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Theo Keith's Blog in 2009
Reporting at the State Capitol

Posted May 13, 2009: 

It's the last post of the semester! Although it's the last week of the legislative session, not much has happened - and the week is 60 percent over. Lawmakers had three major things to hammer out: the governor's education plan, Medicaid, and the governor's tax breaks for businesses. As of now, none has seen much progress, and the education plan is effectively dead in the House. Truthfully, legislators haven't gotten a lot accomplished in the past five months. Yes, they passed next year's operating budget. But so much time was spent on the budget that little else has been accomplished.

As for my summer plans, I'm headed home to Michigan for two weeks before I'm off to New York City and FOX News Channel for the summer. I've never been to the Big Apple before, so it should be a exciting experience. I should learn a lot about broadcast news, business, and living in a big city. Next year, I'll be back at the statehouse reporting and editing, so this is by no means my final blog post. I'm also taking over as news director at KCOU 88.1 FM, the University of Missouri's student radio station. I'm excited to get to work building a news department at the station, working with some great young journalists, and teaching (and learning) as much as possible. For now, have a great summer everyone!

Posted May 8, 2009:

Budget, budget, budget. That was the theme of the week again. But lawmakers finally finished the $23.1 billion budget, so it won't be the theme of my weeks for a whole year! It's been a fun semester at the Capitol, especially the past two weeks, as legislators got heated as the budget battle intensified. I don't think I can explain all that I learned this semester at the statehouse. I've learned the power of the media is a frightening thing for many lawmakers, especially if they sense a story will be critical of their actions. I've learned how to make the typical politician answer, such as "It's going to be tough, but I'm doing this for my constituents,"  go in one ear and out the other. I've learned how to ask the tough follow up question to elicit some emotion from them. I know when I've asked a good question, because the person will stumble around for a while before giving an honest answer. I know much more about budgets, finances, bond ratings and other monetary topics now.

This has been one of the busiest weeks of the year for me. Two final exams, my second broadcast package, meetings and reporting at the Capitol consumed my week. It's strange how the stress of exam week seems to have morphed into "the week before exam week." I only have one final exam next Monday, and then school's out!

Posted April 29, 2009: 

Whew! It was a busy week! Democrats walking out of a hearing, Republicans stripping money from a cancer center, and writing a Columbia Missourian newspaper article were all firsts for me. Monday, I was sitting in a House Rules Committee hearing when Democrats, enraged over a procedure dispute, got up and left. Republicans didn't seem to mind having the room to themselves, and later offered an amendment that would take money away from the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia. It's the second time in the past three months that Fischel thought they had funding, only to see it disappear. The first time occurred when Gov. Nixon suspended all Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, or MOHELA, projects, of which Fischel was one. After a blitz of interviews, I pumped out a record five wraps for this story. Needless to say, I got home a little later than I anticipated!

Wednesday, I was again on the Fischel beat. Before I arrived at the statehouse, an amendment restored the $31 million to fund the center. The House perfected the $1.6 billion bill, including the Fischel money, later in the day. I wrote the Columbia Missourian's newspaper story, too. I've been out of the print mindset for a few months now, and I'm admittedly a little rusty. I've always enjoyed writing print stories because you can tell more of the story in print than in a 40-second broadcast version. (I'm also a bit long-winded.) The budget will certainly consume my time next week, too. Good news: 12 days until the end of school! Then I'm headed to New York to work on "Your World with Neil Cavuto," a business news show on the FOX News Channel.

Posted April 22, 2009: 

Monday was a marathon. The House Budget Committee met for six hours (plus two recesses) to hammer out where more than $2 billion of federal stimulus will go. The hearing didn't have much life until committee members began slowly picking away at a jobs program Gov. Nixon had endorsed. By the second recess, they had taken $91 million of the $100 million total and funded projects that would benefit their home districts. I called Nixon spokesperson Scott Holste, who said the governor was disappointed to see the committee spending money on pet projects. I knew I had the makings of a good story. After the committee reconvened, it stripped the remaining money. After posing some questions to the committee chairman, I went back to the newsroom to pump out four wraps. (For those of you keeping score at home, that's my record number of wraps for one story.) The committee could have shortened the hearing if they hadn't made quite so many jokes about Amtrak, which, apparently, one of the committee members really likes. I also produced a story on the state budget director saying tax revenue estimates are too optimistic. For a state already hurting for money, that wasn't a good thing to hear.

Wednesday, I raced around the Capitol more than any other day this semester. Nathan Higgins, a fellow radio reporter, and I were trying to track down House Republican leaders, who held a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning. The stimulus bills from the budget committee were scheduled to go before the full House on Wednesday, but they never did. Putting these two events together, it seems the Republicans are split on how to spend the stimulus money. Unfortunately, it was also legislative softball game day (it's root, root, root for the home team), so Nathan and I didn't get to the bottom of this ourselves. The next two weeks will be very interesting, as the spending bills will go before the House, then the Senate, then conference committee, and must land on the governor's desk by May 8. It's going to be a tight squeeze, and the buzz word around the statehouse is that a special session may be necessary. 

Posted April 15, 2009: 

There was nothing to do Monday. Nothing. My fellow reporters and I didn't get the memo, and no one was at the State Capitol. It was the day after Easter and, while the Senate was supposed to convene, not a single senator showed. Instead of covering state politics, the MDN reporters did constructive things like surf the Internet, check e-mail, and brainstorm future story ideas (see, I told you we did something constructive). I started thinking about a semester-long project Chris Dunn and I plan to work on together, called "the recession in rural Missouri." We're going to start planning this semester by talking to rural legislators, getting ideas on the best towns to focus on, before launching into the project next semester. If we decide to carry it out, I'll be doing the television and radio components, with Chris taking the print and photo aspects. If it happens, it will be eye-opening for both of us.

Wednesday, there wasn't much to do, either. All the action happened Tuesday, when the House gave first-round approval to eliminating the state income tax, raising the sales tax, and putting a bond issue to Missouri voters in order to fund $700 million of higher education construction projects. Fortunately, I did have something to work on - a plan to give St. Louis transit system METRO $20 million in emergency funding. METRO has cut routes because of budget problems. Some drivers with full buses have had to pass by people waiting to board because there isn't room. From the conference call I listened in on Wednesday, it sounds like the governor, lieutenant governor, and top lawmakers support the plan. It was a good day, made better because it was warm enough to eat lunch on the Capitol steps. The official countdown to the end of school is at 26 days!

Posted April 8, 2009: 

I headed to the State Capitol on Monday knowing the bill that would limit workers to using secret ballot votes to form unions was up for debate again. Last week, it was hotly contested, with supporters taking two hours to testify. This week, union members packed the hearing room while their leaders told the House Workforce Committee how the bill would limit workers' rights. In the end, seven Republicans defeated five Democrats to pass the measure in a straight party line vote. Rep. Doug Funderburk, a St. Peters Republican, said he only voted for the bill so the entire House could debate its merits. While there was less humor (and no fire alarm) this week, the hearing was still lively. The committee also unanimously approved lifting the state's $450 million borrowing limit. Unbelievably, Missouri's unemployment insurance fund will be $1 billion short over the next six years! Therefore, the state is going to smash through the old borrowing limit. It is frightening that the state will borrow the money from the federal government, which turns to China to finance its debt. By that logic, the Chinese are paying unemployed Missourians' benefits. Yikes.

Wednesday, the House Budget Committee quickly approved $155 million in federal stimulus money. The federal government has said exactly how this money may be spent, so there's no lobbying to be done. However, this is only a fraction of the more than $4 billion Missouri received in stimulus funds. The legislative session ends May 15, so lawmakers will be hurried to approve more money before the recession. In Missouri, there is only a spring session, so the money will sit until January if it isn't allocated within the next month. On that note, the spring semester is also winding down. Only 33 more days to go!

Posted April 1, 2009: 

This (slightly tanner) reporter was back on the job this week after enjoying Spring Break. I jumped back into the action Monday, covering a bill that would allow Missourians to decide whether secret ballot votes were a Constitutional right. The House hearing room was packed with members of the business community, who supported the Republican-sponsored bill, and union members, who opposed it. "Aggressive" would be a good word to describe some of the back-and-forth between witnesses and lawmakers. Whenever business leaders made a statement, the union members would chuckle and shake their heads. It was quite amusing, and I might be in for a repeat performance next week. It took two hours for supporters to finish testifying, and the committee ran out of time. The union members will have to wait until next week to speak against the bill. A mid-hearing fire alarm led to some of the session's funniest moments, with the chairman declaring that "women, children and Marines" should be the first to leave. Luckily, it was a false alarm.

Wednesday, I worked in Columbia to interview two people at the Salvation Army, including a woman who was formerly homeless. Their stories really touched me, and I tried to convey their emotion in my feature story on unemployment. After the interviews wrapped up, I headed to KBIA in Columbia to edit some of my sound bites, then drove to the Capitol to finish things up. It's going to be a long day, but well worth it. I'm glad to have this feature wrapped up, so I can start work on another!

Posted March 18, 2009: 

The legislators enjoyed their spring break this week, so the statehouse was quiet. I would say not a creature was stirring, but my fellow reporters and I were still here! I worked on my unemployment feature. I'm trying to set up an interview with an unemployed person at the Salvation Army in Columbia and, not surprisingly, not everyone is willing to share their stories. As a journalist, I've run into this before, and I can certainly understand. I'm hoping to find someone who does want to talk about their experiences in the economic downturn, because his or her story will be one that many people can relate to. Wednesday, I spoke with a representative of the Missouri AFL-CIO on the state's unemployment situation. He's spoken with many unemployed Missourians, and even called this economic crisis a depression. Even as a reporter, it's staggering to hear people say the word "depression."

Next week, I switch places with the legislators and enjoy some down time during my own spring break. There are three interesting bills coming up after the break: A bill that would eliminate state taxes on unemployment benefits for the next two years, a bill that would lower taxes for the highest-earning Missourians, and a measure to end the state corporate income tax. These could all have a major impact on Missouri families and businesses as the state struggles through difficult economic times.

On another note, I learned that my esteemed colleague Allison Blood also enjoys Paula Deen of Food Network fame. Apparently, Paula has a recipe for a "Ladies' Brunch Burger," which is a cheeseburger topped with a fried egg and bacon and sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme donut. Go ahead and enjoy one ... at your own risk.

Posted March 11, 2009: 

The statehouse was abuzz this week, as legislators prepared their final punches before their spring break. Several interesting things happened. Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee temporarily eased its policy against cell phones with the ringer turned up. This was because MoDOT Director Pete Rahn's daughter was going into labor and was still testifying before the committee against a bill that would strip the Transportation Department of its control over federal highway funds. Unfortunately for Rahn, the committee's kindness didn't carry over to voting on the bill, as they rebuked him, 8-1. Much of the debate centered around bond ratings and interest rates, which I happen to enjoy (crazy, I know). This is when paying attention in economics classes pays off. On a related topic, Phill now knows that I want to cover business news, so he said I could be on the economic development beat for the rest of the year. Phill told me I could start saying "Newsradio 1120 KMOX" at the end of my stories, which is exciting! For some reason, I really like saying the word "newsradio." Phill also taught me an important lesson about breathing while voicing stories. I now know that it is, in fact, OK to breathe during a story. Phill demonstrated that, while breathing is fine, gasping for air is not good.

Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Missouri's unemployment rate had shot up to 8 percent in January. This is up from 7.1 percent in January, the biggest spike in 33 years. The state Labor Department spokesperson told me the number of people filing for unemployment in the state each month has nearly doubled in the past year. Tough times in the entire country, and a busy time for economic reporters. We have a lot of news to cover and, sadly, for a lot of people, the news is bad.

Posted March 4, 2009: 

I worked this week on my feature story about unemployment in Missouri. Monday, I spoke with several people to get general background and set up my interviews. It's a broad topic and, luckily, because it's a feature, I have two minutes to get voices into my story. Voices are journalists' friends because they help us tell the story, especially one like high unemployment because so many lives are impacted. I'm currently trying to set up a visit with Salvation Army in Columbia to speak with some recently-unemployed people. I'm excited about this story because, while working at the State Capitol is a great experience, I'm only privy to the 'official' view here. Getting out into the community and seeing the effects of unemployment will really help me in telling this important story. When I go out on assignment, it will be my first radio story reporting in the field.

I returned to the State Capitol on Wednesday to cover a GOP senator's quest to phase out the state's corporate income tax. Because I love business and economic news, this was a story that interested me. The senator who proposed the switch believes businesses simply make their employees and customers pay for the tax, in the form of lower salaries and higher prices, respectively. Therefore, he thinks the tax is bad, especially in today's troubled economic times. I also spoke with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce to get businesses' side. On another subject, it seems all the lobbying efforts in the state come to the Capitol on Wednesdays, because the lunchroom is always packed and I almost couldn't find a parking spot today.

Posted February 25, 2009: 

I was back on the stimulus beat this Monday, which was no problem for this economic news junkie. I spoke with two Missouri business leaders who oppose using parts of the state's federal stimulus package that requires an expansion of government spending. They say businesses will pay higher taxes to finance these programs once federal dollars run out. It was an interesting day because, while I heard opposition to the stimulus, I also broke news that unemployed Missourians will receive an extra $25 each week starting March 3. I also heard the state's unemployment insurance fund would run dry within 24 hours, and Missouri would begin borrowing $260 million from the federal government to make payments on time. It turned out to be a big story, which I wasn't expecting at the start of the day.

Wednesday, I switched gears to cover a Senate committee hearing on a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was a contentious hearing with several supporters and opponents. I'm still learning how to write for radio, including good anchor intros and leads, so it took a while to edit my stories. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling good and had two tests the next day, so I was looking forward to going home. I hope I do well on my tests and feel better before returning to the Capitol next week!

Posted February 18, 2009: 

The federal stimulus bill rolled into Jefferson City this week, at least for state politicians thinking about how to spend the money. Chris Dunn, one of our print reporters, and I covered the story all week. Monday, the Senate Federal Stimulus committee had a conference call with the National Conference of State Legislatures. To my surprise, several senators voiced their concerns with accepting the money. They believe strings attached to the bill force the state to expand past what it can afford when the federal money runs out in 2011. Chris and I talked to a couple of the most vocal senators afterward. I also wanted to write a story about Gov. Jay Nixon expanding Medicaid coverage, but I eventually decided it was too complex for a 40-second radio story.

Wednesday, Chris and I picked up the stimulus debate again when Nixon had a 3 p.m. press conference on the matter. It was my first press conference, so I was somewhat nervous. Luckily, the other members of the Capitol press corps asked good questions to help me out. Nixon didn't say anything substantive while making his statement, which turned into the focus of my story. He offered a broad plan, but didn't name specific projects or how much money would go to each. We then talked to three Republicans, who again disagreed with the governor's views.

Along with domestic politics, I would enjoy covering economic and business news as a career. This week was an incredible learning experience for me, as I got to experience firsthand lawmakers grappling with a recession, a controversial stimulus plan, and how it will affect the state down the road. Covering the stimulus issue, although overwhelming, reiterated why I want to to this for a living someday soon.

Posted February 11, 2009: 

Another week, more hearings, disagreements and money troubles at the State Capitol. I covered two stories Monday, which takes a lot of work! I interviewed State Treasurer Clint Zweifel about the state's investments. He wanted me to know taxpayer dollars are in conservative investments and are under control. That, he says, is a big achievement in an economic downturn. After writing three wraps on that story, I went to the statehouse basement to cover the State Emergency Management Agency's acting director as he updated the House Homeland Security Committee on the ice storm cleanup in southeast Missouri. I was surprised to hear 11,000 customers are still without power in that region of the state, two weeks after the storms. Sadly, eight people died and thousands had to spend time in shelters during the event. After writing three more wraps, I finally headed home, long after dinner time.

Wednesday, I was once again covering biodiesel and ethanol in the Senate Agriculture Committee. The committee advanced a requirement that diesel contain five percent ethanol. After interviewing the bill's sponsor, I learned numerous legislators were working to repeal a similar measure that says gasoline must contain 10 percent ethanol. I spoke with two of them, who voiced concerns that corn prices have risen after the increase in demand for corn. They also say ethanol gets worse fuel mileage than gasoline. I wrote wraps, voiced them, and was able to leave an hour earlier than I did Monday.

Posted February 4, 2009: 

Monday, I was rushing around trying to finish stories before deadline about Missouri's unemployment insurance fund running dry. It was the first story I did by myself. After getting the story assignment, I interviewed the state's labor department spokesperson, who assured me unemployed Missourians would receive their benefits on time. I then spoke with Democratic Representative John Burnett, who blamed the GOP majority for passing cuts to employer contributions for the budget shortfall. Although I forgot to adjust the audio levels on my recorder, I still got some good sound bites. After a quick turnaround, my stories were done and I left early, which was a nice surprise.

I went to my first Senate committee hearing Wednesday. I sat in on a debate centered around whether to enact a biodiesel requirement in the state. After that, the main event began. Matt Bartle, a Jackson County Republican, wants to repeal the state's ethanol requirement, which says all gasoline must contain at least 10 percent ethanol when the latter is cheaper than gas. Bartle says a mandate contradicts a free market view, and spoke for nearly one hour on the merits of his bill. Senators on the Agriculture Committee, dominated by farmers, didn't agree with Bartle. It made for lively debate and, of course, some good audio. I produced three wraps, essentially stories with a sound bite.

Posted January 28, 2009: 

I spent my first two days in the State Capitol this week. I'm from Michigan, and I've only been through Jefferson City twice, let alone in the statehouse. Monday, I toured the building, learning the ins and outs of the place. For instance, I now know Hearing Room Four in the basement doesn't have a spot to plug in an audio recorder.

Wednesday, I dove into my first story, on Governor Jay Nixon suspending all Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative projects. This construction would have cost the state $335 million, but the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, known as MOHELA, is in a funding crunch and can't pay. I teamed with Chris Dunn, one of MDN's print reporters. Chris knows her way around the Capitol, and pointed out so many people as we walked around the building.

After we talked to a few sources, I captured and edited my sound bites, wrote two versions of the story, and voiced them. I'm not sure if I'll remember everything next week, but I learned a lot and had fun in the process!


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