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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of April 19, 2010

Missouri's budget director announced another round of budget cuts because of continued declines in state tax collections.

Linda Luebbering announced that revenue collections for the first 20 days of April had falled 19 percent below the same period last year.

Luebbering said that while some decline was expected, the actual drop was below expectations.

As a result, the administration announced another $45 million in budget withholdings including $8 million in funding to local schools for transportation.

Voters would have a final say in November whether or not to combine the state's education departments into a single over-arching department under a plan approved by Missouri's Senate.

Following a sluggish session on Wednesday, senators unanimously approved resolutions Thursday to combine the two education departments into one responsible for overseeing kindergarten through the completion of undergraduate education. A single board would also oversee the state's entire public school system.

The bill gives students the same amount of money to attend four year colleges regardless of whether they go to private or public institutions.

Students will now receive a maximum of $2,850 per year.

Under previous law students at private colleges received $4,600 and those at public schools received $2,150.

The bill also lowered the GPA required to keep the scholarship from 2.5 to 2.0.

House Higher Education Committee Chair Gayle Kingery says he plans to up the amount of funding for higher education scholarships to $150 million by 2014.

He says appropriations from the general revenue will pay for this increase.

But House Democratic Leader Paul LeVota questions whether Kingery's plan can work even if the American economy turns around.

One day after Missouri's Senate endorsed the idea of consolidating the state's two education departments, they stalled on working out the details.

Tuesday, the Senate gave first-round approval to a constitutional amendment to merge the Education Department and the Higher Education Department.

On Wednesday, the Senate began debate on a separate constitutional amendment that would define the details for the new department.

It was on that issue the Senate was unable to reach agreement -- leaving the plan in limbo.

Missouri's only statewide elected Republican, Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder picked a Washington D.C. lawyer to represent him as he sues the federal government over the recently passed healthcare law.

Thor Hearne, who formerly worked for Missouri based firm Lathrop and Gage, will represent Kinder.

Kinder set up the fund, Healthcare in Action LLC, to collect donations from people who want to contribute to his case.

"Right now there are a number of people from across the country that are contributing to this effort" said Gary McElyea, spokesman for the lieutenant governor's office.

"The majority of those are from Missouri and want their voices heard."

The case will not be, "The People of Missouri v. US" McElyea pointed out.

It will be "Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder v. US."

With less than four weeks remaining in the legislative session both the House and the Senate took time out of their lawmaking schedule to play softball.

The annual legislative softball tournament is a charity event. This year's proceeds will benefit the American Red Cross.

The night off comes less than a month after the lawmaker's week-long legislative recess.

To this point in the session, three bills have reached the governor's desk with two other pending. All of them came from the House.

No bill that originated in Senate has reached the governor's desk.

The Missouri Speaker of the House said he's not letting any tax credit reform bill get passed his desk.

Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said making drastic changes in the last three weeks of the legislative session would send too many shock waves .

"We're going to have certainty (for businesses), and I'm going to make sure we have certainty," Richard said, saying "I know more about economic development than all of you guys in here put together and probably the governor, and I'm telling you that I will do economic development (and) what's best for Missouri."

The announcement came after a press conference where the governor and education leaders pushed for tax credit reform, saying tax credits have ballooned 86 percent over the last decade.

Gov. Jay Nixon specifically targeted the Historic Tax Credit Program and low income housing credits. He said Missouri has given out double in historic tax credits than Virginia and double what California gives in low income housing credits.

"Every dollar we spend on tax credits is a dollar that isn't available for education," Nixon said.

A bill that would allow private citizens to take legal action on cases of Medicaid fraud stalled in the Senate on Monday.

Under current statute, only the Attorney General is authorized to take up Medicaid fraud cases. But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said the system left many important cases ignored.

"Why isn't the Attorney General doing our bidding?" Schmitt said.

However, legislators opposed to the action said the bill was not necessary without a request from the Attorney General for additional resources in fighting Medicaid fraud.

Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, said she worried the legislation would, if passed, result in unrestricted false accusations against physicians.

"This is opening the door to abuse and frivolous lawsuits," Ridgeway said.

Ultimately, the legislation was laid over.

The resolution taxes Missourians anywhere from 25 cents to one dollar.

Missourians voted down two similar pieces of legislation.

The Commerce committee took no action.

The Missouri Senate passed a ban on synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 earlier in the session, and the House Public Safety Committee took up the bill Tuesday.

Representative Jeff Roorda, D- Jefferson, supports the ban.

"People say that accidents are not caused by people driving under the influence of marijuana or its chemical cousin and we all know that's not true." Roorda said.

"They don't get tested because it's so expensive to drag those guys out to a hospital and draw their blood. But they're dangerous nonetheless."

Several small business owners spoke up against the bill and claimed the fake marijuana was a a moneymaker.

Micah Riggs owns a Kansas City coffee shop and sells K2.

"In my observations, it's not something addictive like you would see in nicotine, or tobacco."

The committee took no action on the bill.

Missouri house members voted to overhaul the Access Missouri scholarship program.

Private colleges have been receiving much more in funding than public universities for years through these scholarships.

Under new changes, all students receiving this need based scholarship will get the same amount, regardless of whether they attend private of public universities.

The Senate perfected a joint resolution that eliminates the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Higher Education, and the Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

It would then create a department of Education to encompass all of the above departments.

Voters would then be given the choice whether or not to approve this amendment.

Future state employees could see fewer retirement benefits in a Senate bill passed Tuesday.

In the bill, state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, would have to contribute four percent of their pay to the retirement system. Currently, state employees do not have to contribute any percentage of their salary to their retirement plans.

The bill passed 27-5, with Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, dissenting because he thought the discrepancy between state workers and legislatures was unfair.

If passed, the bill would allow methane collected from animal waste and used to generate electricity to count toward 2008's proposition C renewable energy requirement.

The mandate requires 15 percent of Missouri's energy to be from renewable sources.

The Senate voted to pass the bill unanimously on April 1.

The Committee Chair Rep. Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown, said "I think it's a great idea, if it's a cheaper source it only gets passed down to our consumer. If we can get energy to our consumers cheaper, that's the ultimate goal for all of us."

A bill advanced in the Senate on Monday that would reduce in-home services for Missourians on Medicaid.

The legislation would, if passed, allow the state to hire a third party to assess who qualifies for the programs. Currently, nearly 43,000 Missouri residents on Medicaid receive some kind of in-home care.

The move came as lawmakers continue trying to balance the state's budget.

Those who spoke in favor of the bill see it as an issue of freedom.

The bill would prohibit Missouri government from enforcing federal laws concerning what committee chair Jackson Country Republican Senator Matt Bartle says is a survey of the conservative waterfront.

Committee Chair Jackson County Republican Senator Matt Bartle says the state budget issues have an effect on how the senate will handle provisions in a DWI bill.

Bartle says the committee will vote on the bill next week.

Last Week

Opponents to an abortion-restriction bill agreed Thursday to allow a vote on a measure to impose additional requirements to get an abortion.

The measure would require additional information be provided to a woman before an abortion can be performed.

One of the leading opponents to the bill, Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said she did not filibuster the bill because of the possibility supporters would approve a motion to shut-off debate and pass a much stronger bill.

Missouri's Senate passed and sent the Senate a measure that would remove a state prison sentence as a penalty for some non-violent, first-time felony offenders.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said the measure would cut the prison population by about 2,000 in two years and allow closing a state prison, saving about $26 million.

"You're going to make the state a saver place, if we're not sending low-level offenders to go with the hardened rapists, the murderers and the people that are repeat offenders over and over again," Bartle said.

"Most of these offense are drug and alcohol related," Bartle said about the offenders who would be covered by his bill. "If we send them up there, it's the stupidest thing we can do because we go from a 19 percent recidivism rate to 41 percent."

But one critic charged the measure would lead to overcrowding some county jails.

"These counties, these smaller counties, can't absorb these extra prisoners," warned Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington.

Another critic, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, argued that some child-sex offenders would avoid state prisoners.

"Sexual misconduct with a child is a D felony under this bill, but if you commit that, unless you've got two prior convictions, you aren't going to the Department of Corrections," Schaefer said. "And I do not think that is right because that is a danger to our society."

The Senate passed the bill with the bare minimum 18 votes needed for passage.

In early February, the state's Supreme Court chief justice had urged lawmakers in the annual State of the Judiciary address to consider exempting some first-time, non-violent offenders.

The Ellis Fischel Cancer Center has another chance to receive funding for its new cancer facility.

On Thursday, the House Budget Committee approved re-appropriating $31 million needed to build a new facility for Ellis Fischel. The money had been withheld from appropriations by Gov. Jay Nixon in fiscal year 2010.

The money made available under the re-appropriation comes from a a two-year $350 million construction bill that was created last year according to House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County. The re-appropriation bill takes yet-to-be appropriated money from many bills and combines them into a single piece of legislation.

His given name was Buford Wayne Robinson, but everyone at the Capitol knew him simply as B.W.

Robinson, a Senate doorkeeper since the early 1980s and one of the state's oldest employees on record, died Tuesday evening. He was 93.

"B.W. is a guy that had a thirst of life and brought that energy into a Senate chamber that at times can be very heated, can be very long days," Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau said. "He was just that guy that--Republican, Democrat; urban, rural; pro-life, pro choice--it didn't matter where the divides were. He could kinda take the tension off."

The measure is inspired by a pregnant Michigan woman who was convicted of manslaughter after killing a man who punched her in the stomach.

That case was later overturned on appeal.

House Democrats argued that all women already had the right to defend themselves against an attacker, regardless of whether or not they are pregnant.

House Republicans said the bill closes a loophole in Missouri law.

"There is never a time when it should be OK for a prosecutor or the judicial system to convict a woman for protecting her unborn baby," said Rep. Brian Nieves, R- Washington.

The House gave first-round approval to a voter ID bill that was declared unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2006.

The bill would require voters have a government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot.

Some Democrats said the new ID requirement would reinstate pre-civil rights movement laws aimed at blocking racial integration and black enfranchisement.

"It's no less shameful than the poll taxes and the Jim Crow laws that we once had in this country," said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart.

The Senate reversed course Wednesday and voted to restore nearly $15 million that had been cut from the higher education budget, essentially assuring Gov. Jay Nixon's tuition-freeze deal reached with Missouri's public colleges.

"It's a done deal," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, on which Schaefer serves, had stripped the money last week as part of its effort to cut $500 million from next year's budget.

The Senate earlier voted to restore funding to the Career Ladder program for next year, but legislation approved by the Senate Tuesday would suspend state funding for the program for the following year.

Legislation to crack down on drunken drivers passed the Missouri House Wednesday.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Bryan Stevenson (R-Webb City) admitted the bill isn't perfect, but he said the bill needs to move on to the Senate to have a chance of passing.

Last week, House members approved several amendments, which repealed many of the provisions in the original bill language.

One from Rep. Mike Colona (D-St. Louis) allows first-time DWI offenders to keep the conviction off their records. Also added, the most controversial component of the bill, which would allow police to collect blood samples from DWI suspects without a warrant.

Governor Nixon ignored part of an education budget bill on Tuesday, saying it it unconstitutional.

The bill tried to change state law through a budget bill which is unconstitutional in Missouri.

Nixon says the bill wanted to protect some schools from state budget cuts.

Legislators say Nixon didn't have the right to do that and should have left the constitutionality up to the courts.

Some Senators say they want to sue Nixon for changing their bill.

Republican legislative budget leaders attacked the governor for a statement he attached in signing an appropriations bill that provides additional funding for public schools for the remainder of the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

In signing the bill, Nixon rejected language the legislature had added to override current law governing how school funds are divided among school districts.

Nixon declared the language "legal surplusage and beyond the constitutional authority of the General Assembly."

Nixon proclaimed the Education Department would ignore the language.

But his stance was immediately attacked by Republican legislators the next day.

"That's pretty harsh action on his part, really unacceptable," said the normally mild mannered Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

In a marathon day-long session that lasted until the late evening, Missouri's Senate approved Tuesday a package of bills that would substantially reduce on-going state budget obligations.

The upper chamber advanced plans to consolidate government agencies, cut teacher benefits, cut school funding and reduce prison populations in an effort to address budget shortfalls expected to approach $1 billion in the next two years.

The various measures were given first round approval the day before the Senate is expected to take up a budget plan for the next fiscal year that would cut $500 million from the governor's original spending plan presented to lawmakers in January.

Attorney General Chris Koster was absent from a House general laws committee hearing which discussed a resolution that would call on him to sue the federal government for violating the constitution with its passage of health care legislation. The attorney general was not available for comment on Tuesday.

Koster had previously said he will look into the matter. But at the hearing on Tuesday, resolution sponsor Rep.Ward Franz, R-Howell, said Koster has said he will not pursue a lawsuit against the federal government.

Franz's resolution would make Missouri the fifteenth state to oppose recent federal health care legislation by challenging the constitutionality of the bill.It would call on Koster to either make the state a party to an existing suit--currently consisting of 13 states--or independently filing suit like Virginia is in the process of doing.

The House perfected Chris Kelly's, D-Columbia, bill that will allow voters to decide spending of funds collected from a central fire and emergency dispatching services tax.

Kelly said it would allow more flexibility for fire districts to spend money on items like emergency radios. The original fund was created to develop a fund to set up joint dispatching services.

The House Ethics Committee approved provisions to impose a limit on how much legislators can take from lobbyists.

The measure would impose a $1,000 per year limit on a legislator accepting gifts or other things of value from a lobbyist.

The measure also would impose a one-year ban before a legislator could work as a lobbyist after leaving office.

Earlier this year, the Senate had stripped any restrictions on lobbying from its ethics bill.

The Tea Party of America gathered on the steps of the capitol building this morning to rally together in support of less government.

Michael Reagan spoke as a supporter of the party.

Onlookers cheered and discussed their excitement for the upcoming voting in Novembe