Cole Karr
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Cole Karr

Cole Karr is a junior broadcast journalism student at the University of Missouri. Cole is also minoring in political science. Spring 2012 is his first semester at Missouri Digital News.

Cole has lived in the Lebanon, Mo., area for the vast majority of his life, and is a graduate of Stoutland High School.

Cole has had a great interest in political journalism that really began through observing the 2008 elections. Cole's experience at Missouri Digital News is his first in political reporting, something he hopes to make a career out of in the future.


Stories by Cole Karr in 2012 include:
Cole Karr's Blog in 2012
The Final Post - A Whole Lot of Nothing in the Statehouse

Posted 05/09/2012: 

As the weeks of the session wind down, it’s time to focus on the budget. But, Tuesday brought no focus at all from the Senate.

The Senate did a whole lot of nothing. The body convened three times for a grand total of less than 30 minutes. It met three times for introductions of special guests, announcements and the reading of a birthday poem for one of the doormen.

This came after the Senate filibustered a bill that would allow $30 million to be directed from casino entrance fee funds for early childhood education to veteran’s nursing homes.

The point of the filibuster was to address issues in the budget some senators have - like Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County. Crowell said the issues must be addressed before moving on to the veteran’s bill. Some issues to be cleared up include directing $2 million to only Southeast Missouri State University and preventing funding for the University of Missouri-St. Louis based Sue Shear foundation or any other entity promoting political activity, such as campaigning, that is receiving state funding.

Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Canton, supports the funding for veteran’s home funding. He said the bill must be passed for the veteran’s sake. He said it is the veterans who fought for us to live freely in the United States and for the senators to debate issues like this on the floor. He also said he understands the importance of clearing up budget issues, with the veteran’s bill included, in order for the budget to be complete.

All of this is understandable. It’s probably best to get the funding situations straightened out before movement on the budget continues to prevent further calamity.

Some lawmakers, Crowell included, have asked why $2 million will go toward SEMO and no other state college institution. At the federal level, political campaigns cannot take action within taxpayer funded institutions. This is Cunningham’s argument for ridding funding of the Sue Shear institute, which supports women looking to be involved in public life.

This has led to the hang up over the veteran’s funding bill. House leaders have said they will not take up the budget until the Senate passes the veteran’s bill. The budget is due Friday, May 11. Otherwise Gov. Jay Nixon will have to call a special session.

Bill Fairbairn, A Persian Gulf War veteran from Stover, Mo., came to the Capitol Tuesday. He’s on a hunger strike until the Senate takes action and passes the bill. He said it’s his way of showing support for veterans. Fairbairn also said it was also too late for an “occupy Jefferson City,” which he said was discussed among the veteran community.

But the debacle within the Senate has led to House working off the perfection calendar in fears the Senate will move to vote on the budget and then adjourn, leading to all bills on the Senate calendar to die.

It’s the latest testament to the dysfunction of the 2012 Missouri legislative session.

---

Back to the wedge issues:

Have you heard Missouri has become the laughing stock of the nation? As the legislature continues to move on wedge bills, two issues have been featured on Comedy Central’s comedy news programs “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.

Two weeks ago, the bill to outlaw the mentioning of sexual orientation unless for scientific purposes in schools earned a spot on “The Colbert Report’s” “The Word” segment. Last week, the bill to prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of owning a conceal and carry permit/gun ownership had it’s spot on “The Daily Show,” featuring interviews with Rep. Wanda Brown, R-Lincoln, and Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis City.

--

This is my last blog post. Tuesday was my last day at MDN. It was great to experience the legislative process in the Missouri Capitol and meet a lot of great people. Having the front row seat to the action was awesome. On a personal level, this past semester has made me realize my political ambitions are great and I cannot uphold that and be a broadcast journalist at the same time.

So, my bio at the top of the page is no longer accurate, as I am now majoring in Strategic Communications and Political Science. Yep, the transition to the dark side has been made.

--

Final word. The final days of the session will be worth keeping a close eye. We’ll see how the legislators handle the budget situation and other pressing issues. It is, after all, an election year.


Week 14 – A Controversial Week at the Statehouse
Posted 05/03/2012: 

This week had some twists and turns. There was everything from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., addressing the House to a Republican lawmaker revealing he’s gay and the so-called “birther” movement taking a step forward.

Monday, the Senate Elections Committee voted do-pass, 4-1, a House bill that would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to file a record of birth and citizenship with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office. They would have to do in order to appear on the Missouri ballot. The office would keep the documents on file for public record.

This bill is one of several that have made rounds around the Statehouse this session – refer to a last week’s blog for more, expansive content on wedge issues.

The bill would not have any profound effect until the 2016 presidential election. If passed and signed by Gov. Nixon, the bill would take effect on Aug. 28, 2012. But, Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, told me he would be surprised if this was even brought up on the floor. Sen. Robin Wright-Jones did not want to talk about the issue and was upset when she told me the bill is “racist” and did not deserve to be “lifted up in discussion.”

While Wednesday morning was dull in the Senate, the House side was a full of interesting happenings.

During a hearing on HB 2051, a bill that would limit discussions on sexual orientation in a school setting to scientific purposes only, Rep. Zachary Wyatt, R-Green Castle, announced he is gay and denounced the legislation.

The bill has been commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. That’s something I don’t quite understand. The bill sponsor, Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Fairdealing, has said repeatedly the bill does not have anti-homosexual motives. We may never know for certain the motives behind the legislation - and I’m not going to judge it. I don’t think it’s the media’s place to declare Cookson’s motive by labeling the bill “Don’t Say Gay.”

The bill is rather short – only a couple lines. It states:

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school.”

It would be interesting, though, to sit down and speak with Cookson and get the full story. The first thing I’d ask him would be why he came up with the idea in the first place. It’s something I have grown to ask lawmakers when discussing legislation.

What do you think? It’s up to you to decide for yourself. Not the media to make up your mind for you.


Week 13 - Another Lessoned Learned and The Mostly Unproductive Session
Posted 04/26/2012: 

Lesson learned: Don’t quote someone in the tweet headline of a story, even if it may carry the possibility of gaining some readership. I found out the hard way last week.  The tweet read something along the lines of “House adds ‘shameful’ abortion amendment to health studies bill.” – Something like that. Except when the tweet went out, the computer system took the quotation marks around “shameful” out, making it appear as if I was the one calling it shameful, when in fact it was Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis City.

Here lies another kink I have had in my journalism experience. I’ll admit: I am set in my political ways. I try too hard to make it appear as though that is not a factor in anything I produce (it isn’t) to the point that the story swings in favor of the viewpoint opposite of my own. That is unintentional, and something I have been able to monitor during the past three months or so at MDN.

It was not a “shameful abortion amendment.” It was, pure and simple, an “abortion amendment.”

But that is something that the Legislature has had a bit of a problem with this session. Quite a bit of time has been spent debating issues like abortion, Obama’s health care law, and contraception. Some say for a good cause, others say it’s an agenda.

Everyone has an agenda- especially in the Missouri Statehouse. To call out another for being successful at their agenda is just jealous hypocrisy, if you ask me.

Many lop-sided, chamber-splitting issues have come up this session in the Missouri Statehouse, such as issues mentioned before. An interesting piece of legislation has surfaced – an effort to challenge the federal government on eight or so issues at once, covering everything from cap and trade to stem-cell research to the right for parents to home school their children.

There is nothing wrong with this from an ideological point of view. The two sides will (if it’s debated in the Senate) battle it out and what is right for Missouri will ultimately win. However, there’s a big problem with the constitutionality of the legislation. The state can’t just stop acknowledging federal laws. Nullification is unjust. The U.S. Constitution says in Article VI that the federal law is the supreme law of the land.

However, it also says the powers not granted to the federal government (which are listed in few throughout the document) are granted to the states.  The Tenth Amendment carries a lot of weight and is a very valid point. This furthers the two-sided sword of the issue. But at the same time, the state cannot pre-empt the federal law.

Michael Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court Justice, pointed out that if a federal government goes beyond the power it, the courts would rule it unconstitutional. This is apart of the basic checks and balance system of government. This is something soon to be decided Obama’s health care law. It will be the prime example of this whole issue.

In recent weeks, the Missouri House has taken up the issue of the health care law itself and has moved toward outlawing its enforcement in Missouri. Who knows where it will go. That’s the job of the judicial branch, not the legislative branch.

I learned that in fifth grade.


Week 12 - The Ongoing Abortion Issue
Posted 04/19/2012: 

It was an interesting week at MDN and in the Capitol, with most of the interest centered on Wednesday.

Monday brought the disappointment of the flopped story. A House-passed bill, which would require the presidential and vice presidential candidates to prove their natural born citizenship when filing with the Secretary of State’s office, was heard in a Senate committee. This has been attempted in other states, but has not panned out quite like it has this time in Missouri.

The problem? The bill sponsor did not have anyone to testify for the bill. No one was there in opposition. The news would not be new. It was a flop.

The back up story was to be a hearing for establishing of a state butterfly. However, there was no real news element with that, as only one person was there to elaborate on the type of butterfly species. Dull.

In all actuality, the committee hearing was a joke. At least three audience members fell asleep. One snored.

--

Wednesday, however, brought some excitement.

A bill was brought to the floor by Rep. Chris Molendorp, R-Belton, that would require a state commission to investigate the fiscal impacts of putting cancer, eating disorder and infertility treatment components to health coverage.

Rep. Andrew Koenig, R-St. Louis County, offered an amendment that would require doctors providing abortion-inducing drugs to purchase up to $3 million in malpractice insurance.

Essentially, this amendment really had nothing to do with the bill. To me, this is the sneaky back-door type of politics that has put this state and nation in the shape we are in today.

While I won’t state my views on abortion in this blog, I will say I have to agree with Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, when she told me it is an issue that could have been offered on its own. In fact, Jones called a point-of-order on the floor, citing the amendment was a distraction to the bill. But the point-of-order was not accepted and the amendment debate went on.

Koenig told me after the debate he thought the amendment was just in the sense that it related to insurance.

The amendment was added to the bill in a 105-40 vote. Eighteen representatives did not vote on the amendment.

The House then approved the bill.

Later in the day, the House and Senate both took up legislation aimed to crack down on unlicensed childcare providers.

Both chambers approved bills to impose fines for the service providers to falsely disclose they are licensed. Also, the legislation would put a hold on any services by unlicensed childcare providers if the provider were on trial for charges of abuse, neglect or death. The services would resume after the defendant is cleared.

--

There are two full weeks remaining for the time at the Capitol. Looking forward to the summer!


Week 11 - Child Abuse Awareness Event
Posted 04/12/2012: 

This week was a one-day week as far as Monday and Wednesdays at the Capitol go, as Easter Monday was observed with the General Assembly out of session.

Wednesday was a nice day outside in Jefferson City. I arrived and noticed many blue pinwheels on the Capitol lawn – nearly 4,000. It was all apart of an annual Child Abuse Prevention month event, Pinwheels for Prevention, put on by child abuse advocacy group Missouri KidsFirst.

The blue pinwheels are meant to be a positive symbol of awareness of child abuse.

In my reporting on Wednesday, I discovered Missouri law does not require teachers to report sexual abuse to state agencies, but rather their superiors. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing that led to the Penn State scandal.

Last week, the Missouri House voted to make it mandatory to report abuse to state agencies.

The event lasted about 30 minutes. The audience was small, but was filled with kids, parents and some lawmakers who ventured out to check out the event. Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, and Rep. Brent Lasater, R-Independence, spoke at the event on the work the state has done on the issue and will work toward, such as the law to report sexual abuse.

Emily van Schenkhof, Deputy Director of Missouri KidsFirst, told me she is pleased with the state's actions on children's issues. Especially given the budget and economic crunch the state has experienced.

I also found a University of Missouri Extension report, stating 15 for every 1,000 kids in Missouri are abused or neglected. That matches the national average.

Pablo Araujo, Missouri KidsFirst Prevention and Marketing Coordinator, told me the number of children attending the 15 child advocacy centers across the state is growing. Although it may seem negative, Araujo told me that it's a positive thing, in terms of reaching out to more people and spreading awareness in hopes of the numbers decreasing in the future.

-

There are only four weeks remaining in the semester. I'll admit, it's been a bit rough at times, but the experience gained while reporting at the state Capitol - in my second year of college - is truly amazing and unmatched.



Week 10 - Texting while Driving Makes Another Appearance
Posted 04/04/2012: 

Texting while driving is back in the spotlight at the Missouri Statehouse.

The House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee heard testimony Monday on a bill that would expand the texting while driving ban to all drivers on Missouri roadways. However, texting would be allowed with hands-free, voice-recognition devices.

Col. Ron Replogle, Superintendent of the Missouri Highway Patrol, said the current ban is hard to enforce.

Replogle said it is sometimes hard to judge the age of the texting driver. He also said he is in favor of a full ban. Replogle said anyone of any age texting while driving poses a danger to themselves and others.

However, multiple members of the committee said the texting while driving expansion would be difficult to enforce, aside from age. Several committee members voiced concern on how an officer would be able to tell if a driver is texting or dialing.

Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, said he is concerned the bill, could open up the possibility of racial discrimination from officers if it comes down to the officers’ word against the driver.

During this part of the hearing, Ellington was trying to think of the word “discrimination,” but said he could not think of the technical term and resulted to the use of the term “driving while black.”

Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, said he is uncertain of the bill’s future. He cites concern over the enforcement issues, but said he would like to see the bill moved to the floor for debate.

This same issue was debated in 2011, but with no success.

The current law, which bans Missourians under age 21 from texting at while driving, took effect in 2009.

A general distracted driving bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Marshall, has been placed on the informal Senate calendar for future debate.

The Senate bill is broad and would go beyond just texting while driving.

The bill would create a misdemeanor to not have “full-time” attention of the operation of a vehicle, or “engage in any other activity which causes the operator to be distracted” from driving.  


Week Nine - Reporting from the House Committee on Disability Services
Posted 03/22/2012: 

There were some interesting stories that came out of the House Committee on Disability Services Monday.

This week, the committee heard testimony on a House Resolution that would endorse a Missouri “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children’s Bill for Rights.”

Essentially, the resolution would endorse guidelines for schools in Missouri to provide a comfortable environment for hearing impaired students. Schools would provide services such as interpreters. Also, there would also be activities and peer interactions for the students.

It was interesting to sit in the hearing room and listen to the testimony. Ernest Garrett, Jr. III, executive director of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, was present to endorse the legislation.

Garrett, who is hearing impaired, gave his testimony supporting the resolution. He was able to answer representatives’ questions with help of his interpreter.

Garrett said the resolution is a positive and professional step forward for hearing impaired rights.

The most powerful moment, I believe, was when Thomas Green, with ParaQuad, testified in support of the resolution. He signed the entire testimony as his interpreter translated. His story of how his school age experiences, mostly rough, are shared by many hearing impaired students in schools today.

Green said often times hearing impaired students are left behind and are not offered the proper services they need to excel and do their best.

There was no opposition to the resolution at the hearing.

One other item of business from the hearing: a proposed increase in the funding for the state’s Brain Injury Fund.

Right now, any traffic or criminal citations given outside city limits have a $2 surcharge. The fee goes to the Brain Trust Fund run through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The fund helps move Missourians who have suffered from traumatic brain injury back into their community and lead a 'normal life.'

The bill would raise the surcharge to $10. The bill would also set up a 10-member committee meeting annually to determine funding regulations. The committee would consist of members from various state organizations and groups and one individual who has suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, said she would be in favor of further increasing that fee.

The bill would also require the state health department to seek waivers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to use funds from the MoHealthNet Medicare program to cover some costs.

Donna Gunning, executive director at the Center for Head Injury services, said “By investing in all this technology to keep people alive from injuries, it's the right thing to do to invest some money in getting them back to their lives.”

Approximately 14,000 Missourians seek medical care at hospitals around the state, according to the state Health Department’s website.


Week Eight - Open Enrollment
Posted 03/14/2012: 

The issue of open enrollment has taken a backseat in the Missouri Statehouse.

Roughly two years have past since there was a legitimate debate over the issue of school choice and allowing students to enroll across district lines freely.

Now, Turner v. Clayton Schools, an ongoing court case in St. Louis County over enrolling students in the unaccredited St. Louis City school district to adjoining districts, could bring back the issue.

The Turner v. Clayton trial is a continuance of the St. Louis City schools un-accreditation issue and the decisions to be made for the students who attend schools in the district.

But, what is happening at the state level? Have there been any laws proposed in the Missouri legislature this year? Especially in light of the recent un-accreditation for Kansas City Public School...

Nothing is happening. There are no open enrollment bills.

Fourteen states have some form of open enrollment laws. Each law has different specifics, but the 14 allow inter-district enrollment.

In Missouri, families must pay tuition to send their child to a school in a district other than their own.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg and Senate Education Committee chairman, opposes the overall premise of open enrollment. He calls the idea “controversial” and said it faces an “uphill battle.”

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, says open enrollment would allow Missouri families to make the decision of where to send their children to school.

Cunningham put forward legislation in January to allow students who have transportation troubles within their school district to enroll in another district. For example, if a student attends school A but school B is closer in time or distance, then the student would be able to enroll in school B and the funding would be transferred from school A to school B.

The bill has not been acted on since its referral to committee in January.

Although Pearce opposes the general idea of open enrollment, he said he could see it working in some situations.

He said transportation hardship would be one case. Additionally, Pearce said it might work when a district’s accreditation comes into question.

“If there is a situation where ... [a school] is not meeting their accreditation, I think that might be something to take a look at,” Pearce said.

Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, has been looking into that very issue with St. Louis City students in mind.

Dieckhaus referred to a survey conducted by the Clayton School District of St. Louis City students when he explained his proposed Passport Scholarship Program.

In the Clayton study, 15,740 students said they would transfer to neighboring St. Louis County school districts if given the opportunity.

The problem? There are approximately 8,500 seats currently available in St. Louis County schools. Dieckhaus said there are about 7,000 seats open in private schools within the St. Louis district and St. Louis County.

His Passport Scholarship Program would allow students in an unaccredited school district to enroll in area private schools, utilizing scholarships from the state.

Dieckhaus said the plan is a tax credit program that would use $40 million, capped, from the state. Donors to the program would receive a 60-percent tax credit. He said the program would provide over $67.5 million to students to attend the private schools.

Rep. Ira Anders, D-Independence, disagrees with the program.

“It seems to me there is a certain amount of religion that is going to be inherently taught [to] those kids” should they enter into the private school.

Anders, a former educator at a parochial school, said by funding students to attend a private school where some religion may be taught could create a separation of church and state problem.

“Not that that’s bad, but we’re (would be) taking tax dollars to basically support that school and that religion,” Anders said.

Could open enrollment have prevented the problems facing Kansas City or St. Louis? Anders says no.

He said if open enrollment were a factor, many students would have left some schools and attend elsewhere. But there are some students who either cannot or will not travel farther to attend school. Anders said the schools left behind would further decrease in quality and the students still attending would be stuck with a low-grade school system.

Pearce said this would be the case in smaller districts. He said many students would want to leave smaller, more rural districts for the city nearby with more programs. Pearce said it would put the smaller districts in a “death spiral” and the students would ultimately see less support before that district “finally withers and dies.”

However, supporters of open enrollment see it as a chance for schools to compete. Out of competition comes a striving for greater quality.

“Any sort of competition in really any arena is a good thing,” said Dieckhaus. “I think it drives everyone to perform at a higher level.”

-

Given the history of how open enrollment legislation has come about over the past several years, – a bill is introduced, sent to a committee where it ultimately dies - it does not look like Missouri will be seeing any form of open enrollment for elementary and secondary education in the near future.

Each side has a legitimate stance.

A free-market style education system would allow for competition among schools where the highest quality school would win. Plus, families would have a choice.

However, with open enrollment, some students who may not be able to travel great distances would be stuck in the school district with fewer students, less funding and less resources to eventually “whither and die.”

Nonetheless, a new comprehensive open enrollment debate is on the horizon with the pending Turner v. Clayton case.

Missourians will have to wait and see what action is taken to move toward or away from open enrollment - an issue with a lot of potential to work with and a lot a stake.


Story for Week 7 - Student Curator Bill
Posted 03/08/2012: 

The Senate Financial and Governmental Organizations and Elections committee heard testimony on a bill that would give one University of Missouri System student voting power on the UM Board of Curators.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, sponsors the bill. Columbia is home of the state’s flagship university.

It’s an issue that has been pushed many times over the past decades and has failed every time. However, this year presents a unique opportunity for the cause.

Currently, there are nine seats on the board, enough for representation from each of the nine Missouri Congressional districts. This year, one district will be eliminated, thus leaving an open seat.

A student voice is already at the table. A student representative to the board is cycled through every two years. Senate Bill 747 would give the student holding the position the right to vote on all issues except the hiring and firing of teachers.

If passed, the governor would make the first appointment in Jan. 2013.

The first student appointed to the two-year position would be a graduate student, and then the appointments would be open to the rest of the student body.

Former student representative to the board Laura Confer, a mechanical engineering senior at Missouri S&T, testified at the hearing.

Confer said the present curators respect the student opinion, but that may not always be the case, as two curators are replaced every two years.

“You never know if they will ... listen or give as much weight to the student opinion as the board does now.” Confer said.  “I would hate to see a student in my position not have their voice heard.”

No one spoke in opposition to the bill at the hearing.

Committee Chairman, Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said the committee might vote the week of March 19 on the bill.

Three similar bills were heard in a House committee later in the week.  All three failed passage.


Week Six: Not Driven by transportation
Posted 03/01/2012: 

I say “low key,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful one.

I published my I-70 toll road feature Monday afternoon. The last piece of the story came after talking with Bob Brendel, Missouri Department of Transportation Special Assignments Coordinator. It was necessary to have a professional voice to verify some of the opinions of those who travel the interstate frequently.

One interesting concern I heard - residents along the interstate are afraid of increased traffic on secondary roads as drivers avoid the toll. Several expressed their worries about the deterioration of those roadways.

Brendel said it is true that tolls create some traffic diversion, but he said the money raised by tolls on I-70 would free up some revenue. As a result, the secondary roads would be candidates for reconstruction.

My interview with Brendel was a nice extra piece to the feature.

Overall, I enjoyed reporting and producing my feature story. It was great to get out and talk to real people about real issues that will impact their lives.  A friend of mine once called this a “journo-high.”

Wednesday, I arrived at the Capitol a little early and sat in the House chamber. Only three issues were debated, but the one that went the longest was a bill that would change the way damages are paid in multiple-defendant civil cases. It is House Bill 1298, and was approved in the House.

The measure would allow “proportional negligence.” This means the parties in the defense found to be accountable will have to pay damages in accordance with how much they are found to be responsible for the damage. Under current practice, a “joint and several” system is in place where if one party cannot afford to pay damages, the other defending party must pick up the cost.

It was only slightly interesting to watch this debate. It was awkward at times, as Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, who presented the bill on the floor, is a man of relatively few words.

The debate met strong vocal opposition from Democrats, who say the bill will create a mess of trying to determine ‘absolute fault’ and would only protect the defendant. In fact, there was far more opposition discourse in the debate than there was that rose in support.

Those who supported the bill said this measure would make the payment of damages “more fair.”

Then, as I was producing the story, I discovered this type of policy is one the Missouri Chamber of Commerce has pushed for in the past. In fact, it was highlighted in the tort reform section of the organization’s “Fix the Six” movement in 2011.

The Chamber of Commerce states in the movement that the current practice hurts the business environment, where if a business is sued and found to be only partially liable (at least 51 percent), they must still cover 100 percent of the cost.

The legislation will next be presented in the House as a third reading and pass vote.

Now, on to week seven - the halfway point in the semester.


Week Five: Interstate 70 Toll Road Issue
Posted 02/23/2012:  I think it may be a bit of a stretch to say I'm on some kind of Interstate 70 toll issue "sub-beat" at the state Capitol. The issue dominated my week at Missouri Digital News.

I had the pleasure Monday of heading east on Interstate 70 to talk to normal everyday people who would be affected by a tolled I-70. This was an effort to produce a feature story on the matter - stay tuned, it's coming next week.

There was no surprise to what I learned while I was out talking to said everyday Missourians. Very few are in favor of the idea.

Truck drivers are probably the most against it. Adeane Childress from Ft. Wayne, Ind., was the most concerned trucker I spoke to. Childress said she drives across the state at least three times every month. From her nearly 20 years of experience, she told me typically toll roads are not maintained well and there are few places to park along the way. She's also concerned about the restrictions on what trucks can haul on toll roads, such as hazardous materials. Finally, she told me the cost for tolls comes out of her pocket and is something that she doesn't get back, because the trucking company only pays a certain percentage of the cost.

Doug Lensing is worried about the cost from getting place to place in rural areas. He said, unlike urban areas, rural areas do not have concentrated economies and more travel is required. He said he has to travel ten miles to get groceries.

Then, I found some who do not mind as much.

Karen Linquist of Foristel favors the idea of the highway department raising some revenue to make the improvements along the interstate. She said there are "so many trucks and there's traffic all the time," and would welcome the improvements. But, she only approves with some reservation. Linquist said she is worried about a negative developmental and economic impact on the Wentzville and Foristel area.

One last person I'll spotlight - John Chapman from Danville. He was the only person I found who adamantly supports the toll road. He said he likes how the toll would provide a way for those who use the interstate to pay for its improvements, especially "out-of-staters," rather than everyone paying for it with their gas taxes.

No doubt... one thing nearly everyone I talked to along Interstate 70 between Columbia and Wentzville agreed with is the need for Interstate 70 to be improved.

The Senate transportation committee heard public testimony on this very issue Wednesday morning.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, sponsors a Senate bill that would allow the Missouri Department of Transportation to enter into agreements with private companies - public-private partnership - to improve the interstate and charge a toll to pay for the improvements.

Kevin Keith, director of MoDOT, said there is a unique chance to jump at improving the interstate, with the public-private partnership model and federal approval to toll the road. He testified before the committee that if this could all come together, I-70 could be improved in six to eight years and cost up to $4 billion for the best improvement plan.

The opposition then spoke.

Tom Crawford, President and C.E.O. of the Missouri Trucking Association, said MoDOT's submitted plan for the free tolling system (where electronic tolling devices, known as gantries, would collect information as drivers drive by) would have limited 'points of entry.' He testified this would give locals more of a free pass and would discriminate against interstate commerce.

Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, testified tolls are not the answer. He said tolls would divert traffic away from his business members along the interstate. Leone also pointed to other public-private partnership models that have not had much success. He said in Chicago, toll rates have been on the increase as a result of the agreement; and, in California he exemplified an instance where a partnership fell through and the costs were stuck to the taxpayers.

Finally, there is a debate among whether or not implementing a 1-cent sales tax, increasing gas taxes or increasing diesel taxes would be a better idea than a toll road.

Committee chairman Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, said a toll is no different than a tax. He would rather see some other kind of direct tax.

Sen. Kehoe disagrees with increasing gas taxes. He said with gas running at $3.39 per gallon, the People would not approve.

The bottom line: from an observers standpoint, however, it doesn't look like anyone is a big fan of paying for this project. But the vast majority agrees that something must be done. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.


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