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Brendan Cullerton's Blog in 2012
Speeding up

Posted 12/07/2012:  Things have recently been getting a lot more interesting at the Capitol building.  The last month had been pretty slow after the election was over, but the new bill prefiling period has made things more exciting.

Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Affton, has made a lot of noise during the prefiling period, already prefiling 3 interesting bills.

One of the more intriguing bills Roorda prefiled is a measure to ban retail stores from starting "Black Friday" sales on the night of Thanksgiving, which is a Thursday. Many of my friends and family complained about the business tactic of retailers on Thanksgiving, and Roorda didn't like it either.

"I think people will wait until midnight on Thanksigiving and everyone can open ther doors at the same time," Roorda said. "We won't have this leap-frogging that gopes on with stores trying to out-do each other and approaching further and further into Thanksgiving day." Get the radio story.

The heavy Republican majority in both houses will be a major obstacle for a bill that puts limits on business, but the debate could be very interesting.

Roorda also filed a bill that would authorizes Missouri to enter into the Interstate Compact on the agreement among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote Act.

This would be more benificial to Democrats because of how heavily populated big cities, which tend to be very democratic, like Kansas City and St. Louis are. It would somewhat nullify the fact that most of the districts in Missouri are Republican-dominated. Again, the heavy Republican advantage in both houses hurt this bills chances.

Roorda also filed a bill that would force drug dealers to by tax stamps to sell their drugs. Roorda thinks this bill will both help Missouri with it's drug problem, and gain revenue for the state. Roorda said this bill is cross party legislation because of how it addresses the drug problem, so it would seem that this has a better chance of passing than his other bills.

"We're famous for our methamphetamine problem," Roorda said. "In the St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs we've had an explosion of this China White Heroin that is killing kids every day."

Most of the money would actually be made on back taxes from a penalty enforced on drug dealers caught with drugs that don't have the stamps.Get radio story

Again, Roorda is not on of the Republicans, who enjoy a veto-proof majority, so he is at a disadvantage on his bills that seem like democratic legislation, but he is mixing things up at a state Capitol that had very little going on in November.


Evolution of Hacking
Posted 11/30/2012:  This week I talked to Terry Jarrett, Missouri Public Service Commissioner, after a meeting between state utility owners and regulators to discuss cyber security for Utilities. Jarrett stressed that the problem with fighting against hacking is the evolution of methods used.

"As the threats become more and more sophisticated, utilities have to continually get better at what they're doing," Jarrett said.

He also said foreign entities  doing the hacking has forced a stronger need for security.

"It's not just the lone man in the basement anymore doing it for fun or to embarrass the company," Jarrett said. "The Chinese have been trying to hack into businesses here in the United States, and the Iranians have been trying to hack into businesses here in the United States."

Jarrett said this meeting was for utility companies and regulators to bounce ideas back and forth about how to stop the newest types of hacking.

Hackers linked to the Chinese military have been linked to successful hacking attempts on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (link to abc story), so it seems reasonable that somebody could feasibly hack into one of Missouri's major utility companies.

But why is it so important to protect the cyber security of utilities? Jarrett said one of the major fears that spurs these meetings is of somebody finding a way to shut down the electric grid because of what it would mean for the protection of American citizens.

"Attacking the grid and knocking the utilities out to Air Force bases and Army bases would be something that would be of concern," Jarret said.

The Chinese military was linked to the group hacking into the Chamber of Commerce after all.


The minimum wage debate
Posted 11/16/2012:  Missouri's minimum wage is supposed to go up by 10 cents in 2013. It is currently at the federal minimum of $7.25. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce has expressed concern that now is not a good time to raise it because of the struggling economy.

There are moral aspects to minimum wage like the belief that it is only fair to pay people a decent living; however, much of the debate surrounding the topic is economic in nature. An argument against the minimum wage is that it will force businesses to leave in search of an area with lower rates.

"You will see all those business that can move. If it makes business sense for them to move, then they will do that,"said Karen Buschmann, spokeswoman for the Missouri Chamber of Congress, about the rising rate in Missouri.

Missouri Jobs with Justice is an organization that represents Missouri workers. Not surprisingly, they disagree with what Buschmann said about business leaving.

"All the research shows that that does not bear out. That's just sort of a scare tactic in the public debate to try and keep the minimum wage down," said Lara Granich, Missouri Jobs With Justice Director.

Another argument is that minimum wage jobs will earn more money, but there will be less of them to go around. Buschmann said businesses in Missouri would definitely hire less minimum wage workers once the rate goes up.

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, thinks raising the minimum wage would actually be good for the economy.

"You're putting more money in people's pockets, so people will have more money to buy things," Colona said.

Colona  said that the government should stimulate the economy by giving low income people more money, and not just by giving the rich tax breaks so they have more money to spend.

Whether you agree with it or not, the state's minimum wage is tied to inflation, so it will go up next year even if the federal minimum doesn't. The Chamber said they will peruse, legislation to separate the link between the cost of living and inflation, but that tactic has failed in the Missouri Senate the last couple of years.


Missouri still smoking
Posted 11/09/2012:  Election day is not just about candidates. There can be important ballot measures people can vote on as well. This week, I covered proposition B. A proposed statewide 73 cent increase in the cigarette tax.

"Proposition B is the single most important thing going in this election for Missouri. It's more important than any candidate," Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said.

Proposition  B ended up losing by a slim margin of 51-49. This marks the third time this decade that Missouri voters have struck down a tax increase for cigarettes. The other two years were 2002 and 2006.

This year was, however, by far the closest of the three (it doesn't really get closer than 51-49) as the previous two similar tax increases were soundly defeated. A major reason for this years vote being closer was the absence of "big tobacco" in the funding.

This years version of the tax increase included language that would make it more difficult for smaller tobacco companies. In Missouri, smaller companies are currently given a refund on the taxes they pay to the state. The big companies are afforded no such luxury, so they cannot afford to charge the same low prices. Naturally, they were not opposed to a more level playing field, so the did not fund a campaign against the measure as they had in previous years.

"In TV and radio advertisements, we were out funded three to one," said Ron Leone, the executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketing and Convenience Store Association. The major source of anti-Proposition B advertisement came from gas stations. The group "Show-Me a Brighter Future" both proposed the measure, and was a big factor in campaigning. The group went on a bus tour across the state, demonstrating the benefits of Prop B and the dangers of tobacco.

Prop B was expected to raise a possible $423 million in revenue each year. The funding would go to education and towards programs to prevent tobacco use. Also, only one out of four Missourians smoke. Despite all this, and the advertising by "Show-Me a Brighter Future", the measure still lost. This demonstrates the power of Missouri's rural districts in voting.

The larger cities are more Democratic, and Democrats have been the biggest supporters of a cigarette tax increase.

"Our strategy was to not lose to bad in the Columbia, Kansas City, and St. Louis metro areas," Leone said.

These voting areas did vote heavily in favor of the measure, but it was not enough to overcome the overwhelming majority of rural Republican areas that voted equally heavily against it. This makes it more difficult for legislators to make a law raising the tax because state voters have already made their decision. Chris Kelly had been one of the major factors in this proposed tax (he sent about $10,000 to a Prop B campaign), but said he doesn't think the legislature will raise the tax on their own.

"It's a pretty clear message," Kelly said.

For more information, I worked on a print story with Wes Duplantier and went more in-depth on the matter.  Get the story



Surprise!
Posted 10/26/2012:  In what is normally a lull for news (the week before the election), some very interesting news passed through the state Capitol this week.

Missouri University's Athletic Department Video Director Michael Schumacher racked up a $7,600 bill at a Las Vegas strip club last September that was paid on a university credit card, but a recent audit has uncovered this escapade. Apparently, Schumacher repaid the money, but had initially tried to dispute the charges.

MU previously had no written restrictions on how the money had to be spent, but has made spending more regulated since the incident. MU still employs Schumacher.

Schumacher was supposedly on this trip alone on MU business, so the $7,600 bill is somewhat perplexing. It included a $2,000 tip. A "lap dance" at the strip club is listed as only $20.

Spending tax dollars for personal use could mean even more bad publicity for a school who's head football coach got a DUI last year. Add the Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State, and the image of college athletic departments in general is not a good one right now.

Missouri definitely has some work to do in repairing its image to the public.


Nixon's tight watch
Posted 10/19/2012:  One aspect of the Nixon administration tends to be agreed on by almost everyone. It doesn't take too kindly to state employees divulging information about how the administration makes decisions or what stance it has on matters.  Apparently, under Governor Blunt's (previous governor) administration, the opposite was true. Workers would get chewed out if they gave the media a "no comment" response. Now, that same "no comment" response has become standard.

I have also had first hand experience with the lack of transparency of current Missouri government. I wanted to do a story about the Department of Social Services not putting a rule into place to drug test recipients of state welfare benefits. The law that stated they are required to do so was passed in July of 2011. Needless to say, I had a difficult time getting information. For a full month all the Department would give me was a web link to the rule that they published, but no information was given on the actual implementation of the rule, that would screen for drug users and make those that fail the screening take a drug test. Only after I walked into the Department's division of legal services with a recording microphone did I get any answers.

After being told people were preparing to talk to me for about two hours, the Department's spokeswoman came downstairs and offered me the same web link to the rule I had received about a month ago. No thanks. After doing a little bit of prodding, she told me that the rule had never been approved, so no drug testing had actually taken place. After she told me this, I asked for more information, and she told me that she wouldn't answer any more questions on the matter that day. Also, she said that nobody else in the Department would be available to answer questions that day. So one month of communication with the Department of Social Services got me that one fact. This was just another example of the Nixon administration's lack of transparency.

Before righting a story on this, I looked through our organization's previous stories on welfare drug testing only to find that other attempts to get the Department to talk about their implementation of the law had also gone unanswered. I also made an open-records request a month ago about this. It asked for the amount of drug tests bought and administered by the Department, communication about the implementation to and from the director, and any records about the screening process. The Department told me it would take two to four weeks for all that. I have already agreed to take the communication part out of the request, and their aren't any drug tests to speak of, so that leaves only the records about the screening process. And it has been more than four weeks since they told me it would take that long! It's possible they wanted to stall on the subject until after the election, but from what I've heard, this is what goes on all the time in Missouri government under Nixon.


Reassurance
Posted 10/12/2012:  I started doing a story on drug testing for welfare recipients a while ago, but never got a chance to work much on it because of roadblocks in dealing with state government. I wanted to see if and how the Missouri Department of Social Services had implemented the system required by law to screen potential recipients and make those who fail the screening take a drug test. Extracting information from them was like pulling teeth, and I had to make a formal Sunshine Request legally requiring them to give me certain documents. They told me it would take two to four weeks.

Fast forward to this week, and I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere. I talked to the Department's custodian of records, and scheduled a meeting to obtain the documents. He said the Associated Press had made a similar request, and he could give me what he is giving them. This made it apparent that it wasn't my methods of asking the Department for information that made them not talk. If the AP can't get access to someone who will admit what is going on, who can? News is often a race to who can get the big story out first. Seeing a prominent news organization struggle with the same thing as me is like turning to the guy next to you during the last leg of a five mile race and seeing that exhausted look on his face that you imagine is on your face as well.

It also goes to show that there is a good chance something is going on that the Department doesn't want people to know about. If there wasn't any issue, why would they string multiple people and news organizations along for weeks without answering questions that frankly don't need very complicated answers. Maybe I'll see in the documents that Missouri has in fact put in an adequate screening process and has started drug testing tons of people, but that isn't something that the Department would want to hide, so it doesn't seem likely at this point. At least finally, I won't have to deal with "probably" "maybe" or "likely anymore". I will have concrete statements and statistics that will allow me to draw real conclusions about the state's implementation of the drug testing law. Missouri's Sunshine Law fixed that problem for me.


Jumping the gun on Medicaid
Posted 10/05/2012:  I have been working on a story about Missouri's upcoming decision regarding Medicaid expansion in 2014. Missouri currently only allows adults to receive Medicaid expansion in 2014. Missouri currently only allows adults to receive Medicaid benefits if they have children and the family's income is less than 19 percent of the federal poverty line. The expanded program would include anyone with a family income of less than 134 percent of the poverty line.

This is a huge health and financial decision for Missouri. Andrea Routh, Missouri Health Advocacy Alliance Executive Director, said that Missouri would be a big winner financially if they chose to expand. This is because  the federal government has offered to pick up 100 percent of the tab for the first three years of the program. The discrepancy between what Missouri spends on Medicaid now and what it would get from the government if ti expands is massive.

"That's a lot of money. It represents something like three point six percent of our gross state product, so when you talk about those kinds of infusions of investment... a lot of people could be put to work if we actually cover these folks under Medicaid," Routh said.

Routh also said not expanding would create a serious risk that rural hospitals could go out of business. This is because hospitals agreed to lose other funds that were supposed to be supplemented by Medicaid expansion money. That was taken away when the US Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to force states to expand, leaving Missouri in this predicament. Hospitals going out of business could result in somebody with a heart attack having to drive across the state to get treatment.

On the other hand, after those initial three free years, Missouri would have to pick up some of the cost. By 2020, it would have to pay 10 percent of the cost. Covering everyone at 133 peercent of the poverty line looks a little more daunting when you have to pay for it. Doctor and Sen. Robert Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, doesn't think the state has a moral obligation to cover more people.

"We already take care of kids, and we take care of the disabled, and we take care of the elderly. These people are able-bodied, and it would be wrong for us to give them free health care and put them on Medicaid, and expect other working adults to pay for them," Schaaf said.

Obviously, the stakes of this decision are high. With President Obama running away with the election it looked certain that the vote on expansion was a sure thing. But recently, that has changed a little bit. The general consensus after the debate on Wednesday was that Romney had a thorough victory. Add the fact that Romney promised to repeal "Obamacare"during his first day in office, and Medicaid expansion no longer looks like as much of slam-dunk as it did before. If Romney was elected, Missouri lawmakers might not even have to vote on the Medicaid issue at all. Obama is still the projected leader in polls, but the once mammoth sized gap between the two candidates has been narrowed somewhat. Is Romney now the favorite in the race? No. Is the Affordable Care Act a thing of the past? No. However, that debate does make it a little more plausible that this huge issue might not even be an issue at all in congress.


It's Just Politics
Posted 09/28/2012:  When election day under two months away, the debate certainly gets hotter about which candidate people prefer for president. No matter who you are or what you believe,  you will most likely be exposed to political advertising during this time.

There are benefits to political advertising. It can help people that do not otherwise know much about the candidates make a more educated decision about who to let make major decisions that affect their lives. It can enforce values a candidate hopes to implement in the way government works. It can even prompt somebody on the fence about their vote to lean one way or the other. This is true of all elections, not just presidential ones.

There are also negatives to political advertising. With so many elections being decided at the same time, prospective voters are bombarded with ads in the months leading up to the election. Many people have gotten that irritating telephone message from somebody running for a position that interrupts family dinner. Also, the majority of ads are primarily aimed at bashing the opposition, instead of displaying the platform the politician plans to run on. Way more of what I see in political TV ads is calling out the opposition about things that are often not one of the main issues with the election.

The bottom line is that unless the way politics works in the United States changes, people better get used to that obtrusive dinner phone call and repeatedly seeing that same TV add about something negative a candidate said seven years ago.



Frustration with Bureaucracy
Posted 09/21/2012:  I submitted my first Sunshine request as a reporter this week, and the feeling ended up being bittersweet. For all the non-reporters out there,  the Sunshine Law requires a Federal Bureaucracy to be transparent and release public documents to  those who ask for them. They are required to respond within three business days.  It is a great law for a reporter, but anyone can file one. Anyone who has waited in line at the DMV could surely understand how long and difficult of a process it can be to extract unfavorable information about the government from one of its agencies.

I was working on a story about the drug testing policy Missouri has put into law. The law stated that the Department of Social Services had to put in a screening process for participants in the Temporary Assistants for Needy Families program. The screening process (left up the department to determine in the law) would decide who had to take a drug test. A failed test means the participant cannot receive taxpayer dollars. Whether you agree with this or not, it is a law, and Missouri should be following it.

I wanted to see how much the Department of Social Services has actually been following it, but of course, nobody would talk to me, so I filed my Sunshine request. I was now expecting a response about how many drug tests had been bought and administered by the state within three business days. Three business days later, I got what I was hoping for...sort of.

The email I got back from the Department's Chief Council said the response was filed within 3 days, and that it would take anywhere from two to four weeks to get me that information. Really? Two to four weeks? In my naivety as a new reporter I thought that the actual information would come somewhat close to the 3 day mandatory response. Man was I wrong. Those feelings of frustration I've had waiting at the DMV are starting to make an unwanted return.





Missouri Congress taking a stand
Posted 09/14/2012: 

The legislative veto session the Missouri Congress showed me just how much different branches of government can get in each others way. The two main bills that people thought had a chance at passing involved the Missouri Congress passing legislation  opposed either the judicial branch of Missouri, or the Federal Government.

The bill that did not pass by a two-thirds vote to override Governor Nixon's veto was an auto-sales tax. A  Missouri law used to allow a sales tax to be made on vehicles purchased out of state if they were registered in Missouri, but the Missouri Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional this year. The proposed bill in effect, attempted to allow the tax to be put back in effect, and stated that the state of Missouri could impose a sales tax on all vehicles purchased during the time after the Missouri Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. Although the bill failed to override the veto, the bill had previously passed the House by a wide margin and passed in the Senate unanimously, displaying the legislative body's disregard for the  decision.

The other major bill, that actually did override the veto, allows business owners to refuse to include contraceptives in health insurance policies if it is against their moral or religious beliefs. This is in opposition to the provision of the Affordable Care act that requires employers to provide employees with contraceptives in the insurance plan. Again, the law passed by the Missouri Congress fought back against a decision of another part of government that the members disapproved of. It was surprising to me how much our separate branches of government undermine each other.


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