Missouri lawmakers have until 6 p.m. on Friday to pass next year’s operating budget of $23 billion. Despite a looming deadline, negotiations between the House and Senate have been slow and tense. Issues of contention include funding for the Missouri Rx Plan (a program that covers the costs of prescription drugs for seniors and the disabled), higher education, in-home care services for low-income disabled residents, and school busing. House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey offered a compromise on Wednesday that would cut the Senate’s proposed funding for higher education and school transportation in half while maintaining funding for Missouri Rx. Instead of adding $20 million to higher education and school busing, Silvey’s compromise would add $10 million to each. All five of the House conference committee members signed the proposal, but none of the Senate members did.
The conference committee finally reached an agreement late Wednesday night during a brief public session. The final proposal will give $10 million to schools for busing, $12 million to higher education, and will continue funding for Missouri Rx and in-home care services for low-income disabled residents. House and Senate Republicans had previously disagreed about the size of budget cuts for higher education. Senate Republicans asked for a 4.8 percent budget cut for higher education while House Republicans and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon wanted a 7 percent cut. The final compromise was a 5.45 percent budget cut. Conferees also agreed to cut the salaries of elected officials by 2.5 percent and give Gov. Jay Nixon’s office an additional $200,000 to cover travel expenses.
Another controversial issue is the extension of federal stimulus money. On Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill to authorize the spending of $467 million in federal stimulus money. On Tuesday, four Republican senators (Lembke, Schaaf, Kraus and Nieves) engaged in a fourteen-hour filibuster to stall the bill to distribute federal stimulus money from coming to a Senate vote. The four senators say the Missouri legislature should be more fiscally conservative and refuse to spend the federal money because it is money the federal government can’t afford to pass out. The filibuster ended after Senate leaders agreed to remove an energy-efficiency project from the bill. If the bill is not passed, last year’s federal stimulus money can’t be spent after June 30.
Both the House and Senate passed the twelve bills that make up the state budget within several hours.
This week, I worked on a package for my broadcast class about SB 320. The bill was unanimously passed by the Senate last Thursday and has been referred to the House Crime and Prevention and Public Safety Committee for review. If passed, the bill would be the first major rewrite of Missouri's domestic violence laws in almost four decades. One of the main provisions of the bill would allow teens in abusive relationships to go to court for an order of protection from their abusers. The legislation also aims to create standardized definitions of terms like "abuse" and "adult" because they take on different meanings in different pieces of state legislation. There is no state-wide definition of "domestic violence," and the bill's supporters say clarifying the definitions will streamline the legal process and ensure that rulings are fair and consistent. Senator John Lamping is the bill's sponsor. He says he expects the bill to pass this session.
On Tuesday, I got the opportunity to speak with Tom Golisano, a spokesperson for the National Popular Vote campaign. He was visiting the Missouri capital to drum up support for HB 974. HB 974 is the Missouri version of national popular vote legislation.The National Popular Vote campaign would "guarantee the Presidency to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states." Under the U.S. constitution, states have the right to change the way they allocate their electoral votes. The NPV campaign asks states to enter into a compact saying they would grant all of their electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most votes nationwide, regardless of how the state voted. The compact would only take effect if the legislation is adopted by states representing 270 electoral votes.So far, eights states have adopted NPV legislation. Supporters of National Popular Vote argue there are problems with the winner-take-all (meaning all of the state's electoral votes goes to the candidate receving the state's popular vote) quality of the electoral college. According to Golisano, the winner-take-all rule has allowed four candidates to win the presidency without receiving the majority of the nation's votes. They also say the electoral college encourages candidates to concentrate the majority of their campaign activities in "battleground states" like Colorado.
On the other hand, groups like Save Our States say national popular vote will only shift campaign activities from battleground states to areas of high population. They also say the compact is unfair to voters who want their state electors to vote they way they do, not the way the rest of the country does. Others worry the National Popular Vote compact would diminish state's rights because they would be required to vote a certain way.
The House Elections Committee heard public testimony on HB 974 on Tuesday, but no actions were taken to move it out of committee. I spoke with Elections Committee chairman Tony Dugger, and he says he doesn't plan on making any decisions about the bill this session. The bill's sponsor, Republican Lincoln Hough says he is comfortable with where the bill stands now because his goal this session was to get the conversation started about national popular vote.
On Thursday, the House voted to reject the Senate map with minimal discussion and called for a conference between the two chambers. The Senate ended their session that morning without responding to the House's request, therefore leaving the redistricting issue in limbo. When the House closed their session in the afternoon, House leaders announced the body would not be meeting on Monday because they had "nothing to do" since the Senate had not made a move on redistricting. The tension between the House and Senate in this situation reveals that redistricting isn't just controversial between political parties. The fact that Republicans in both chambers can't agree reveals a fracture in the party. The Republicans have a majority in both chambers, but their large numbers don't help if they can't work together on this issue.
The more I learn about the redistricting process, the more I see how complicated it is. Legislators are playing a political game. There are so many factors that affect the decision-making process and so many outside influences. Redistricting impacts everyone...from businesses who have spent money to support a particular congressman to prospective congressional candidates to individuals who's representation is changing or possibly weakening. We can never know exactly what the reasoning is behind the decision to draw the maps in a certain way, but we can be sure that legislators are feeling pressure from many different directions.
The deadline for submitting a new map is May 13 (the last day of the session), but Senator Rupp hopes to reach an agreement between the House and Senate early next week so there would be enough time left to vote to override a possible veto by Gov. Jay Nixon. If the bill is not passed by the end of the session, the legislature will have to hold a special session in the fall since districts must be finalized in time for the upcoming elections. If the legislature cannot come up with a map, the redistricting decision will be left up to the courts.
Opponents of the plan argue it is too dangerous to build another plant so close to the New Madrid fault. The New Madrid fault experienced a magnitude 7 earthquake about 200 years ago, but hasn't had a major quake since. They say there are other places around the state that would be safer and that Callaway County should not be subjected to the additional risks of having a second plant. Supporters of a new plant say it is important to expand Missouri's nuclear energy capabilities and that the plant will bring new jobs to the state. They also say concerns over the nuclear situation in Japan are not applicable in the Missouri plant. The Missouri plant is much newer than the Japanese plant, uses different technology, and is equipped with more safety features.
The debate over a bill requiring driver's tests to be given in English only became heated as some Republicans argued that the legislation would improve safety while other Democrats said it was discriminatory against immigrants. Republican Representative Wanda Brown says it is not unfair to ask people to learn English because street signs are written in English. Democratic Minority Leader Mike Talboy was part of the opposition, and says the measure represents the "very worst of what our society is becoming." Some Democrats also pointed out that Missouri law still allows tourists who don't know English to drive on a foreign license for a time. The bill passed along party lines with 102 representatives saying yes and 56 saying no.
The House also passed a state constitutional amendment that reaffirms religious freedom in public places. The amendment would prevent cities or individual schools from making rules prohibiting public expressions of prayer, etc. Republican Representative Jeff Grisamore supports the legislation and said there have been some cases in Missouri where the right to pray in schools and in public has been compromised. Many Democrats spoke out against the legislation, calling it unnecessary. Representative Jeannette Oxford says the amendment has "confusing and ambiguous" language that would create more confusion than solve a specific problem. Representative Mike Colona says the amendment offers no additional protections, and therefore is merely "restating the status quo." The amendment passed 126 to 30. This is the sixth year in a row that the House has approved an amendment about religious freedom in public places, but it has died in the Senate in previous years. If the Senate passes the amendment, it will be placed on the statewide ballot in November 2012.
The House also passed a bills on Thursday regarding the governing boards for higher education, the tax classification of sawmills, and the transportation of livestock in vehicles.
On the other hand, many legislators are wondering why this proposed amendment is necessary. They consider the legislation a waste of time and money because the current membership of the legislature would make walkouts by the minority party unproductive. This is because in Missouri, the House and Senate require only a simple majority to have quorum. Since the Republicans hold a considerable majority in both chambers, filling 106 of the 163 seats in the House and 26 of the 34 seats in the Senate, the absence of every single Democrat would not prevent the passage of legislation.
The situation is different in states like Wisconsin which requires a super majority, or three-fifths of members, in order to vote on budget and tax bills. The ability of the state's Democratic Senators to stall a vote on union legislation by fleeing the state demonstrates the increased power the minority party has when their presence is necessary to reach quorum.
Walkouts have been used in several states throughout history, including California in 1994, Alabama in 1999, Oregon in 2001, and Indiana in 2005 to name a few.
Why does the state have control over a city's police department? During the Civil War, Missouri secessionists gave control of the department to the state in an effort to prevent police weapons from being used against supporters of the Confederacy.
Many police officers don't support the bill saying local control of the department could make it less effective. Police organizations, such as the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, say state oversight protects the police department from the interference of local politics. On the other hand, the bill's supporters say St. Louis needs to have control over their police force because the power needs to be in the hands of local citizens.
One of the biggest concerns voiced by police officers is the affects the legislation would have on their pensions. They are afraid that if the city gains control over the St. Louis Police retirement system (valued at over $600 million), they will make unwanted changes and officers will not receive the full extent of the benefits promised to them. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis City), says the bill will have no affect on officer's pensions. There is also an amendment in the bill that would prevent police officers from lobbying the legislature in uniform.
My question is why is this issue so important now? I thought it was surprising that this legislation was being considered again after a similar proposal to transfer power back to St. Louis failed in the House last year with a vote of 86-63. What has changed? Also, why are legislators only concerned about St. Louis when the Kansas City police are under state control too? In fact, St. Louis and Kansas City are the only two cities in the nation that don't have control over their police. These are questions I hope to be able to answer soon!
To make matters even more complicated, some lawmakers in favor of the bill have accused opponents of bringing race into the debate. A blog post from the St. Louis Tea Party associated Rep. Nasheed with the "New Black Panther Party." House Speaker Steve Tilley also mentioned the issue of "race-baiting" in a speech on the House floor.
The bill will travel to the Senate next where it could receive an even tougher reception. There is also a possibility that Missouri voters could have the final say on the issue if an initiative petition makes it on the 2012 ballot. The proposed initiative would allow voters to decide if local control of the police will be given to both St. Louis and Kansas City. It will be interesting to see what happens to this legislation in the coming months and I look forward to reporting on it further.
The debate is very emotional and extremely complex. Gun control advocates argue that restricting or banning high capacity ammunition would have saved lives in Tucson and could reduce the lethality of future attacks. On the other hand, those fighting for the rights of gun owners say Americans need access to these types of weapons for defensive purposes. Basically, if the bad guys are able to get a hold of extended magazines no matter what the laws are, average citizens also need to be able to legally possess them for self-defense.
Being a Tucson native, this issue hits close to home. I was still in Tucson for winter break when the shootings took place. I will never forget how tense that Saturday was and how deeply the incident impacted everyone. One of the reasons I feel so passionate about journalism today is because I saw what a unifying affect it can have on a community. In the days and weeks after the incident, shocked Tucsonans relied on local broadcasters for information, support and guidance as they tried to make sense of such a horrible tragedy that happened right in their own city. Not only were people thirsting for the most up to date information, but they were also desperate to feel a sense of community, to feel like they were not alone in their grief. Local journalists fostered the grieving process for the citizens of Tucson and provided comfort to a community in need. I am looking forward to being able to do this one day.
I learned a great deal this week about taking advantage of the resources around me. Aside from the incredible wealth of knowledge available to me in the newsroom, there are so many ways to get information in the Capitol if you are just bold enough to ask. I attended the House session on Thursday and gathered some very helpful audio for my story. Unfortunately, part of the ritual in the House is to address representatives by the county they represent instead of by their name. This tradition becomes problematic when you are trying to use a quote from a speaker you can't identify because there are multiple representatives hailing from the same county. When I realized I couldn't accurately identify the representative who said the quote I so desperately wanted to use, I started to get discouraged. I was about to give up on the whole mission when Theo suggested I play my audio for people in the representative's offices to see if they could tell me who was talking. Turns out they could! It's amazing what can happen when you ask for help and look for creative solutions!
Finally, I think the most valuable lesson I learned this week was how to think critically about what sources tell me. I wrote a story on Thursday about the passing of a bill regarding workers' compensation. I interviewed the bill's sponsor who told me some very grand political statements about the new legislation. I let those statements impress me and some of his sweeping terminology made its way into my story. BAD! Luckily, Phill helped me recognize how I let my source put words in my mouth and I was able to make changes before I finalized it. I learned how important it is to not let your journalism become a vehicle for anyone's political views or motives. As a journalist, it is my responsibility to separate ideology from fact, and I think my experiences at the Capitol this week better prepared me for that role.