this year, for example). The bill, however, was not passed in time to go into effect this year; currently, it remains in the House.

What this means is that, tonight, many smaller restaurants, which cannot afford pricey Sunday liquor licenses, will likely remain closed. This could create trouble for the bottom line, as Valentine's Day is the second-most profitable day of the year for restaurants.

Interestingly, though, this issue ended up receiving national attention. Read an article from TIME Magazine here, which devotes two paragraphs to the Missouri legislation.

Posted 02/11/2010:

It only took five years, testimony before a federal grand jury, and allegations of a political donation by the adult entertainment industry for Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, to pass his bill urging new restrictions on sexually oriented businesses.

From KMBC:

The legislation would ban nudity at strip clubs and force partly nude employees to stay 6 feet away from customers. It also would make strip clubs and adult video stores close by midnight and restrict the location of new adult entertainment businesses.

The icing on the cake? Bartle managed to pass his bill just before being term-limited out of office this year.

Posted 02/11/2010:

What do Missouri and Massachusetts have in common?

From the AP:

State house members backed an effort Wednesday to make Missouri more like Massachusetts by requiring special elections to fill vacancies for the U.S. Senate and most executive offices.

The legislation would limit the ability of Missouri governors to appoint long-term replacements when top officeholders leave early because of deaths, resignations or impeachment-prompted ousters.

It's not a surprising move, considering a Republican-led legislature would likely cringe at the thought of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon ever having the power to select Missouri's next U.S. Senator.

My question is, what happens down the road when Missouri again has a Republican governor? Assuming this bill passes the state Senate, will legislators stand by their decision regardless of the governor's political party?

Posted 02/10/2010:

Quote of the Day

"I've been here too long. You know what I'm running for? The door!"

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, on his plans for the future.

Posted 02/10/2010:

As a journalist-in-training, I've become accustomed to being ignored. Legislators look the other way when I walk into an elevator with my reporter's notebook in hand, and spectators try not to notice as I fumble with my bulky Marantz suitcase recorder at committee meetings. Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak; I have a press pass.

But today was different. Today, on the floor of the Senate, legislators looked towards the press table...and addressed us. Talk about overwhelming.

Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was most often in the spotlight -- first, for not being Jefferson City Bureau Chief Virginia Young, and then for writing a darn good column (the only one Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, actually reads).

Green also offered his personal evaluations of the news industry, as well as a prediction.

"Most people aren't even reading the articles anymore," Green said. "I think we'll see the end of print media in our lifetime."

The senator to whom he was speaking, Senate Minority Floor Leader Victor Callahan, expressed suspicion of the media's motives.

The senators were supposed to be debating ethics reform legislation -- but, really, what fun is that?

Posted 02/01/2010:

Welcome, everyone, to my second MDN blog. With any luck, this one will be slightly more interesting than my last!

As today is the first day of February, it is only appropriate that this first post be about my very favorite Missouri awareness month: Earthquake Awareness Month. This month, Missourians will look to shake things up by celebrating the state's tectonic tremors through educational programs and events.

In all seriousness, I'm not making this up.

The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for planning this month's festivities, which will include an "Earthquake Awareness Event" at the St. Louis Science Center and an observation of the anniversay of the devastatingly large Missouri quakes of 1811-1812. These are your tax dollars at work, Missouri.

Is your interest peaked? Read more about Earthquake Awareness Month from the DNR Web site, or check out the history of Missouri earthquakes from USGS.