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Senate turns down optional helmets while state budget and foundation formula chug ahead

April 14, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With the House bottled down in contentious debate before formal approval of the state's budget, across the hall, one of the Senate's most vocal liberals and one of its staunchest conservatives joined forces.

Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, led a successful Senate filibuster of an attempt to allow motorcyclists to decide if they wished to wear a helmet. The move was temporarily interrupted by Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who joined the Democrats in their opposition.

Nodler, relaying a story from his youth, said he could not support the bill because he had seen a young woman crash her motorskooter while traveling very slowly, crack her head open upon the pavement and die in front of him.

"No one who votes for this bill is someone who has observed a head injury that was fatal," he said.

Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, also told a personal story in describing the death of her son while riding a motorcycle without a helmet as part of the crux of her opposition.

The bill had been filed several times by Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, who ranged from amused to noticeably annoyed by the opposition. This session it would exempt anyone older than 21 from the requirement that they wear a helmet.

Cauthorn acknowledged that "tragic accidents" occur but said it was a risk motorcyclists take and accept. He said it should not be the responsibility of the state to protect citizens from themselves at every juncture.

"I think that it is time to remove this health mandate," he said.

Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis City, said he did not understand why a change was necessary. Kennedy, building upon a theme layed out by other Democratic senators, said allowing riders not to wear a helmet would lead to more head injuries which would further tax the state's health care system.

"Why do they want to do that?" he asked during floor debate. "Do they want to feel the wind going through their hair? Do they want to feel the rock pebbles hitting them in the head?" he said.

Although the Senate could return to the measure later, with only four weeks remaining in the session, Senate leaders will be under pressure to avoid bills triggering filibusters.

In addition to dispensing Cauthorn's motorcycle helmet bill, the Senate also gave final approval to a rewrite of the formula used to distribute state money to local schools.

The formula, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, would cost $680 million and be implemented over five years.

Although the issue was briefly discussed during almost nine hours of debate earlier in the week, Democratic senators were more aggressive in questioning how the tab would be paid.

"The expression: 'Show me the money,' is very good here," Wilson said. "Show us how we're going to pay for this."

Shields argued the combination of natural economic growth and expansion and loss limits, increases to gaming admission fees and taxes would pay for the formula.

But Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said the proposed changes should come with a plan for how to fund them. He said this was especially important because many of the Republican senators oppose using gambling to pay large percentages of vital state programs.

Graham, voted against the proposed formula because he said funding the existing formula would get more money to his schools than fully funding the new formula proposed by Shields.

Shields' formula sets a per pupil spending minimum while giving additional funding for indicators of districts with extra expenses. These factors would include special education, free and discount lunch and students with a low English profiency.

In the lower chamber, a multi-day debate concluded when the House approved the state's $19 billion budget.

With most of the contentious discussion engulfing the House floor earlier in the week, debate remained low-key until Rep. John Burnett, D-Kansas City, went beyond the standard Democratic critique of the Republican budget.

"It is unfair to pass a budget that literally kills people in this state," he said. "When we cut health care for people, we actually shorten their lifespan."

This sparked an intense, often angry discussion about a budget that balances increases to education with $370 million in cuts to social services.

"The gentleman's cheap, politically-motivated attacks cheapens the process that we've worked so hard to build this year," Majority Whip Brian Nieves, R-Union, said. "And I take exception to his insinuations, and I ask us that if we're going to agree or disagree that we do it on the substance of the bill."

House Budget Chairman Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said he took no joy in the cuts but argued that the state lacked the money it once had and could not afford to increase spending education spending without cuts to social services.

"We will never stop the wanting desire, to stop the urge to spend money," he said. "We'll never be able to quench that thirst."

Nonetheless, Lager said the money shortages plaguing the state offered an opportunity to change Medicaid and "create a new system, one that models our original intent: a safety net, not an insurance plan."

Aside from social services, the budget calls for the closing of two prisons and would also make cuts to the departments of natural resources, revenue, corrections and insurance.

The budget hit the floor a week after the House approved a plan to permit the budget to determine the types of medical care subject to coverage under the Medicaid program. Many of the cuts to social services depended upon this flexibility.

Podiatry was cut and a premium was added to the state-funded MC+ program which provides health insurance to children whose families earn up to three times the federal poverty level, yet lack private insurance. The state will continue to fund eye exams every two years, some dental procedures, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs under Medicaid.

State officials estimated the proposed cuts would prompt the families of 23,000 children to drop the program.

Also cut from the budget were state subsidies to some adoptive parents.

Democrats argued the budget and Medicaid cuts were too deep and would ultimately cost the state in the long run while proposed increases to education did not go far enough.

But Republican lawmakers said the Democrats were being too quick to complain and too slow to give alternatives the minority party would support.

"We see a welfare reform bill come through, and we see "no" (from the Democrats)," Rep. Brad Roark, R-Springfield, said. "We see budget bill after budget bill after budget bill voted no. There's been numerous opportunities in this body this year to help out with revenue to help out with other things, but all we see is no,no,no."

Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said the $113 million increase to K-12 education amounts to about the cost of a "Sloppy Joe sandwich" when spread across almost 900,000 students statewide.

Harris said that with a lawsuit charging the state funding of public schools is inequitable and inadequate pending, "a Sloppy Joe sandwich will not keep us out of court."

The UM System stands to receive about $400 million plus an additional $1.95 million for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry for aid in accreditation.

The Senate, working on their own version of the budget this week, has booked additional cuts across the board because senators estimated more modest savings from the House's cuts.

The General Assembly has three weeks to pass the state budget.