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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of December 5, 2011

In November, Congress lifted a ban on the inspection of horse meat for human consumption. Lifting that ban has opened an opportunity for Missouri horse ranchers and renewed an ongoing debate about treatment of horses.

Equine specialist Jim Dudley has been a part of the horse industry for 60 years, doing breeding, trading and offering riding lessons. He owns 50 horses and said on average that he has to get rid of five horses every year.

Before 2006, Dudley disposed of his horses by selling them to an auction and got about $1,000 for each horse. Now it costs $5,000.

After Congress put a ban on funding horse meat inspections in 2006, slaughterhouses in the U.S. went out of business, and the value of horses has declined significantly.

Missouri Farm Bureau director Kelly Smith said lifting the ban is a victory for many horse owners who wanted to get rid of the ban on horse slaughter.

Smith said the horse industry is important to the state's economy. According to a 2010 survey, there are 200,000 horses in Missouri.

Although some animal right activists are opposed to horse slaughter because they say it's inhumane, one animal rights group, PETA, has become an unexpected supporter.

PETA Director Lindsay Rajt says PETA doesn't want horse slaughterers in the U.S., but the group is in favor of lifting the ban because it found people did not euthanize horses after the ban in 2006.

"Instead, they were just taking them down to auctions, and then having these horses shift to Canada or Mexico, where they will still be slaughtered," Rajt said.

The USDA refused to talk to an MDN reporter, but a spokesman noted in a prepared statement that “if a facility opens, the Food Safety and Inspection Service will be prepared to carry out its statutory mandate to ensure industry compliance with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act."

Missouri Rep. Scott Largent, R-Clinton, announced his plan to run for the Missouri Senate in the 31st District.

Largent was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2008 and currently serves as the chairman of the Children and Families Committee.

Due to the new redistrcting maps in Missouri, the seat will have no incumbent candidate entering the 2012 election.

Largent currently resides in Clinton with his wife and three children.

Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce introduced a bill establishing a new system for transferring college class credits to try to make the time spent in college as short and efficient as possible.

Pearce said the problem is when students take some courses in community colleges and then apply for four-year universities, some course credits cannot be transfered.

"Yes, you've wasted time; you've wasted money," Pearce said. "And what happens is if it takes too long and then some people do end up in dropping out?"

The bill would require the creation of an index of at least 25 introductory courses that would be transferable from community colleges to four-year universities.

Pearce said the new system would also give students more information they need before they apply for four-year universities.

"So there is no surprises when they leave that two-year institution and they go to enroll," Pearce said. "They will know beforehand which courses will transfer and which courses will not."

Pearce said the system will financially help college students because the longer they stay and the more money they spend, the less likely they are to graduate. They'll also have piled up more debt by the time they leave school.

There would also be a reverse transfer in the system to allow students to get an associate degree if they accumulate enough hours through a combination of institutions that offer an associate degree and four-year institutions.

Private higher education institutions would not be required to participate in the system, but they could if they want.

The bill is expected to be discussed in the next legislative session.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency notified the governor on Wednesday [Ded. 7] that Missouri received a grant of more than $5,329,801 million dollars to aid the long-term recovery from natural disasters.

“I’ve made it clear that the state of Missouri has a long-term commitment of being there to see that the needs of Missourians who suffered from these disasters are met,” Gov. Nixon said. “This $5 million grant will help Missourians with their long-term recovery and help strengthen our communities as they come back.”

According to a press release, the Missouri Department of Economic Development will use the money to help survivors obtain resources and create a recovery plan.

The money can be used to provide services until May 2013.

The Missouri Veterans Commission reports it will run out of its veterans home funding by July 2013 and that it needs $13.3 million to fill that gap.

At an Appropriations for Public Safety and Corrections Committee hearing on Wednesday [Dec. 7], Missouri Veterans Commission Executive Director Larry Kay told committee members there's no single solution to filling the funding gap.

Kay proposed three options: getting more general revenue from the state, finding an alternative funding source or raising the fees to veterans living in the homes. 

Committee Chairman Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, expressed that the last thing his committee wanted to do was put the burden on the veterans themselves.

"I think it's fair to say that the members on this committee are overwhelmingly opposed to any increase in costs to the veterans" said Kelly.

Other funding options discussed include generating funds from scratch lottery tickets, raising the entry fee to casino boats by $1 and giving slot-machine gamblers the option of donating spare change on their earnings to the Missouri Veterans Commission.

A Cole County circuit court has rejected Gov. Jay Nixon's motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the governor's withholding of state appropriations to agencies, mostly education.

The lawsuit, filed by the state auditor, challenges the governor's authority to withhold $150 million to reserve funds for future expected expenses for natural disaster relief -- largely from the Joplin tornado in May.

The state auditor, Tom Schweich, argues the Missouri Constitution allows the governor to withhold only when state tax collections actually fall below original projections.

Nixon argues that the governor has broad powers to balance the state's budget.

The two offices immediately issued statements of reaction to the court decision.

Republican Schweich said his office was pleased. Democrat Nixon called the decision merely a procedural ruling.

The administration's efforts to work on possible federal health care implementation in Missouri without legislative approval came under bipartisan attack by legislators at an interim House Budget Committee hearing Tuesday.

The administration has received a $26 million federal grant to set up the infrastructure for a health insurance exchange system that would regulate insurance policies. The administration applied for the grant without legislative authorization or knowledge.

Lawmakers charged they have been denied all the information they have requested about the basis by which the administration was able to get around the legislature.

The federal grant was awarded to a state quasi-governmental body that claims it can spend outside funds without legislative approval.

Legislators, however, urged the state's Department of Insurance and its outside health insurance consultant to work with the legislature on efforts toward a health insurance exchange. The health insurance exchange would establish standardized policies to facilitate comparison shopping by consumers.

Under the federal law, if the state does not establish such an insurance exchange, the federal government will operate one of its own in the state.

Missouri's Education Board has given the Department of Education authority to seek public comments on the request for a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind.

The U.S. Department of Education can grant authority for a state to use different reporting requirements for educational performance of students.

"This would be an opportunity for the state to put forward a better plan -- Missouri's plan -- to fulfill federal requirements," Margie Vandeven, the state department's assistant commissioner, said in a department news release.

Areas in which the state would seek a waiver include measuring preparation for college or careers by students.

The department set a Jan. 5 deadline for public comment.

In light of the Penn State scandal, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said he wants to add a line to Missouri's child abuse law.

That single sentence would extend the responsibility of reporting child sex abuse to all Missouri residents.

"These are pretty heinous crimes, and when somebody witnesses that, I think we ought to require people to report that to law enforcement and those people should be punished," Schmitt said.

Joy Oesterly, the executive director of the child abuse advocacy group Missouri Kids First, said she supports the law but still doesn't think all incidents will be reported to the authorities.

Last Week

Thirty organizations in the St. Louis area worked together on World AIDS Day to increase awareness of the disease.

According to the Missouri Health Department, 11,000 people in the state are currently infected with AIDS and HIV. Almost half of those infected live in the St. Louis area.

President Barack Obama announced adding $50 million for AIDS treatment on Thursday.

Dollar General announced Thursday that it intends to create 50 new jobs at its Fulton distribution plant.

The news comes as Dollar General reports national business expansion into existing and new markets in the past year. Dollar General spokeswoman Tawn Earnest said this increase in business has allowed for increased employment at distribution centers like the plant in Fulton.

"Over the course of this year we've opened nearly 600 stores and increased our presence in existing markets and expanded into three additional states," she said.

Fulton Director of Administration Bill Johnson said he is thrilled about the potential economic boom.

"I read it in the newspaper this morning and was thrilled that some of the unemployed in this area are going to have the opportunity to get off the pay roll," Johnson said. 

The 50 new jobs would be a significant increase in employment for the small city of Fulton.

Rio Queen Citrus in Texas confirmed salmonella, which can cause serious infections, in its 243 boxes of grape tomatoes the company sent to St. Louis and Dallas.

The company discovered the salmonella after it tested random samples from each lot of tomatoes. Rio Queen Citrus president Mike Martin said it confirmed the contamination Tuesday [Nov. 29] and has told the receivers in St. Louis and Dallas.

Front Row Produce said in a news release it is recalling those grape tomatoes. Martin said the receivers of the products in St. Louis and Dallas will destroy the tomatoes themselves.

Starting on Dec.1, all shipments of 10-ounce plastic packages sold in retail stores will have a green lot number sticker on the bottom side of each package. Any packages that do not contain this green sticker should be considered under recall, Front Row Produce said.

Martin said the company stopped sending other grape tomatoes out and is trying to find the source of contamination. He said the company sent additional employees to Mexico, where the tomatoes were grown, to help identify the source of problem.

Martin also said the company has reported the issue to the Food and Drug Administration and are working with FDA for further investigation.

After the investigation is done and the procedure is potentially reviewed, revised and improved, Rio Queen Citrus will test product sampling again to make sure there is no longer contamination.

The recalled tomatoes were shipped to food service distributors and retail stores in Missouri and Illinois, according to an AP report.

Martin said although no illnesses have been reported, it is possible some people ate the tomatoes.

Missouri law enforcement officials report an increase in use of illegal heroin in Missouri. Officials predict about 300 persons will have died in the state from heroin overdoses by the end of the year. Just six years earlier, in 2005, the state recorded 50 heroin fatalities.

Marilyn Smashey's son, Taylor Green, died when he was 18 due to a heroin overdose. She said Taylor liked spending time with friends and family, but he also became interested in experimenting with drugs before his 15th birthday.

Green's story is just one of hundreds statewide that end with a teenager dying from a heroin overdose. Police officials say they expect more than 300 deaths due to heroin overdose by the end of 2011.

Chuck Boschert, the commander for the West County Precinct in St. Louis and former Drug Enforcement Administration task force specialist, said the availability of the drug creates a new demographic of affluent drug users.

Boschert said the drug is tailored for a new clientele because it can easily be snorted in pill form as opposed to using needles.

Smashey, along with other parents who lost a child to heroin, plans to share her story with the state with the hope of increasing heroin awareness among parents and children across Missouri.

The six judges who decided the Missouri General Assembly's new district boundaries released the final redistricting maps and plans on Wednesday.

"We have worked collaboratively to draw maps that comply with the constitution, the Voting Rights Act and other legal requirements," said the Missouri Appellate Apportionment Commission's chairwoman, Lisa White Hardwick.

The districts must be shuffled every 10 years following the U.S. Census. In 2010, the census found that Missouri's population had grown by 7 percent to a population of nearly 6 million. The commission was tasked with the job of drawing new district lines after bipartisan commissions were able to agree on the maps.

In accordance with the state constitution, the districts must contain roughly the same number of people. According to the commission, the four of the 34 state Senate districts have a black majority; 18 of the 163 House of Representatives' districts are mostly racial minorities.

This is the second time in Missouri's history that judges decided the districts for both chambers of the legislature, the commission stated in its news release.

The 2012 primary and general elections will operate with the new districts.

The maps were drawn by the appeals court judges in secret. They did not announce their meetings and refused to admit a Missouri Digital News reporter to cover one of their sessions.

David Kerr told a House committee it would be a waste of taxpayer money to fully investigate companies seeking various tax breaks for economic development projects.

"Vetting for vetting sake sends a strong message to companies," said Kerr, the director of the Department of Economic Development. "It's telling them we won't take a chance on them. It's telling them that they're not welcome to try to succeed in Missouri."

Kerr was testifying before the House Government Oversight Committee investigating a failed Chinese business venture promoted by Kerr's Economic Development Department that left the town of Moberly with a $39 million bond issue debt for a factory abandoned by the company, Mamtek.

Kerr told legislators that because no state tax dollars are involved, there was less need to fully investigate applications for state tax breaks that are not awarded unless new jobs are created.

"It is an efficient use of tax dollars to do a criminal background check on the CEO of GM or Ford or any other publicly-traded company that wants to create jobs or wants to invest in Missouri," Kerr told the lawmakers.

Ironically, the failure of Kerr's department to do a criminal background check led to a public embarrassment for Missouri's governor.

One week after the governor traveled to Cape Girardeau to announced tax credits to a local developer in December 2010, Kerr's department revoked the credits after reports that the developer had lied about his criminal record. 

The House Government Oversight Committee released documents at a Tuesday hearing showing that administration staffers had realized the potential financial problems of a Chinese company whose failure has left a $40 million bond issue debt in Moberly.

At the same time the Missouri Department of Economic Development was seeking a town to invest in the China-based artificial sweetener Mamtek in April 2010, the department's International Business Manager Yan Li wrote in an e-mail to the department's Chinese consultant in Shanghai that they cannot get any of Mamtek's financial background and asked for more information.

"We cannot get any of their finance background," Yan Li wrote April 9, 2010 to the director of the department's office in China.

The China office director, Edward Li, replied that they found Mamtek's "plant in Fujian Province, China, never started to manufacture."

Just days earlier, Moberly reported it was one of several communities selected by the state agency for consideration for the Mamtek project. On April 30, Mamtek selected Moberly for its factory.

Both Moberly officials and representatives of a company that handled the $40 million bond issue for China told the committee they had not been known about the administration concerns. They said they might not have proceeded had the known about the internal administration emails.

Moberly Area Economic Development Corporation President Corey Mehaffy told the committee that the city could not afford to send representatives to China and check the company's condition. Mehaffy said he verified Mamtek's information with the company's own attorney.

Mehaffy said their corporation is having ongoing conversations with other manufactures now to fill in the facilities, but the Department of Economic Development isn't helping.

The committee chairman Rep. Jay Barnes said the director of the Department of Economic Development needs to "stop what they are doing right now and make filling that factory in Moberly their top priority."

After the testimony, Yan Li said he cannot remember the emails last year. He has to go back and check his file before he could provide more information.

Missourians came to the state Capitol to participate in a memorial service to honor people injured and killed by drunk drivers on Tuesday.

Officials of the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and a victim's relatives spoke in the ceremony.

Richard Reed, a volunteer with the Springfield Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he lost his son in an impaired driving accident.

"We were trying to come up here and lobby our government up here to pass the seatbelt law, and that has helped," Reed said.

Kevin Keith, the director of the transportation department, said he hopes the ceremony can continue to raise awareness.

"This is the choice no one had -- to die because of impaired driving," Keith said. "If we just get folks to make a different choice."

Keith also said driving-related deaths can easily drop if people stop drunk driving.

"We could cut that number by a third more immediately," Keith said. "That doesn't cost any money. That doesn't cost anything. Just don't drink and drive."

Keith said they will continue to make efforts to prevent future tragedies through education and enforcement. Officials warn that drivers must remember to drive sober during the holiday season.

The ceremony also introduced a new logo for a national campaign to encourage safe and sober driving, called "drive sober or get pulled over."

The House Government Oversight Committee released documents Tuesday showing that administration staffers had questions about the financial background of a Chinese company the administration was promoting.

At the same time Economic Development Department was seeking a town to invest in the Chinese company Mamtek, department emails reveal staffers in the department were concerned about their inability to get financial information about the company.

In addition, documents released by the committee indicated that a department representative in China reported as false a claim that Mamtek was operating a sugar-production factory in China.

The Missouri town of Moberly ultimately signed on to the deal, agreeing to nearly $40 million in bonds that Mamtek subsequently abandoned.

Moberly officials, as well as the company that facilitated the bond issue, told the House committee their decisions might have been different if they had known of the concerns being raised internally within the Economic Development Department.

Both the city and the bond issue firm said they had not been told about those concerns. The House committee chair said he was "shocked" when he read the memos just last week.

The Economic Development Department did not respond for comment.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced the department director's departure in early November, but said he would remain as an unpaid advisor for the governor.

Former Governor and vice chairman of the new Midwest U.S.-China Association Bob Holden also said he is not responsible for the facility failure.

He said the responsibility of his association lies in creating relationships, not monitoring their business deals after connections are made.

Holden also said he does not totally agree with the investigation of the Moberly plant.

"You're walking a fine line about having the due diligence on one hand and at the same time being aggressive enough on the other to be attractive to opportunity. You go too far in one direction and you get beat up by somebody," he said.

Holden said though he wasn't responsible, he did set up the relationship between Chinese investors and Missouri's Department of Economic Development.

The children of former state auditor and Democratic candidate for Missouri lieutenant governor Susan Montee were arrested by St. Joseph police while celebrating a friend's birthday.

The melee began early Friday outside a St. Joseph bar. Montee's three children were among seven arrested after the brawl.

Officers from the St. Joseph Police Department responded to the fight. They arrested Montee's daughter and charged her with disorderly conduct after she failed to disperse from the crowd. One of Montee's sons was charged with interfering and the other with disorderly conduct.

Two charter schools in Missouri teach entirely in a foreign language. 

Language immersion is a specific kind of charter school. St. Louis Language Immersion School and Academie Lafayette are the only two public schools in the state offering this type of education. This alternative curriculum gives students from English-speaking families the opportunity to become bilingual. School administrators say it sets them up for success by incorporating other cultures into the curriculum.

"Having a school that really does replicate the diversity of the world that we live in is going to be a helpful tool for them, a helpful social tool for them over time," said Rhonda Broussard, founder of the St. Louis Language Immersion School.

Interest in charter schools has gone up in recent years because of the poor quality of public schools in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. Kansas City and St. Louis are currently the only counties where charter schools are allowed to exist.

In an effort to cut costs, Missouri's Department of Transportation will focus first on the most traveled roads this winter.

But Becky Allmeroth, a MoDOT maintenance engineer, said that's not the only change Missourians will notice.

"We now have some computerized equipment on the truck that's kind of smart equipment so when the truck slows down, the amount of salt that goes down slows down, and when we're stopped at an intersection, the amount of salt that goes down completely stops," Allmeroth said.

Another change will be improved slow plows, which cover twice the distance as the old ones, and will allow for fewer trucks to be on the roads.

Instead of salt, sand will be spread on many rural roads, but it will not be used in cities because it could ruin the sewers.