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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 12/3/2009 - Archived File

As state legislators began prefiling bills Tuesday, patterns emerged suggesting which issues will dominate the upcoming legislative session.

Texting while driving, an issue that was discussed at length last session, could become universally illegal if a few representatives have their way.

Two proposals to prohibit texting while driving in Missouri were filed Tuesday by state representatives. If passed, the bills would extend the law banning texting by drivers 21 and under to apply to all motorists.

During the previous legislative session, a bill to ban texting while driving was passed in a compromise. The final version of the bill, which was signed into law in September, prohibited only drivers ages 16 to 21 from text messaging while driving.

A co-sponsor of one of the bills, Rep. Linda Fischer, D-Bonne Terre, said the current law needs revision.

"The act of texting is not age relevant as far as the potential to be involved in or create an accident," she said.

Get the complete story here. [ ]

Top legislative leaders have proposed measures to impose tougher conflict of interest standards on government officials.

The announcement came Dec. 1, the first day lawmakers can submit bills for the upcoming 2010 session.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Jackson County, announced a legislative package that would ban elected officials and their staff from working as lobbyists for one year after leaving office. It would also place limits on campaign contributions.

"It doesn't make sense that someone running for state representative could get a contribution bigger than someone running for president of the United States," he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joesph, proposed banning lobbyists from giving campaign contributions to legislators or to the governor while the legislature is in session.

The proposals come amid continuing reports of a federal investigation into special interest influence in Missouri's statehouse.

In the past three months, three St. Louis area legislators have resigned from office after pleading guilty to federal felony charges.

The 2010 legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Get the complete story here. [ ]

Missouri will receive a $1.9 million federal Recovery Act grant for to expand broadband coverage across the state, according to a news release from the governor's office.

The grant will provide $1.5 million for mapping and data collection of areas with existing lines. Another $470,000 will be provided to create regional teams to develop regional broadband adoption plans.

Sen. Brad Lager said he wants the state to wait to award money until it has determined exactly where current broadband lines are.

"We need to put a hold on all funding until we know where real problems exist," Lager said.

AT&T, which is thought to own most of the state's broadband lines, has not told the state where the company has broadband lines, citing safety concerns.

Rep. Brian Yates, R-Jackson County, resigned his seat in the Missouri House of Representatives effective Tuesday.

Yates wants to spend more time with his family and give his successor the advantage of more seniority than other incoming new lawmakers, according to a news release obtained by the Associated Press.

Yates, elected to the House in 2003, would have been term-limited out of his seat in 2012.

The senator representing the town of Missouri's largest university was appointed as the second-in-command of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, announced Dec. 1 that Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, would fill the post as the committee's vice-chairman.

Shields said it would not be a conflict of interest that the single biggest employer in Schaefer's district, the University of Missouri, is funded by the Appropriations Committee. Instead, Shields said it's something to be valued.

"Sen. Schaefer has a good record of being supportive of higher education in our state, putting him as vice-chair of appropriations sends a strong message that I value higher education and what we're trying to do to move this state forward. That's a real positive for not only the University of Missouri, but for all of higher education," Shields said in a phone interview.

Get the complete story here. [ ]

Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon announced a plan Nov. 17 to freeze tuition at state universities for the second year. The freeze would only apply to in-state students.

Nixon said he will have to reduce higher education spending by 5.2 percent, or $42 million, for the next fiscal year. The general assembly must vote on the plan. If approved, it wouldn't take effect until next July.

Opponents to the freeze said there will be difficulties deciding where to cut other programs.

"Basically, the governor is tying his hands to a large section of the budget, and that just means that there's going to be more severe cuts to the mentally handicapped and children with developmental disabilities, which I think will be hard to get support for," Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said.

Rupp serves on the senate appropriations committee.

Supporters of the freeze say it will help Missourians remain competitive in the job market.

Get the complete story here. [ ]

Wearing pink ribbons in remembrance of the 9-year-old St. Martins girl killed nearly a month ago, two Jefferson City High School students watched as a classmate faced first-degree murder charges.

Alyssa Bustamante, 15, was indicted Wednesday for the murder of Elizabeth Olten and certified to stand trial as an adult.

"We went to school with Alyssa, but we're not here supporting her," said Maggie Fowler, 17, a junior at Jefferson City High School.

Wednesday afternoon, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce read Bustamante the charges against her and entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf. Bustamante, her wrists shackled to her waist, told the judge that she had yet to meet with an attorney from the public defenders office and was unable to pay for her own defense. Earlier in the day, in a separate judicial proceeding before a different judge, Bustamante was certified to stand trial as an adult rather than have her case handled as a juvenile matter.

Get the complete story here. [ ]

Missouri's unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a percent in October, as 4,000 more people found work.

The state's jobless rate is now nearly 1 percent below the national average, which sits at 10.2 percent.

The biggest industry winner was in durable goods manufacturing, which gained 2,200 jobs. Transportation and utilities lost 2,800 jobs, while government cut 1,300 workers.

Moody's, which analyzes economic indicators, included Missouri in a list of 11 states emerging from the recession, thanks in part to the state's diverse economy, according to the state Economic Development Department.

It's just the second month this year that the total number of statewide jobs increased. More than 280,000 Missourians remain unemployed.

A federal judge ruled Nov. 16 that State Auditor Susan Montee can't legally audit the state's retirement system for local government workers, LAGERS.

The retirement system had sued Montee's office because they didn't think she had the authority to do a complete audit of LAGERS. The state auditor does review a separate, independent audit of the retirement system every three years.

Montee says she hasn't decided whether to appeal the decision. Several lawmakers have expressed interest in changing state law to allow the auditor's office to check into LAGERS, Montee said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has slapped the city of St. Louis with air quality violations, stating St. Louis released too much carbon into the atmosphere on 5 different days last year.

Still, the city is not expected to be punished for the violations.

Natural Resources Department Spokesperson Renee Bungart said this is because the EPA is considering tightening the 12-year-old standards.

"If EPA lowers the standard then all states including Missouri will need to go back and look at all of our monitoring data, look at all of our counties to see who would be contributing to those ozone emissions," Bungart said.

Bungart said the Kansas City and St. Genevieve areas were also in violation in 2008.

Two Missouri legislators said private prisons in Missouri have become good options.

Private prisons provide room for prisoners in areas that cannot handle them and economic activity for the community where the facility is located, Rep. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said.

As of October, there is one private prison in operation in Missouri. Previously there were two private prisons, one in Holden and one in Bethany, but now they are both under the same control called Brice Detention and Services. For the transition, Bethany shut down their operations for the time being.

In Missouri it costs the state $16,456 a year or $45.09 a day to house a prisoner in a state institution, said Missouri Corrections Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine.

The chairman of the Corrections and Public Institutions Committee, Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa, said the benefits of private prisons do not just deal with the economic boost they can provide, but they also are "cleaner and safer than many local jails in smaller communities." He said a lot of counties have "old run-down prisons" and maybe prisoners should be moved from those to newer private prisons.

Get the complete story here. [ ]

Natural Resources Director Mark Templeton testified Monday in one of his first public appearances since being suspended on Sept. 30 for issues stemming from pollution in the Lake of the Ozarks.

Templeton said that providing financial incentives to companies that provide combined heating and power systems was one option the legislature should consider next session.

While he said other incentives could be considered, "the state budget is under strain so other incentives are not appropriate right now."

Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon suspended Templeton without pay because his department provided false information to the governor's office regarding beach closures at the Lake of the Ozarks. Following an internal review of the department's handling of the issue, Templeton was reinstated on Oct. 16.

In his testimony, Templeton focused on roadblocks to energy efficiency including a high up-front cost. Another problem, according to Templeton, is that it's hard to verify energy savings on an individual level.

"You never see the $50 you save over the year," Templeton said, referring to purchasing new household appliances. "You only see the $100 you put out."

Get the complete story here. [ ]

The Missouri State Employees Retirement System (MOSERS) voted 6-4 on Nov. 19 to not pay out employee bonuses when it's pension fund loses money.

It became a problem after the system issued a half million dollars in bonuses despite losing $1.8 million in the stock market.

The board will address specific details of the policy change at its next meeting.

Rather than making a definite decision on whether to sue for those loses, as more than half the state's retirement agencies have, the board instead addressed changing it's litigation policy.

Rep. Bill Deeken, R- Jefferson City, defended the current policy saying it wasn't MOSERS' fault the stock market crashed and that the board shouldn't "change when it's perfect."