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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of August 29, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Water Patrol says four people died on Missouri waterways over the holiday weekend.

That's the same number of people that died on the water on Labor Day Weekend in 2010.

Spokesman for the Missouri Water Patrol Gerard Callahan said that's pretty normal for a weekend with so much water traffic.

"Four fatalities in a weekend; it's what we saw last Labor Day. It's not unusual, but it's higher than we would like to see. We'd like to see a fatality-free weekend every holiday weekend," said Callahan.

The Missouri Highway Patrol said ten people died on Missouri Roadways during the holiday weekend.

That's also the same number of people who died on Missouri roads on Labor Day Weekend 2010.

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's Health Department director announced Thursday cancellation of contract with a company providing services for screening Medicaid recipients.

Cancellation came after published reports that SynCare's failure to provide services under the contract was causing delays in health care coverage for recipients.

The cancellation announcement came after the House Budget Transparency Committee heard more than two hours of testimony from the health department about the company's poor performance. The Health Department's Director, Margaret Donnelly said, "The company is not able to meet the terms and conditions of their contract."

Although legislators are unsure of a permanent solution, House Budget Chairman, Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City said the department is doing the right thing, "This has been a disaster since day one and I will be demanding that the department take any measures necessary to make the Missouri taxpayer whole."

KANSAS CITY - If you were planning on going to a Kansas City pool on labor day, you might want to spend your weekend elsewhere. Twelve community pools in the Kansas City area have been closed due to an outbreak of a germ called Cryptosporidium.

This parasite, also known as Crypto, can causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and fever.

The Pollution Control Director of the Johnson County Environmental Department, Betsy Betros, said there are currently 75 confirmed cases of Crypto in the Kansas City, Kansas area.

Betros also said she hopes the pools' actions to close or extensively chlorinate for Labor Day will put a cap on the growing problem.

For a normal person, symptoms will come and go. The concern is when the infection spreads to children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with a weak immune system.

According to Betros, after symptoms have subsided, individuals should continue to keep away from pools for two weeks, as the Crypto parasite is still being shed at this time.

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri State Highway Patrol arrested Arizona citizen Jose Lopez in Callaway County on Wednesday after discovering 132 pounds of marijuana in his vehicle. However, this is a regular occurrence on Interstate 70, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Paul Reinsch.

According to a highway patrol officer, the expressway's central location running east to west is a prime outlet for drug traffickers. "Drugs of all kinds are traveling up and down our highways every day," Reinsch said.

Marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin are all natives to Interstate 70. "Heroin has made a little bit of a presence known," Reinsch said. "But it doesn't make a difference. There's all kinds of drugs out there and heroin is just one of many."

Reinsch said prescription drugs currently frequent mid-Missouri roads the most. "Prescription drugs are the second most popular source of intoxication in Missouri," according to Transformations Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center. The website also said these painkillers and anti-depressants are a trend that is spreading rapidly across the stretch of Missouri.

Lopez has been charged with possession of marijuana and trafficking drugs. Reinsch said the highway patrol does not know where he was planning on making a sale, but they do know he had full intention of distributing it. The fact Lopez traveled through four states indicates how vital Interstate 70 is to drug traffickers.

His case will be debated in court since the charge is merely an accusation, not evidence of guilt. Lopez will be held at the Callaway County Jail until then.

With one of the biggest holiday weekends approaching for the Lake of the Ozarks, The Missouri State Highway Patrol will be increasing the amount of police presence on both highways and waterways starting tomorrow. The potential for water and traffic accidents increases during summer holiday weekends at the Lake of the Ozarks.

In addition to increased visible police presence on the lake, there is high possibility for sobriety checkpoints. Officers will also increase patrol on all major Missouri highways. Police will focus on all major Missouri highways and try to cut down on aggressive drivers. Police say they hope that drinking and driving will not be an issue.

Last year four people were killed on Missouri waterways over the Labor Day Weekend. On top of those four, ten people were killed and 515 injured in traffic accidents. Police responded to more than 1,000 traffic crashes.

In a letter addressed to Republicans, Peter Kinder is encouraging people to focus on more than just stories in the media.

After undergoing scrutiny due to his affiliation with an ex-stripper, Kinder is trying to rebuild his reputation and says he still plans to run. Kinder's spokesperson Jared Craighead says he believes the letter will do just that.

"The reaction has been very positive and people are very anxious for us to begin talking about the issues that matter. And that's exactly what we plan to do," Craighead said.

Kinder was originally supposed to announce his decision to run after Labor Day, but has decided to wait until he has the chance to talk with residents around the state.

Budget Committee members questioned health department officials about why they are still working with a private contractor that failed to fulfill the terms of their $11.4 million contract. The company, Syncare LLC, was hired to provide support and assessment of care plans but has not been able to handle the sheer volume of calls.

Syncare has been allowed to bill the state for 50 percent of their work and has already fallen behind.

"How long can we expect Syncare to bleed the way they're bleeding and continue to perform," Rep. Randy Asbury R-Higbee said.

Members of the committee also said the department was partially to blame for awarding Syncare the contract.

"We're not satisfied with the performance on a number of fronts," said Deputy Director of the department Peter Lyskowski. "But it would be irresponsible to just point the finger at Syncare."

Committee chair Ryan Silvey R-Kansas City, read concerns about Syncare from the Office of Administration evaluation. It including the fragmented nature of providing service, poor ratio of supervisors to staff, lack of detail in their execution model and no back-up plan. According to the document "there is concern with the plan with oversight to ensure satisfactory performance."

"I think the department has failed here miserably," said Rep. Dave Schatz R-Sullivan.

Arguments continued for the immediate termination of the contract but there is currently no plan to do so. Lyskowski said they did not want to create a void in service.

"It would seem that the missteps in the last few months have created a void and it's a crisis," said Rep. Jeff Grisamore R-Lee's Summit.

JEFFERSON CITY - While defending the arguements raised in the lawsuit, Rep. Chris Kelly D-Columbia, says State Auditor Tom Schweich has no legal standing to sue Gov. Jay Nixon.

"I agree with Schweich that this was an overreach on the part of the governor," Kelly said. "I disagree with him constitutionally."

In a previous Budget Committee hearing, Kelly blamed the legislature for the executive spending power. He said they failed to control a provision giving the governor the power to use estimates to determine disaster relief funding.

The estimate provision allows money from the treasury "to provide for expenses of any state agency responding during a declared emergency at the discretion of the governor provided the services furnish immediate aid and relief.

One of the complaints listed in the lawsuit was that Nixon's budget cut funds from Republican offices but not Democratic.

"I think the suit is political," said Kelly.

Schweich insists that his motivation is about government transparency. A scathing St. Louis Post-Dispatch named cuts from his own budget as his true motivation.

Kelly has called for legislation to close administrative budget flexibility during the next legislative session.

"The place to resolve this is in the appropriations process," said Kelly. "Not in the courts."

Leaders from Missouri's major business and labor organizations expressed confidence Tuesday that a bill to create an international trade hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport will pass the legislature's special session.

Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said he believes leaders from both political parties are coming together on the idea of passing the legislation. Mehan and his colleagues said they are optimistic it can be done, but know that the General Assembly will have to act swiftly.

"If we want to compete in the way that we know we need to, we're going to have to be bold about it," Mehan said.

The business leaders said they hope for Missouri's government to create $360 million in tax breaks to foster trade relations with China by establishing an international cargo airline.

Under the plan proposed by legislative leaders and the governor, those tax breaks would be coupled with reductions in other tax credits including credits provided to historic building developers, the elderly, handicapped and house renters.

The business leaders' news conference came on the same day that indications emerged from a Senate working group of divisions about the plan -- particularly the proposal to eliminate tax credits for lower income elderly residential renters.

Mehan and his partners said they believe that almost 18,000 temporary jobs would be created in the construction field and 11,000 permanent jobs would be created to run the hub. Business leaders said they hope the addition of these jobs will repair some of Missouri's unemployment issues.

Missouri auditor Tom Schweich demands an apology from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which criticized his motives for filing a lawsuit against Gov. Jay Nixon.

The Post-Dispatch suggests Schweich's suit aids only his political agenda.

Schweich refutes these claims.

“When somebody comes out there with such a scandalously, lying argument, such a completely false editorial and misleads the people about what their state auditor is up to, I have to say something about it," Schweich said.

Schweich says Nixon's withholding of state funds for disaster relief violates Missouri's Constitution.

Confronted with the issue, Nixon said he will continue to balance the budget.

The governor's plan to provide tax breaks for business development and a China hub in St. Louis ran into opposition before a Senate work group Tuesday.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, termed the proposed tax breaks approaching $500 million as irresponsible.

Many of the tax breaks in the package drafted by the governor's office and legislative leaders focus on development of an international trade hub project at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis.

Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, said the proposal is still a work in progress and a lot more debate is needed during the special legislative session which begins on Sept. 6. After the public session, Purgason and a few other senators also met behind closed doors.

Purgason, one of the Senate's most outspoken budget hawks, has said that the savings in reducing tax credits was worth the cost of the China hub tax breaks.

Crowell said since the state's budget is so tight, he doesn't think there is room for irrational spending.

Recent corn yield estimates forecast a 125-bushels-per-acre yield in Missouri, roughly 20 to 30 bushels per acre less than the average yearly amount.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Bob Garino said the farmers are less likely to be affected because corn prices are already very high.

However, a high demand of corn plus smaller yields causes a spike in commodities prices. Garino said 2010 was also a down year, with yields similar to 2011.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled to standardize suspect lineups to try to avoid influencing eyewitness testimony.

However, representatives from the St. Louis Police Officers Association and Missouri Fraternal Order of Police said they don't think the ruling will affect Missourians.

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said Missouri's police officers take care that lineups aren't tainted.

"We, as the Police Officers Association, know that our cops are doing the right thing and will continue to do so whatever the law is," said Roorda.

Roorda said that although this is an area of national concern, he does not believe the New Jersey ruling is representative of police practices nationwide.

"I think it's a public reaction to some very small percentage of cases where the process has been abused," said Roorda.

Roorda said Missouri doesn't have a standardized lineup procedure, but varies by county and he does not know of any plans to regulate police lineups in Missouri.

With the recent damage caused by Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, FEMA's disaster relief funds are wearing thin and Joplin is no longer being prioritized.

FEMA has adopted an "immediate needs" strategy that provides relief to those disaster areas most in need.

Joplin's tornado that hit almost three months ago does not earn the Missouri town a spot on FEMA's immediate needs list. The residents of Joplin must wait until FEMA can afford to send them more funding.

FEMA spokesperson Josh Deberge said that while areas with the most immediate needs, such as the East Coast, will receive funding first, all disaster areas including Joplin will receive promised money.

"Basically what it means is there are permanent projects out there that were associated with disasters, that the money for those projects will likely be delayed. That does not mean that there will be a reduction of funds or that money will be taken away," Deberge said.

FEMA said they will return to normal operations when Congress votes to replenish the fund. However, they don't know when that will happen.

For now, relief is focused on the East. But FEMA promises recovery efforts in Joplin will not be left unfinished.

The lawsuit by Republican Auditor Tom Schweich charges Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has violated the state constitution by withholding appropriations to state agencies, including education, to provide funds for natural disaster relief.

At issue is a constitutional provision giving the governor power to withhold appropriations from state agencies if revenues fall below the original estimates upon which the budget was based.

Jay Nixon has based his withholding on the basis of needing the money in order to provide additional money for natural disaster relief involving damages from the Joplin tornado and flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

On August 19, Schweich had sent the governor a letter questioning Nixon's constitutional authority to withhold funds. In the letter, Schweich charged the governor's budget director failed to provide any data demonstrating there was an actual shortage in revenue collections.

Article IV, Section 27 provides that "The governor ... may reduce expenditures of the state or any of its agencies below their appropriations whenever the the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimates upon which the appropriations were based."

Earlier this summer, Nixon had announced he would include the disaster relief funding in the legislature's special session that begins Sept. 6.

But in his official call, issued after Schweich's letter, Nixon dropped the natural disaster issue from his formal call. In a written statement, Nixon was quoted as saying they did not yet have a full estimate of the costs.

House Representative Jamilah Nasheed pushes for local control to be addressed early on the agenda.

However, President Pro Tempore Rob Mayer announced tax credits will be dealt with before local control of the St. Louis Police Department.

Nasheed backs Mayer's decision and isn't concerned about it being addressed because of the good cooperation in the Missouri House and Senate.

"Both sides the House and Senate, have been working closely together and they have found common ground and I think it will be fairly quick," said Nasheed.

Three of the Gov. Jay Nixon's advisers have been shifted from the governor's office to the Department of Insurance, state Budget Director Linda Luebbering said Wednesday.

The same three staffers are still working to advise the governor on gubernatorial appointments, Luebbering said, but their salary no longer comes from Nixon's budget.

House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, attacked the move.

"They're primarily advising the governor? But they're working for the Department of Insurance?" Silvey asked. "I think you need a new definition of appropriate."

Missouri's governor put his stamp of approval Wednesday on the efforts of a group of legislators and criminal justice officials to find ways to reduce the revolving door effect in prisons.

Led by Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, the group has been working together since the spring to analyze the current corrections system, sentencing and public offenders. The 13 members are working to create a plan that would decrease recidivism and increase efficiency — all while saving tax dollars.

"It is vital to ensure that we not only continue to keep Missourians safe by holding offenders accountable, but also the taxpayers continue to get a good public safety return on their investment," Nixon said at a press conference Wednesday.

Currently the Department of Corrections houses more than 30,000 inmates.

The House Budget Committee grilled State Budget Director Linda Luebbering about the $150 million currently being withheld by the governor for disaster relief. The governor has set aside the money in anticipation of payments to Joplin and other areas affected by natural disasters.

Committee chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, challenged the constitutionality of withholding the money. According to Article 4 Section 27 of the Missouri Constitution, appropriation must be based on revenue estimates. The money set aside represents revenue for the next fiscal year and Luebbering said that no specific dollar amounts have been determined for disaster relief. State obligations could include debris removal or the rebuilding of schools but as of now there is no breakdown of what those individual costs look like.

Silvey questioned why the governor made the decision to withhold the money with the upcoming veto session on Sept. 13. Luebbering said the governor made that decision to allow for more flexibility later in the year.

"It's clear that the governor does not like dealing with the legislature," said Silvey. "It's clear that he'd rather have flexibility than go along with the Constitution."

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, told the committee the issues with the governor's discretionary spending is due to the legislature's own oversight.

"It is easy to drive the truck through that little flexibility hole without seeing the damage," Kelly said.

The call came Nixa Republican House member Kevin Elmer.

The southwest Missouri legislator said that Kinder's behavior in which he admitted to attending a club with scantily clad women was no in keeping with Republican values.

"It is the type of behavior that does not speak well for what it is that we stand for," Elmer said.

"It does not bode well for what it is our party stands for and the integrity of the people that we want to represent our state and community.

Elmer is the second Republican from southwest Missouri to abandon Kinder's campaign. Earlier a major contributor was reported to have asked for return of his contributions to Kinder.

Elmer said he had talked with other Republicans before announcing his position. He said none sought to discourage him and that he expected other Republicans to join his call for Kinder to step aside.

Kinder issued a statement saying he still enjoys strong support from Republicans and intends to talk to Elmer.

During testimony in a hearing of a Senate committee charged with finding disaster relief funding, Republicans blasted Gov. Jay Nixon's handling of that money.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he wanted Nixon to wait until the beginning of the January legislative session before tackling relief spending.

Schaefer particularly decried Nixon's refusal to allocate education funding.

"The basis of withholding money on public education, on the concept that we have to spend it somewhere else--on natural disasters, for example--there's nothing that backs that up," Schaefer said.

Using legislation allowing him to estimate potential expenditures, Nixon has already spent funds on disaster relief after Missouri endured a torrid summer of severe storms and flooding.

The move was largely condemned by Republicans in both the Missouri House and Senate. State Auditor Tom Schweich released a statement condemning the Governor's spending, calling it unconstitutional.

The sentiment was shared by Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, who said he refused to allow Nixon free reign over relief spending.

"There's a difference between an immediate responsible approach to this and, just, foolish spending. And if we're not careful we're going to be paying for foolish spending."

A Nixon spokesman refused to be recorded when asked about the comments.

Nixon called a special session of the Missouri legislature on Monday but did not include disaster recovery funding in the agenda. He can still add this issue to the special session, however.

Both Schaefer and Nixon's spokespeople said they think it is unwise to hold public debate on relief funding without knowing exactly how much money will need to be allocated.

After severe flooding in 1993, Missouri legislators ended up spending over $27 million on relief.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon put a job-creation package and reforms to the state's tax credits on the schedule Monday for a Sept. 6 special session of the Missouri General Assembly.

"I appreciate the work the General Assembly has already done to achieve broad consensus on these priorities, and I look forward to continuing to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle during an efficient, focused and productive session," Nixon stated in a press release calling the session.

Missing from the agenda is the roughly $150 million that the governor has pulled from the budget and reallocated for disaster relief in areas such as Joplin — an item Nixon promised in July he would put on the agenda. However, Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich released an audit last week contesting Nixon's action.

The governor's office said Monday that the state is already spending out of that pool of funds. In a the statement on the special session, Nixon said the topic wouldn't be formally addressed because the damage assessments are still in progress.

Other items that made the agenda for the special session include:

  • Creating tax incentives for an air cargo hub for China at St. Louis Lambert Airport;
  • Giving St. Louis control of its local police force;
  • Adding tax breaks for business, technology and amateur sports;
  • Moving the state's presidential primary to March.
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