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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of April 20, 2015

The General Assembly passed a $26 billion spending plan early enough that Gov. Jay Nixon will be forced to act on the budget before the legislature adjourns in mid-May.

From the start of the legislative session, legislative leaders said they wanted to force Nixon to be able to override any budget vetoes before the legislature adjourns.

House Speaker John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, said the objective was to prevent the governor from spending the entire summer campaigning against the legislature's spending plan before their fall veto session.

Under Missouri's Constitution, the governor can reduce or eliminate separate items in the budget without having to veto the entire bill.

The final version approved by the legislature is slightly higher than the initial package of recommendations the governor had presented to lawmakers in January.

The final House-Senate conference committee version backed off from steep cuts in social services spending that had been approved by the Senate.

Elementary and Secondary Education are set to receive a $76 million increase in General Revenue funds, to go towards K-12 public schools.

Mental health services also received an increase of over $25 million. Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, R-Odessa, supported the General Assembly's decision to boost the funds.

"Mental health is vital to our state," Kolkmeyer said. "These are people who cannot take care of themselves."

However, social services received a $46 million budget cut in General Revenue funds, upsetting many Medicaid expansion supporters. With a final vote of 85-67, the cut was one of the day's most heavily debated issues.

House Democrats, who also opposed the cuts to social services, blasted Republican lawmakers for passing the budget in a matter of hours.

"With $26 billion of taxpayer money at stake, you would think GOP leaders would treat the process with seriousness it deserves," said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis City. "Apparently, you would be wrong". 

The governor now has until early May -- just days before the legislature's adjournment -- to act on the budget bills.

The Missouri House passed its version of a measure to lower the percentage limit of how much of a city's budget can be financed by municipal court files.

The bill passed the House Wednesday with a vote of 131-19. The measure now goes back to the Senate.

Current law limits how much a local government budget can come from court fines to 30 percent.  All revenue over the threshold is sent to the Department of Revenue where it is then distributed to schools in the same area where the fees were collected.

The Senate version would cut the limit to 20 percent and eventually to 10 percent except for some small, rural towns.

The House version imposes a 15 percent limit. It also imposes a $200 limit on court costs and fines for a minor traffic violation. It prohibits sentencing a person to jail for failing to pay the fine.

The Senate passed the bill on Feb. 12 with a vote of 34-0.

The Senate passed a measure that would allow Missouri to join other states in calling for an Article V Constitutional Convention in order to amend the U.S. Constitution.

The resolution states that a convention be called in order to deal with issues involving federal government term limits, decreasing federal power and the bureaucracy and fixing the federal budget.

"We are weaker now than we have ever been and there has never been a more important time than right now for states to step up and tell the federal government you are going to stay with in your limits on your spending," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

However, University of Missouri political science professor Marvin Overby said the limits of what a convention could enact are unclear since the last convention in 1787 reworked a whole new government.

"Our founding fathers who we revere for the writing of the constitution, they essentially went far beyond what their charge was," said Overby. "So there's significant fear on parts for some of us that the same thing might happen if there were a second constitution convention was called."

This concern was also discussed among testifies at the committee hearing for these resolutions.

The resolutions now head to the House.

Legislation that would keep police body camera footage hidden from the public even if a a sunshine request is filed, will now move forward to the Senate.

The bill wold allow video that is captured through body cameras to stay hidden despite a sunshine request, disclosing all criminal footage. Currently, a sunshine request allows the video to be made public.

The judge, lawyer, property owner and those directly connected to the police camera footage will be the only one's to view the video.

The bill was perfected in the House on Wednesday but did bring strong opposition.

Rep. Randy Dunn, D-Jackson County, said the bill is about shielding the video from the public.

"To give a broad shield against video and audio recording is bad because what we're saying is that if they do do something illegal than it's okay that it should be hidden," Dunn said.

The bill was met with strong support by Republican members saying this is the protection the public needs.

"Right now we have we have open sunshine laws regarding footage from these police body cams, we have our citizens appearing on YouTube at their most vulnerable, Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Jackson County said.

Those in favor of the bill said it will protect citizen's rights against intrusion by not having their personal moments being exposed to anyone requesting video footage.

Some lawmakers are expressed concerns on the privacy of officers wearing the cameras. One Representative said police officers brought to his attention what would be the protocol if an officer forgets to turn off the camera in the restroom.

Two contaminated sites in Kansas City and Springfield will receive an additional $7 million due to a bankruptcy settlement.

Attorney General Chris Koster said Anadarko Petroleum Company will also contribute nearly one million dollars to the Department of Natural Resources to help cleanup other contaminated sites across the state.

"The additional settlement proceeds for former Kerr-McGee facilities will go directly to the two sites in Missouri for the express purpose of environmental recovery under the supervision of the Department of Natural Resources.” Koster said.

Each site has already received $19.1 million toward cleaning up the two sites, which suffer from soil and groundwater contamination.

The company has already paid $4.1 billion nationwide to cleanup contaminated areas.

Deputy State Auditor Henry Otto reported Wednesday that Gov. Jay Nixon continues to take money from other agencies to finance travel and extra staff for his office.

In the past three budget years, the audit of the governor's office reported $1.9 million had been used from appropriations for other agencies to cover costs of the governor's office and mansion.

Otto said the expenses belonging to the employees of the governor's office should be paid for using the money appropriated to the governor's office. 

"The auditor's office believes that there are bodies, there are people on the second floor of the governor's office, inside the walls of the governor's office doing governor office duties, but their expenses are being charged to and paid by other places," Otto said.

The audit noted that diversion of funds for the governor's office violated specific restrictions in the budgets that had been by the legislature and signed by the governor.

Otto said the governor's misuse of funds is not allowing other agencies to pay for what they need.

"A budget is adopted and then the spending in that budget is being manipulated to some extent because elementary and secondary education gets "x" dollars to spend but then they've got to save some money or use some money to spend some expenses that were incurred by the governor's office," Otto said. "So therefore, they didn't get everything that they were supposed to get." 

According to the audit, $948,000 was taken from appropriations to other agencies to pay the salaries and travel expenses of six employees of the governor's office. In addition, another $732,000 was taken from agencies to cover other costs involving the governor's office and mansion.

Otto said the governor's office charging other state agencies for its expenses was their "No. 1 finding." 

The audit included a formal response from the governor's office to the finding.

It was just one sentence -- "The office accounts for its operational costs in a manner that properly reflects the nature of the work it performs."

In response to Nixon's continued use of funds appropriated for other purposes, the legislature this year has included even stronger language designed to require that the governor limit spending for his office to what the legislature appropriated.

Extended questioning led the Senate to postpone action on a bill that would impose additional restrictions on when a law enforcement officer can use deadly force.

The proposal was filed in response to the police fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson last year.

Missouri law authorizes a police officer to use deadly force on a fleeing person if the officer "reasonably believes" it is necessary to accomplish the arrest and that person attempted or has attempted to commit  a felony crime.

The bill before the Senate would impose language requiring that there be some reason for the police officer to believe the suspect represented a threat.

Sen. Maria Cappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, argued Missouri is three decades behind other states in restricting when deadly force can be used.

"Like we are literally, when it comes to deadly force, we are 30 years behind," she said.

The principle sponsor of the measure is the Senate's Judiciary Committee chair, Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Greene County.

But two lawyers in the Senate -- Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County -- the additional provisions a police officer would be required to consider before using lethal force was unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

"When you put an officer in a position where literally something that's going to happen in a thirtieth of a second, and they have to weight all those factors, it can be very difficult," Schaefer said.

Although the bill was prompted by the shooting death of Brown, his name was not mentioned during the debate.

A bipartisan group of representatives voted to kill a 2 cent gasoline tax increase measure in the House Transportation Committee Tuesday, April 21.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Keith English, I-St. Louis County, would have permanently raised the gas tax from 17 cents to 19 cents per gallon without requiring voter approval.

In this case, the gas tax increase proposal was a bipartisan issue. Rep. Bill Lant, R-Pineville, spoke of his concerns regarding ailing bridge infrastructure in his district.

"We've already had two bridges that they've had to drop the load limits on because of the condition of the bridges," Lant said. "I think this is something we need to get started on."

Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis County, echoed Lant's worries, citing poor road conditions in the state's rural areas.

"Something's got to be done seriously about our infrastructure in this state," Burns said. "Or instead of lowering weight limits, we're going to have a bridge collapse, which would be a catastrophe."

Ultimately, the committee rejected the measure by a vote of 5-6, with twice as many Democrats voting against the proposal than for it.

A similar Senate measure was stalled on the chamber floor last week, after leading Republican fiscal hawks decided they would not support the bill.

The House sent Gov. Jay Nixon a bill Tuesday, April 21 that would tie the number of weeks a person could get unemployment insurance to the state's overall unemployment rate.

However, it received bipartisan opposition and Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Jackson County, said the bill will do Missouri families no good.

"This bill will hurt families and it's going to hurt people," she said.

Rep. Keith English, I-St. Louis County, agreed with Solon.

"This hurts every man, woman, and child in the state of Missouri," he said.

Only bill sponsor Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, spoke in favor of the bill during the debate.

He went over the four amendments the Senate added to the bill, which include changing the effective date to January 1, 2016, and not letting a person who gets a severance package file an unemployment compensation claim until their severance package runs out.

The current unemployment rate in Missouri 5.6 percent, according to the March report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If this bill becomes law, unemployed persons would only be able to collect 13 weeks worth of insurance.

Solon said that amount of times is too short.

"The difference in finding a job in three months to what we currently allow [in] 5 months may not seem like a big difference, but to the folks who are out pounding the pavement looking for work, it's enormous," Solon said.

The House passed the bill by an 88-68 vote, which is just over 20 votes shy of a veto-proof majority.

Once the bill is delivered to Nixon, he has 15 days to either sign or veto the bill.

Attorney General, Chris Koster, announced Monday he will defend the Senate's right to ban video coverage at committee hearings.

Progress Missouri, a liberal activist group, filed a lawsuit last week against Sens. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, David Sater, R-Cassville, and Mike Parson, R-Bolivar for violating the Missouri Sunshine law.

In the same week the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow the General Assembly to hire outside legal counsel if the Attorney General does not agree to defend them.

"We just want to be able to use those funds to represent us when we need attorney representatives," said Sen. Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin. "If the Attorney General decides not to do that we want access to someone who will do that for use."

The bill comes in response to Senate Republican complaints that the Attorney General had not adequately defended the General Assembly on legislative issues in the past.

The House on Thursday, April 16 passed the compromise version of the welfare reform bill that lowers the lifetime limit to collect funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

The compromise agreed to by House and Senate negotiators caps the lifetime limit for a person to get TANF benefits at 45 months.

Rep. Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton, handled the bill in the House and wanted to remind members what TANF is meant to do.

"It is not a long-term program for individuals who find themselves in a state of chronic poverty," Franklin said. "That is not what it's for. It's a temporary program."

Democrats rose to express their opposition, saying it would hurt the less fortunate.

Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, said the bill lacks one key component.

"To me, there is absolutely zero compassion in this bill. Zero," Newman said.

One of the biggest points of contention in the debate is how the bill would affect children.

Rep. Rochelle Walton-Gray, D-St. Louis County, said people don't want government assistance until they absolutely need it.

"No parent wants their child to be on assistance when they grow up and they don't want themselves [to either]," she said.

Franklin told reporters afterwards in a press conference that she estimates around 3,800 people would be kicked off welfare once the bill, if signed by the governor or through a veto override of the legislature, is implemented in January 2016.

Other changes agreed to in the bill would require those seeking assistance to participate in work activities.

Rep. Sharon Pace, D-St. Louis County, said jobs are hard to come by in a still-recovering economy.

"We need to look into the mirror because [a job loss] can hit any one of us at any day and time," Pace said. "Jobs are not available as they have been in the past and there's training that we must give individuals as well."

One final addition to the bill is a 2 percent shift of TANF funds to fund services that provide alternatives to abortions.

Once the bill gets to Nixon, he'll have 15 days to sign or veto.

Senate lawmakers approved legislation Wednesday afternoon tying the number of weeks Missourians can use unemployment benefits to the state's unemployment rate.

If passed, the bill would extend unemployment benefits for 20 weeks if Missouri's unemployment rate is higher than nine percent. That number then drops by one week for each percent the unemployment rate declines until unemployment falls to six percent, when Missourians would then be eligible for 13 weeks of benefits.

An amendment supported by Senate Democrats upping the maximum number of weeks from 20 to 30 failed the day before.

The bill now heads back to the House.

Legislation dealing with students who transfer out of unaccredited school districts is heading back to the House after the Senate passed its version of the bill Wednesday afternoon.

The bill, which was amended several times in the Senate, now faces an up or down vote in the House. If House lawmakers do not agree to the changes made by the Senate, the bill will then go to a conference committee. 

The House Health and Mental Health Policy committee postponed a vote on a bill allowing nursing home patients or their families to place a camera or a monitoring device inside of their rooms.

Rep. Tila Hubrecht, R-Dexter, said she was concerned installing cameras would only exacerbate nursing staff shortages.

"They're not getting paid," said Hubrecht. "I don't think the camera is going to address that situation. I think that we need to look at the nursing staffing model and somehow take into the level of care. That's when we are going to see an improvement in this. As far as the cameras, I'm worried that it will exacerbate our nursing staff shortage because I think it's going to make people leave that facility. Because there's a camera in that room you're going to feel uncomfortable."

Committee chair Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, said he is concerned about employees not being able to defend themselves in a legal situation because of how video could make a situation look.

Frederick said when nurses cover extra shifts they can have twice the amount of patients than normal, and when they have to rush around to take care of all their patients it can look bad on camera.

The only committee member who spoke in favor of the bill was Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin.

White said this bill would allow family members to ensure their loved one is getting the care they deserve.

"What the sponsor is trying to do with this bill it get accountability for people who are placing their relatives in nursing homes and for the people themselves in the nursing homes," said White. "When you select a nursing home they're advertising to you that they are going to provide good care to you or your family member whose going to be residing there and how do you really know."

Other representatives told White family members could visit their loved ones in nursing home to ensure they are receiving good care, but White said some patients do not have family members nearby.

The Senate heard a short debate on the dangers of fracking Wednesday morning during a discussion on a bill that would expedite the process of getting a fracking permit.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said, "Missouri, believe it or not, has had a dramatic increase in the number of oil and gas wells and interest as technology has increased on how to develop products across the state."

Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, explained that this bill would not make it easier for companies to frack, but would speed up the assessment of sights to determine if the company can move forward.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said some Missourians are concerned about the dangers of fracking.

"Some people are concerned about fracking, concerned that it's an environmental hazard, I don't think that there's a consensus that fracking is such a great thing," Schaaf said. "I'll freely admit that it creates jobs, but some people have concerns that it allows for a lot of pollution to be injected down into the ground and that some of that can come up around loose casings and get into the groundwater."

Schaaf questioned but is in favor of the bill.

Progress Missouri filed a lawsuit in Cole County court Wednesday accusing Sens. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, David Sater, R-Cassvile, and Mike Parson, R-Bolivar of violating the Missouri law allowing members of the public to record meetings of state and local government.

In a blog post, Progress Missouri executive director Sean Soendker Nicholson wrote the lawsuit came after several years of conflict between the Senate and the activist group.

"Some state senators, including Mike Parson, Mike Kehoe, and David Sater think that the Sunshine Law doesn't apply to them," Nicholson said. "They’re wrong."

Last year, a Columbia television station was barred from recording a Senate committee hearing.

Court documents posted by the group also criticizes Senate policy, which limits video recording privileges to members of the Missouri Capital News Association.

An audit released by Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto revealed the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education did not properly distribute excess traffic fines collected by cities.

Under the current Macks Creek law, Missouri towns are required to send all revenue collected via traffic tickets or fees to the state revenue department if the total is greater than 30 percent of the city's general revenue.

The audit later said only one city had sent fine money back to the state since 2012. That number later quintupled by March 2015.

Legislation aimed to lower the threshold cities can collect down to 20 percent passed the Senate in February and is making its way through the House.

Missouri's Senate was presented with a scaled-down version of a gasoline tax increase to address what the Transportation Department says are major shortfalls in funding to maintain state highways.

The original plan approved by the Senate Transportation Committee would have sought voter approval to boost the gasoline tax by six-cents per gallon -- from 17.3 cents to 23.3 cents.

But the committee chair presented to the Senate a substitute that would impose only a two-cent increase and not require voter approval.

As the Senate debated, the plan got a tentative endorsement from Gov. Jay Nixon.

"We all know that we need additional revenue in that area not only for the short run so we can draw down federal dollars but also also in the long run so we can be a transportation hub for the state," Nixon said at a news conference.

"I don't have any problem with the Senate moving forward on the two-cent piece. I think it's a relatively small step. It's an important small step to get energy and momentum toward the larger infrastructure needs that we have in the future of the state."

In 2014, Nixon had attacked a much larger sales tax increase for transportation. The tax increase defeat led the Transportation Department to announce a major cut-back in maintenance of lessor state highways.

Although smaller in size, the Senate bill came under Senate attack. The first critic to rise in the Senate against the bill -- Sen. Ed Emory, R-Lamar -- argued a tax increase should be submitted to the voters.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph's, asked that question to the Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City.

"Would you be willing to accept an amendment," Schaaf said. "In order to pass this bill that would put it to a vote of the people?"

The bill's sponsor Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, said the increase is necessary not only to fund MoDOT, but to increase jobs.

"We have Missouri highway construction experts in this state," said Libla. "Second to none. They're experts. But, let me tell you where they are being experts now: Arkansas, Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky."

The Senate adjourned Tuesday evening with the promise of coming back to the bill on a later date.   

Rep. Chrissy Sommer's bill would revise the definition of a service dog to include those helping those with 'invisible illnesses.'

"These individuals can be anybody who may be like suffering from PTSD, Alzheimer's, Dementia, traumatic brain injury," said Sommer, R-St. Charles. "A lot of these type of conditions are invisible and thus people do not understand the need or use of animals."

Sommer explained that service animals can provide therapy, boundary control, motor assistance and much more than just companionship to their owners.

"The mental health service dogs are of considerable benefit to those with mental disabilities, and by clarifying this definition, we'll be making sure that those individuals that need that type of help do get that type of help," said Sommer.

The House perfected the bill and will later vote on whether or not to pass it.

The bill would require brew-on-premise businesses to obtain a license from the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. Brew-on-premise businesses allow customers to use special brewing equipment to make their own beer and other alcoholic beverages.

The sponsor of the bill -- Rep. Don Gosen, R-St. Louis County -- says this measure will make it easier for these businesses to become licensed because they will no longer have to obtain a manufacturing-type license.

"There actually are businesses in Missouri right now that would love to do this, and some of them are doing it, but they're doing it through a variety of licensing techniques that really are not appropriate," Gosen said. "And this would allow all these brew-on-premise businesses to have a very simple, straight-forward license that's appropriate for what they do."

Gosen also explained that the bill would create special permits for small brewing companies that travel to Missouri for beer tasting events and other festivals.

The bill does not affect regulations for those who wish to brew beer in their own home.

The bill was perfected.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday, April 14, that  he will appoint Nicole Galloway to be the next state auditor to fill the position vacated after the suicide of the former auditor Tom Schweich.

Gallway, 32, has been the treasurer of Boone County since 2011. She is a CPA and had been an auditor at Shelter Insurance and an analyst at Allstate Insurance.

Galloway, a Democrat, takes a statewide office that had been won by Republican Schweich last November.

But Gov. Jay Nixon said he did not take party affiliation into consideration in making his selection.

Republicans issued an immediate news release release criticizing Nixon for replacing a statewide office held by a Republican with a Democrat.

"It is disappointing that Nixon has put politics ahead of the wishes of voters by handpicking a member of his own party to fill the vacancy in the office," GOP State Party Director Jonathon Prouty was quoted as saying in a release from the party.

The former chair of the legislature's Black Caucus voiced opposition that Nixon had rejected calls for Nixon to appoint a black as the first black official to hold a statewide elected office in Missouri.

They had promoted appiontment of St. Louis City Comptroller Darlene Green.

"For him to just close his eyes to the need of more African-American statewide is just appalling. It's unacceptable. I know he's going to get a lot of push-back from the African-American community," said Sen. Jamiliah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.

"The governor could have made history. He could had stepped up to the plate and appointed an African-American -- not just an African-American, but a qualified African-American."

Nixon stressed the qualifications of his selection when asked about the issue of appointing a black state official.

"There were a wide group of folks that were looked at," Nixon said. "I think that Nicole's qualifications speak for themselves. She's the best person for the job, period."

Galloway said to reporters that she would not have taken the job if she did not intend to run in 2018.

Galloway's appointment will require the resignation of Nixon's first appointment -- his former chief of staff, John Watson -- who had been named as a temporary replacement.

Nixon said Galloway formally would take office the week of April 27.

A Senate debate regarding school transfer bills shifted to a discussion regarding government expansion.

Sen. Will Kraus, R-Jackson County, said he did not think it was a good idea for regional educational authorities to run school transfers, because, "government isn't the solution all the time."

Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, said these regional boards are comprised of members who understand their community.

Chapelle-Nadal said she would not mind Kraus trying to remove the portion of the bill that would require regional authorities to run this process in Kansas City or rural areas, but said she wanted him to leave St. Louis alone.

Kraus said he would not offer forward his amendment regarding the regional authorities, even though he had it ready.

A bill that would tighten police restrictions regarding deadly forced could be heard in the Missouri Senate as early as this week.

The bill would restrict the circumstances under which a law enforcement official could be justified to use deadly force.

The restrictions for deadly force would be narrowed to include: if an officer believes the person has committed or attempted to commit a felon that poses serious injuries, the person is attempting to escape by using a deadly weapon or that the person is posing a serious physical threat to an officer or another person.

Senator Bob Dixon, R-Greene County, said the motivation for the bill comes from concerns that surfaced following the unrest in Ferguson.

"The benefit of this legislation is we need to give very clear guidelines to law enforcement and that's really what we're trying to do," Dixon said. "I am working closely with legislators from that area to do the right thing. I think it needs to be addressed."

Dixon said the statutes are crafted from those in the Tennessee v. Garner decision. Tennessee v. Garner was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said a law enforcement official cannot use deadly force to prevent the suspect to escape unless the officer has probable cause that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others.

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