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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 1/11/2010 - This is the first for 2010

On a day two former legislators were to appear in court and a day after another began his prison term, the 2010 Missouri General Assembly began with a call for ethics reform.

Addressing the Senate, President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said "we must strive for higher ethics standards because ethics violations are unacceptable."

While lawmakers of both parties have stressed the importance of reforming ethics laws, exactly what reforms would be made was still a point of contention.

"It can't be called comprehensive ethics reform unless you have some kind of campaign finance limits," said House Democratic Leader Paul LeVota, D-Jackson County.

Earlier, Senate Republican Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said he disagreed with the idea of contribution limits.

When the state had contribution limits, donors participated in a "shell game," according to Engler, moving money through various campaign committees and obscuring its origin.

House Speaker Ron Richard announced the creation of a new committee in the House to address ethics and government accountability. The new 12-member committee will be chaired by Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho.

According to Richard, he decided to create a new committee in order to draw attention to the issue.

"I want to make sure you all and the state of Missouri can watch its progress," Richard said.

As his former colleagues began the new legislative session with talk of ethics reform, former Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for his own ethical transgressions.

In September, El-Amin admitted asking for and receiving a bribe of $2,100 from a St. Louis gas station owner. El-Amin, who could have received up to 24 months in prison, will also be required to repay the amount of the bribe.

Former House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, was scheduled to appear in Scott County Circuit Court the same day that El-Amin was sentenced in St. Louis. Instead, Jetton's attorney Steven Wilson appeared on his behalf and asked for a new judge in the case, according to the Southeast Missourian.

Wilson's request was granted.

Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, began serving his sentence for obstruction of justice in Kentucky on Jan. 5, on day before El-Amin and Jetton's court dates.

According to the state Budget Director Linda Luebbering revenue collection for the month of December fell almost 22 percent compared to collections for December 2008.

For the first half of the fiscal year that began July 1, the state has collected around $400 million less than it did last year.

The governor's office is now projecting revenue collection for the entire year to decline 6.4 percent. Gov. Nixon's made last round of budget cuts in late October were based on a revenue decline of 4 percent.

The state's budget director has estimated the new budget figures will require a cut of about $200 million more from the state's current budget without additional revenue sources.

Gov. Jay Nixon and the two top budget officials in the House and Senate expect modest growth for fiscal year 2011.

But even with the increase projected over the current fiscal year, it would remain a substantial shortfall from prior years.

In a statement released Jan. 4, Nixon, House Budget Chair Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, and Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said they expect the state to collect 3.2 percent more during fiscal year 2011 than it did in 2010. The fiscal year begins July 1 and ends on June 30.

The $7.2 billion they expect the state to collect in 2011 would still be $780 million less than the state collected in fiscal year 2008, a period described as a high water mark for collections by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.

According to Shields, it may take until 2014 before the state begins to collect revenue at 2008 levels.

Col. Jim Keathley announced that he will retire in March after leading the state Highway Patrol for more than three years. Keathley began as a trooper 33 years ago.

Keathley made his announcement in the office of a clearly saddened Gov. Jay Nixon.

"It will be hard to see a good friend go," Nixon said.

A replacement was not named.

In a five-hour hearing before a Senate environmental committee, witnesses provided testimony to the reasoning behind the Department of Natural Resources's decision to withhold information about elevated E. coli levels in the Lake of the Ozarks.

According to DNR lab staffer Scott Robinett, it isn't unusual to withhold test results before a press release is drafted. Robinett did say, however, that the delay in this particular case was much longer than the usual two week period.

There was partisan debate from members of the committee. The committee Vice Chairman, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said there was no reason the public shouldn't have been informed about the levels, even if the DNR was waiting to analyze the results.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, pointed out the results could have been irrelevant because factors like rain and wind can alter the results on a daily, or even hourly basis - which is why analysis is often needed.

Former DNR Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel - who was dismissed after admitting to withholding information - also testified Tuesday. He admitted to withholding information about elevated E. coli levels, but defended his decision saying a plan of action needed to be in place before a public announcement could be made.