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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of September 17, 2012

In the digital age, it seems like everything can be done with a computer or over email. And now due to federal and state laws, military personnel deployed overseas can use that technology to vote. The laws went into effect in 2010, but the upcoming general election will be the first time people in the military can cast their votes for the next president using email. So far, the program has been well received.

"Anything that makes it easier and more convenient for our military overseas voters to vote is certainly a positive development," said Stacie Temple with the Missouri Secretary of State's office.

Military personnel overseas can still cast their ballots through the absentee system, but it can take up to three weeks for people in the military to receive the ballot and another three weeks to send them back. Randy Watson voted in elections when he was stationed overseas and he said it could be difficult to get the ballots back in time before the election.

"Well back then you had to mail it in. You had to mail it back to your election authority. With mail from overseas, you're talking approximately three weeks to get it back. So you have to make sure your timing is right," said Watson, who is now a state voting assistance officer with the Missouri National Guard.

What used to take weeks, now takes only the click of a mouse. Military personnel can cast their ballots using the secure email and then follow the ballot until it the local election authority confirms it got the email.

Fifteen Missouri school districts are entering a tight competition for a chunk of $400 million in education grants this fall.

This round of the Race to the Top initiative is different from past phases, as it is a district-level competition. The U.S. Department of Education will award the grant money to between 15 and 25 school districts. The department is looking for schools that display commitment to personalized learning environments. The school districts in Missouri applying are: Kansas City, St. Louis, Camdenton, Cape Girardeau, Ferguson-Florissant, Fort Osage, Jefferson City, Joplin, Normandy, North Kansas City, Poplar Bluff, Raytown, Riverview Gardens, West Plains and West Platte.

Missouri has yet to receive Race to the Top funds. The state education department applied for Phase One of the grants in 2010, but finished 33rd. In Phase Two, it finished 30th.

Race To the Top has been controversial in the past amongst teachers and educational policymakers. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch wrote in an August 2010 Los Angeles Times editorial that Race to the Top would not improve education. The Missouri State Teachers Association opposed the program in 2010, because of the burden it would place on educators and lack of educator input in the reforms.

However, MSTA spokesman Tim Fuller said the applications for the district-level competition incorporate more local control.

Applications for district-level competition are due on Oct. 30. The U.S. education department will announce the winners in December.

A new study conducted by the Trust for America's Health predicts 13 states will have over 60 percent of the population classified as obese by 2030, Missouri included.

Trust for America's Health reviewed CDC records of the body mass index of 400,000 Americans from 1999 to 2010 in order to project the growth of obesity in each state.

According to the study, states will save over $13 million in health care costs by 2030 if they reduce the average body mass index by 5 percent.

Amy Stringer Hessel, the program officer for   Foundation for Health, said Missouri health organizations are actively working to change state polices and promote healthy lifestyles.

The Missouri National Guard is planning a suicide intervention for Sep. 27.

The event will take place at local armories and command posts and will offer food and clothing to those members fighting depression or economic downturn.

So far this year, 4 members of the Missouri National Guard and 116 U.S. Army soldiers have committed suicide.

The Guard is calling the event a "stand-down." It will be supported by the Yellow-Ribbon Reintegration Program, the Department of Mental Health, and faith based communities.

Two historically black universities in Missouri received a total of $3.8 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education this week.

Harris Stowe State University in St. Louis received about $1.5 million and Lincoln University in Jefferson City received about $2.3 million. The department handed out close to $228 million to historically black colleges and universities in 19 different states.

These grants are through Title III Part B, the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program. The program aims to help fund student services, educational equipment, staff development and facility improvements, according to the department.

To apply for these grants, schools must be recognized by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education as a historically black college or university.

The grants are discretionary, not competitive, so they are awarded most years. Paul Wagner, the Deputy Commissioner of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education in Missouri, said Harris Stowe and Lincoln have received these funds before.

The University of Missouri systems are under lawsuit for failing to implement military veteran discount with student financial aid.

The lawsuit applies to the Missouri Coordinating Board of Education. Spokesperson Kathy Love says the board has no comment at this time.

Karen Adams, financial aid consultant of Missouri Western State University, says their school always implements the Heroes discount. College of the Ozarks' financial aid director, Kyla McCarty, says they do things differently and do not apply military discounts.

Both the College of the Ozarks and the University of Missouri systems offer scholarship funds. The University of Missouri systems has did not return phone calls and has made no statement at this writing.

Todd Akin's campaign adviser Rick Tyler said Gingrich offered to come to support Akin. He will attend a series of fundraising events to help Akin's campaign fill the gap between his and Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill's campaigns.

Tyler also said that the Republican party must secure a spot for a Missouri Republican in the Senate if they hope to win a majority.

The Missouri Federation of Republican Women Vice President Rosa Robbs said Akin still has a lot of support in Missouri, and it will be very helpful for Gingrich to show his support.

The official deadline to dropout of the Senate race is Tuesday, Sept. 25. However, if a candidate drops out after Sept. 22, they would have to cover the costs of military and overseas ballots. 

Tyler said there is no way Akin will drop out of the race.

Adjutant General Stephen Danner is the second Missourian in history to serve as the chairman of the National Guard Association.

Danner was elected as chairman at the NGA convention in Reno, Nev. last week.

The NGA was created to provide each state territory with representation in Washington D.C. Their goal is to obtain better equipment and training by educating Congress on militia needs.

Danner served as the top official for the Missouri National Guard and was awarded a Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge for his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement that Danner's "leadership skills and the genuine concern he has shown for those under his command will enable him to serve well the men and women of the Guard and their families."

Danner will serve as chairman of the board for the next two years and hopes to "maintain the momentum" of the association.

After a series of positive ads touting his own record, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon released his first negative ad Thursday.

The ad criticizes his opponent, Republican Dave Spence, for his relationship with Reliance Bancshares Inc, which has yet to pay back $40 million in federal bailout money. The ad states that Spence was on the bank's board of directors in 2011 when it voted against repaying the bailout money. Spence later resigned from the board

Nixon's ad comes in response to an ad from Spence, which was released earlier this week. Spence's ad attempts to tie Nixon to President Barack Obama and criticizes the governor for his support of the federal stimulus. Spence's ad also blames Nixon and Obama for the "failure" of Missouri's economy and loss of jobs.

Spence's ad began airing statewide Tuesday, while Nixon's ad hit the airwaves Thursday.

Normandy School District is slated to lose its accreditation, and a top district official said community outreach is essential to recovery.

The Missouri State Education Board said Tuesday the district has until Jan. 1, 2015 to improve its poor standardized test scores to earn back its state accreditation.

The district currently only meets five of the 14 standards. To earn full state accreditation, a district must meet at least nine standards.

According to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter, the district has had some of the lowest scores in the state on the Missouri Assessment Program tests. She said there is currently no good system in place to turn performance around and the state will likely take over the school if scores don't improve.

"The board of education could divide the district into smaller districts," she said. "They could close the district or merge it with another district."

But, teachers unions, such as the state chapter of the National Education Association said instructors in the classroom aren't fully to blame for the faltering scores in Normandy.

"Outside influences, home life, community resources and economic issues play a big role in how well students are able to concentrate and do in their school work," MNEA Director Ann Jarrett said Wednesday. "Our hope is that this will be a wake up call and it will generate honest productive conversation about what can be done to help those students to attend a great public school."

Phillip Boyd, the Normandy district's Chief Administrative Officer, said 95 percent of his district's students live in poverty, which he said presents some obstacles for the students and teachers to overcome.

"There's no barrier regarding children coming into school from poverty that says they can't learn," Boyd said Wednesday. "What it says is we should all do what we can both internally, in the school system, or externally, to the school system, to address some of the issues that hold some of our children back."

The state and anti-abortion rights groups made their arguments before Missouri's Supreme Court this morning in Jefferson City as part of legal challenge to a funding bill for biotechnology companies.

In 2011, state lawmakers passed legislation establishing a fund to help more biotechnology companies get started in the state. But that measure (SB7) was written such that it could take effect only if another tax bill was signed into law.

The other bill never passed but the state began putting the funding in place anyway. In February, a Cole County circuit court judge then struck down the funding law, saying that making the funding bill dependent on the passage of the other law was unconstitutional and the state appealed the ruling to the higher court.

"The legislature made very clear...abundantly clear that it did not intend section A to become effective unless and until Senate Bill eight passed and was signed by the government," said Stephen Clark, attorney for the anti-abortion rights groups.

Anti-abortion rights groups are working to stop the funding bill's implementation because its funding is doled out by a 15-member board that is not publicly elected. They have said that without direct citizen oversight, the board might vote to fund businesses that harvest tissues from unborn children as part of their research.

"There is not any pro-life protections on Senate Bill 7 that would protect that money from being used for human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research," said Susan Klein, Missouri Right to Life lobbyist.

Missouri hospitals could soon lose funds from cuts to Disproportionate Share Hospital Adjustment Payments (DSH). The payments are part of Medicaid funding, and go to hospitals that serve large proportions of uninsured and under insured patients. The payments help hospitals cover their uncompensated care. 

Missouri was the seventh largest recipient of DSH funding in the nation in 2011. The DSH cuts were intended to complement Medicaid expansion in the federal health care overhaul. Missouri lawmakers have not decided whether or not they will expand Medicaid.

Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association says the federal law was designed to curtail the effect of the cuts with the Medicaid expansion. He said state health decisions will have to consider this effect.


Last Week

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce endorsed Republican Dave Spence for Governor on Sep. 13.

President of the Chamber of Commerce, Dan Mehan, said he believes that Spence's business experience will boost the economy.

According to Jay Nixon's (D)campaign manager, Nixon has made Missouri's business climate one of the best in the nation.

Spence said he will focus on not doing things for political purposes if elected.

The Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women is seeking a preliminary injunction within the next few days regarding the new law.

The labor union's lawyer Edward Keenan says he's prepared to take the law all the way to the state Supreme Court and that it violates the Supremacy Clause.

The law's sponsor, Saint Louis County Republican Senator John Lamping, said during the veto session that this bill makes clear an employer cannot be forced to pay for an employees services that they do not agree with.

Keenan says he expects to be in a courtroom within the next few weeks.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Wolff said the two biggest problems with Missouri's Criminal Code are it's complexity and harsh punishments for non-violent offenders.

Wolff said the current code's redundancy has caused a number of problems in the judicial system. For example, there are currently 27 ways to be charged with assault in Missouri, which creates confusion among law enforcement officials and the public over what laws to abide by.

"If you're going to prohibit things, make things crimes, you have to tell people what it is," Wolff said.

Wolff also said too much money is being spent sending criminals charged with drug related crimes to jail, when rehab would be a cheaper way to permanently fix the problem.

"The people we send to prison should be the people we're afraid of, not just the people we're mad at," Wolff said.

A joint committee will discuss which changes should be made to the code after a series of public hearings begins next week.

Missouri continues to be the first and only state to discuss the use of propofol for the lethal injection of death row inmates.

Two motions are pending on a case allowing the use of the drug. While the case is being decided, the execution dates of 19 death row inmates have been delayed. Lawyers filed the case from the Missouri Supreme Court down to the Cole County District Court and have motioned for the Attorney General to not dismiss the case.

Supporters of the drug believe that the execution dates should be set promptly. Opponents argue that the use of propofol is a step backward in human rights.

Attorney General Chris Koster spoke out against the Supreme Court's decision and hopes to settle the case as quickly as possible.

Lawmakers in the Missouri state Capitol have overridden a veto from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon on legislation involving health insurance coverage of contraception.

The Senate passed the bill over Nixon's objection 26-6, while the House passed it by a vote of 109-45. Only one Republican - Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia - in either chamber voted against the veto override. Seven Democrats joined 102 House Republicans in passing the law.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, will allow employers and insurers to refuse to provide coverage of abortion, contraception or sterilization procedures in their employee health insurance plans unless such procedures are deemed medically necessary.

"This bill does not restrict access," Lamping said. "This bill makes clear that you can't force someone who disagrees with you to pay for your services."

The federal Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule earlier this year that requires employers and insurance companies to cover contraception at no additional cost to employees. Those in support of Missouri's bill believe that this rule could interfere with the religious beliefs of employers and insurers in the state.

Nixon vetoed the bill on July 12. 

"It's a shame we are still debating access to birth control in 2012," he said Wednesday.

Wednesday's vote marks only the second time the Legislature has overriden Nixon. Lawmakers also successfully overcame his objections to pass redistricting maps last year, which were later challenged in the state's courts. 

When lawmakers met at their annual veto session Wednesday they declined to override a veto from Gov. Jay Nixon of an auto use tax.

The measure would have imposed a retroactive tax on more than 122,000 Missourians who purchased cars after March 21, but did not buy their vehicles at Missouri car dealers.

Nixon vetoed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, and had spoken out repeatedly over the last month against a possible override.

Supporters of the measure argued that not having the tax apply to purchases outside Missouri car dealers put them at a competitve disadvantage and said the lost revenue from the tax would hurt municipalities.

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County had said earlier in the day that his chamber would not take up the measure if there were not enough votes in the House to achieve the two-thirds majority to override Nixon's veto.

Jones suggested that Nixon call a special session and "show leadership" so lawmakers can address the use tax issue, but Nixon quickly rejected the idea.

"I don't think I should ask the taxpayers to fund a special session to let the Legislature come back and try to raise taxes," the governor said.

Top Republican leaders joined Democratic St. Louis City lawmakers Wednesday to support the ballot measure giving St. Louis control of its police department.

Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, has led the effort in the legislature for local control and called the current governing system of the police force "antiquated." Nasheed was joined by Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, and Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, at the Wednesday news conference and pledged support for the measure.  

The St. Louis and Kansas City police departments have been under control of boards whose members are appointed by the governor since the Civil War era. Nasheed said allowing the city to run its own police department will save the state and the city money.

"The city of Saint Louis spends over $144 million on public safety, but guess what we have no control over the police department. If we pay for it, we should control it," Nasheed said.

The measure had been held up in the legislature as some lawmakers feared the change would negatively impact current police officers. Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said at the news conference that lawmakers had "bent over backwards" to ensure that would not occur.

Voters will decide on Proposition A at the November general election.

Former Majority Floor leader Rep. Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, has been elected Speaker of the Missouri House.

In a speech on the House floor, Jones urged house members to work together with senators and House members holding opposing viewpoints.

"We will work together with all sides of the aisle, and all facets of the equation to help our failing education bureaucracy," Jones said.

Jones also stated that he plans to improve Missouri's economic state through tax relief and deregulating business.

Jones' election comes nearly one month after former Speaker Steve Tilley resigned before his term expired to become a lobbyist.

A commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon began work Wednesday on evaluating and making recommendations to lawmakers on revising Missouri's 61 tax credit programs.

In 2012, the state redeemed $629 million in tax credits - a record amount.

Nixon said the "exponential growth" in tax credit redemptions was the impetus for the commission.

"Tax credits come at a price. Every dollar we spend on tax credits is a dollar we don't have to spend on other critical priorities such as public schools and public safety," Nixon said.

The commission is headed by former Senate Appropriations Chairman Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, and Steve Sogel, President of the DFC Group in St. Louis.

The tax credit group first met in 2010 and submitted a report to lawmakers calling for reductions in historic preservation and low income housing programs - the state's two largest tax credits. But, lawmakers have been unable to pass the recommendations of the commission and scale back the state's programs.

The commission must submit an updated report by Dec. 5.

Missouri's Criminal Code will be updated for the first time in over 30 years, based on recommendations made by The Missouri Bar. One of these recommendations is decreasing the punishment of non-violent crimes, particularly with first time offenders.

The Missouri Bar spent the last four years studying the Criminal Code and concluded an additional class of felonies is needed. Missouri currently has four classes of felonies, however Bar Co-Chair, Jason Lamb, believes adding a 5th class would improve the judicial system and close a gap that currently exists.

Lamb says possession of a controlled substance and involuntary manslaughter in the first degree are both currently Class C felonies, despite a clear difference in the seriousness of the crimes. Lamb says he believes the addition of a 5th class will create an important distinction between violent and non-violent crimes.

The legislature will decide which changes will be made to the code after a series of public hearings beginning Sept. 18th.

Increases in expenses are forcing cattle ranchers to sell cows prematurely in order to save their businesses.

At the House Agricultural Policy Committee meeting on Tuesday, people in the agriculture business came to address grievances brought on by the recent drought.

Cattle ranchers rely on hay and grass to feed the animals and sell them off to buyers.

Due to the drought, hay can cost as much as 85 dollars per bale, which is a price most cattle ranchers are not able to afford.

Wendy Cantrell of the Miller County Regional Stockyard, said that she has lost 20 percent of her local producers.

Missouri farmers have been plowing too much for the production of wheat and soybeans, leaving fewer areas for cattle to graze.

Cattle ranchers believe the only way to keep their ranches alive during the drought is with the help of reseeding and wells.

The Interim Committee on Pre-Need Funeral Trusts met today to listen to concerns from funeral directors and associations about how debt will be reimbursed.

Funeral homes are suffering large amounts of debt because of losses from faulty trusts with the National Prearranged Services. The NPS provided people insurance to make funeral arrangements. When the person died, the NPS was supposed to give the funeral homes money to cover the arrangements, however the NPS ended up keeping the money. When the NPS failed to provide money, the funeral homes faced a decision to pay out of pocket to fulfill the contracts with the consumers or shut down.

In 2008, to assist the funeral homes affected by the losses from the fraud, legislators passed the Guarantee Fund to help funeral homes pay for funeral costs. However, legislators are now looking for an alternative to the Guarantee Fund, possibly in a private firm, because the government and tax payers cannot keep up with the cost of the Guarantee Fund.

Rep. Chris Molendorp, R-Belton, said the hearing was the first of many to discuss options on how to help the funeral homes with their losses.

The Attorney General's office said there has been a recent spike in businesses soliciting using fake IDs, or "spoofing." Doug Ommen, chief council of the consumer protection division for the Attorney General, said spoofing presents a difficult challenge to track down because the company masks the caller ID.

We do see it reoccuring, and frankly that is something that we're really determined to resolve," Ommen said.

Telemarketing company Condado Outsourcing president Rich Pusateri said there are things companies could use that can trick customers that no one can stop .

"There's nothing that prevents a business or a company from going out and registering a business called ABC...whatever, and because they own that business and they're saying they're doing outbound marketing based on ABC, then they can display that ABC in the caller ID," said Pusateri.  

Ommen said the new application of the no-call list to cell phones could help exterminate this activity because victims of cell phone spoofing can now come forward with legitimate legal complaints.