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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 2/5/2010 - MPA News 2/5/10

Less than two weeks after announcing almost $200 million in cuts to the state's current budget, Gov. Jay Nixon cut an additional $74.3 million Tuesday.

The budget cuts accompanied the release of the state's Jan. 2010 revenue report. According to the report, Missouri collected 12.5 percent less for the past seven months of the fiscal year than the last budget year.

The administration and legislative leaders previously had predicted only a 6.4 percent drop -- a figure that the state budget director acknowledged now is unlikely.

Technology programs are among the hardest hit -- $24 million for the federal-state rural broadband expansion project, $637,000 from MOREnet and $29 million from a multi-year program to develop a new-generation statewide public safety communications system. In addition, $2 million would be cut from the Parents as Teachers program.

State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said the magnitude of the tax collection decline came as a surprise.

Luebbering's sentiments were echoed by House Budget Chair Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County.

Icet said Missouri will have to "batten down the hatches" to deal with revenue problems in the year ahead.

Gov. Jay Nixon's latest cuts to a program that would improve communication among police, firefighters and rescue workers won't affect the project's progress, said a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.

"We're going ahead with everything as planned," department spokesman Mike O'Connell said.

The interoperability project would create a statewide radio network to connect emergency responders. Motorola has been contracted to build the network, and O'Connell said the cut in funding will not affect the contract.

Former Senate Appropriations Chair Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said the latest cut will only delay an inevitable need for millions of dollars in funds to complete the project.

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Commission of Higher Education Robert Stein sent a letter to public college officials across the state laying out potential cuts to address an anticipated budget hole that will result in two years when nearly a billion dollars in federal stabilization funds expire.

The hole he's worried about is potentially even worse.

Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget for next year includes nearly $1.2 billion in stabilization funds, $300 million of which Nixon's office anticipates will come from an extension of federal stabilization funds that the state doesn't currently have.

Stein's letter presented a variety of scenarios for dealing with anticipated future budget shortfalls, drawn from conversations he had with education officials and experts across the state, including closing campuses, incorporating independent campuses into university systems, abolishing athletics programs and reducing course offerings.

In an interview before the legislative session, Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, said a duplication of programs among state colleges is part of the problem.

"All these universities want to offer every degree under the sun," he said.

Reducing the number of programs and courses offered across the state is one of the suggestions in Stein's letter, but he said the regional diversity of Missouri will make the decision of canceling or consolidating programs that much more difficult.

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The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed Gov. Nixon's higher education recommendation constraints for fiscal year 2011 on Feb. 2. Commissioner of Higher Education Robert Stein began the meeting with somber statistics.

"As a system, we perform average," Stein said, adding that higher education in Missouri ranks 31 in the nation

Stein said one solution for economic recovery is through a well-funded higher education program. But with economic recession still looming over budget decisions, providing the necessary funds isn't possible.

Gov. Nixon and Missouri four-year public schools made an agreement to freeze tuition as long as the state does not cut state funding to the institutions by any more than five percent.

But the agreement only pertains to in-state undergraduate students, not to out-of-state students or graduate students. Institutions can also raise the tuition on the school's budget books without implementing the increase. If the freeze in tuition agreement were to end in the next year, the increased budget would be implemented immediately.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said there is a more transparent way for institutions to obtain funds from the state by petitioning with a waiver. He said the increase without implementation is not transparent, especially for students.

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Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, testified before a federal grand jury in Kansas City Feb. 2 on legislation he sponsored that was effectively killed by a former speaker of the Missouri House.

The focus of the FBI investigation, which has reportedly been developing over the past year, is how a 2005 bill that would have put a host of regulations on strip clubs and porn shops wound up dying in the House.

Bartle said he spoke to the grand jury about "the troubling circumstances" that led to the defeat of the legislation in 2005, however, he declined to say specifically what he was asked.

He did say he thought a $35,000 donation to a committee connected to former House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, was at the center of the inquiry and had something to do with the bill never reaching the House floor.

When asked if he was a focus of the investigation, Bartle said, "most certainly not."

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Two days after testifying before a federal grand jury in Kansas City, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, and the rest of his chamber debated a bill almost identical to the one at the center of the federal investigation.

Bartle's bill would prohibit full nudity and limit semi-nudity in sexual-oriented businesses throughout the state. Among other restrictions, these businesses must also close by midnight and cannot serve alcohol.

Bartle said that the events of this week were "not coordinated," and said he filed this year's bill back in December, weeks before he was summoned to testify in Kansas City.

As previously reported, Bartle's 2005 version of the anti-porn bill died in House committee after being passed through the Senate. Then-House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, assigned the bill to what Bartle said he considered an "unfriendly committee," -- a move that followed a $35,000 donation from an adult entertainment mogul to a campaign committee connected to Jetton.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri testified in opposition to the bill during the hearing last month, saying the bill would violate free speech protections.

"At some point, the over-regulation of a business simply because you don't like that business or you don't like the content that's being viewed in those businesses would violate the first amendment," ACLU representative John Coffman said.

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According to an Associated Press story, Gov. Jay Nixon withdrew more than 80 appointments made while the General Assembly was not in session.

Among the withdrawals, appointments of former Democratic Party Chairman John Temporiti, former Rep. Bill Ransdall and former Rep. Phil Smith ran into trouble in the Senate.

Appointments made while the legislature is not in session are given 30 days for Senate approval. According to the Associated Press, senators said they did not have enough time to evaluate the appointments and Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said he expects many of those withdrawn to be reappointed.

A measure that would require the Social Services Department to set up drug screening for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applicants was given first approval in the House.

The measure is less drastic than some earlier versions of the idea.

An actual drug test would not be required unless the initial screening indicated the possibility of illegal drug use.

An applicant who did not complete a drug treatment program or failed a subsequent drug test would have eligibility for the welfare benefits suspended for one year.

Democrats, including Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, argued with each other and Republicans as the final vote approached.

Roorda said the bill was not helpful to families in need and also called it "unconstitutional."

The measure requires one more vote before moving to the Senate.

Missouri's Senate passed for the second year in a row a bill that would require insurance companies to cover autism spectrum disorder.

The bill faced extensive debate, but the Senate leadership decided to push back committee hearings in order to bring the bill to a vote Wednesday.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said autism should be treated like any other neurological disease.

"I know many people have gotten up and called this (bill) a mandate; what I call it is a correction," Crowell said.

Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, argued that the mandate would increase premiums so small businesses couldn't afford it and would have to drop insurance for their employees altogether.

The bill passed with a waiver for small businesses that had their rates increase because of autism coverage by more than two and a half percent over one year.

Gov. Jay Nixon said he praised the Senate's passage of the bill.

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With a state financial crisis and ethics legislation looming at the forefront of Missouri politics, the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court made it clear during his State of the Judiciary Address on Jan. 3 he "did not come here to give a meaningless speech."

Chief Justice William Ray Price urged an overhaul of the state's system for addressing nonviolent crimes and warned legislators against ethics violations. The speech, which was delivered before a joint session of the state legislature, was one of the more strongly-worded State of the Judiciary addresses in recent memory.

"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders," he said. "It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime."

Democrats applauded his suggestion to save money by reducing inmate numbers, but Republicans were generally opposed.

"Even though we are in tough budget times, letting prisoners out should not be an alternative," said House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County.

Pratt said the state could benefit from better rehabilitation programs but said letting convicts out of prison would be a mistake.

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An bill sponsored by Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Joplin, to toughen drunk driving laws statewide was heard in a House committee Wednesday.

Changes would increase the suspension period for drivers with a blood alcohol level of .15 percent or higher. In addition, Stevenson pushed for a more comprehensive statewide DWI tracking system to punish repeat offenders.

The current DWI tracking system is flawed, Stevenson said, and a few municipalities fail to report offenses to the state, ultimately causing repeat offenders to be charged and sentenced as first time offenders. Stevenson's bill would allow the governor to "withhold any state funds to a law enforcement agency or prosecuting or circuit attorney's office that fails to submit information."

Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, expressed concern that cutting funds would threaten public safety and have a negative effect on the overall community.

"I don't think the way to deal with it is to strip funds," Nasheed said.

The committee adjourned after almost two hours of discussion and is expected to continue the week of Feb. 8.

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The House passed a bill Feb. 2 that would allow Missouri cities to maintain voter-approved general sales and capital improvement sales tax increases -- called "stacked taxes." Cities could also impose new taxes in the future as long as local voters are on board.

Stacked taxes became an issue when Farmington lawyer and former State Rep. Tom Burcham, R-Farmington, brought lawsuits against Missouri cities for imposing more local taxes than what the current state statute allows. Burcham claimed victory in lawsuits against Missouri cities Iberia and Purdy.

House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, cast one of the dissenting votes against the bill. He said the bad economy has made it a bad time to raise taxes, and that cities have broken the law by imposing stacked taxes despite current state statutes.

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A ballot initiative sponsored by Barbara Schmitz, the Missouri director of the Humane Society of the United States, is facing opposition by the agriculture community.

The initiative is being called the "Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act" and would propose further regulations on dog breeders in the state.

In an December interview with Brownfield -  an agriculture news service -  Jeff Windett, executive vice president for Missouri Cattlemen's Association, said that Missouri will not let a ballot initiative like this pass because it opens the door for further legislation by the activist group. Such legislation could be focused in the production agriculture sector, according to Windett.

"As most people know, once they initiate something like this and get it into law, it's very easy to go back and change the wording to include livestock," Windett said.

Lambert Airport in St. Louis would become an air cargo trade hub between China and the U.S. under a proposal Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Zhao Wenzhong and Gov. Jay Nixon voiced support for Monday.

Ambassador Zhao and Nixon, however, offered no specifics on the plan at a press conference inside the state Capitol.

Missouri is uniquely positioned to compete worldwide, Nixon said.

Talk about the proposed trade hub turned to the U.S. government's decision to sell weapons to Taiwan. Zhao denounced the arms sale in front of Nixon.

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President Barack Obama appointed Gov. Jay Nixon to a national council designed to focus on homeland security issues.

Obama announced on Feb. 4 that Nixon had been selected to serve on the Council of Governors. According to a release from Nixon's office, the purpose of the Council is to advise national defense and security officials on matters related to the National Guard and homeland security.

Ô01CClose cooperation and communication between the federal government and the states are vital if we are to make the most effective use of state resources on matters of national defense and homeland security,Ô01D Nixon said.

The council is co-chaired by Vermont Gov. James H. Douglas and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. Other members, in addition to Gov. Nixon, are: Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis G. Fortu˝o, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Maryland Gov. Martin OÔ019Malley, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, and South Dakota Gov. M. Michael Rounds.

The Missouri National Guard is sending a cargo aircraft and an 11-person crew to North Carolina in support of Haiti relief operations, Gov. Jay Nixon said in a press release.

"These Airmen are helping meet the significant challenges of getting badly needed supplies to this devastated country, and we are very proud of them," Nixon said in the release.

A bill proposed by Rep. Walter Bivins, R-St. Louis County, would make it illegal to smoke in enclosed public places like bars and restaurants, and certain outdoor venues -- in and within fifteen feet of playgrounds and bus stops, for example. Citizens could still light up in private homes and tobacco retail outlets.

Bivins' said his bill has received support from both the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

Bivins said he is "hopeful to get (the bill) through unscathed," but acknowledged that critics - including Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph - fear this is the wrong economic time for such legislation and businesses will suffer as a result.

"I'm not convinced a statewide smoking ban passes, even though I do believe it will happen in the coming years," Shields said. "Larger cities have taken the step, but there is still much resistance from businesses, such as restaurant owners from across the state who are already facing challenges."

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Following felony indictments that prompted three legislators to resign, a southwest Missouri senator has brought back his bill that would bar all felons from holding elected office.

While the law already requires those who are convicted of felonies while in office to surrender their posts, convicted felons who have served their time and completed probation can hold elected office, just as they would still be able to vote and serve on juries -- with just one exception.

A felony conviction for an election law disqualifies a person from seeking public office. But for any other felony, including homicide or government corruption, there's no office-seeking ban after the sentence is served.

The bill's sponsor -- Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin -- said his bill was not prompted by the three former St. Louis lawmakers convicted of felony crimes last year. Rather, Nodler said a constituent told him in 2007 that an out-of-state felon was running to hold a post as head of a water district near Greenfield, and he first introduced a bill in 2008 to prevent a similar scenario.

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A bill to add designer drug K2, also known as spice, to the list of illegal controlled substances has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The substance is currently legal, but according to officials, it gives off chemical reactions in the brain similar to THC -- the active ingredient in marijuana.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, drafted the bill over the summer and plans to introduced it on the Senate floor Feb 3. According to Schaefer, the substance has already been banned in some European countries.

Schaefer's bill would add six new substances to the state's list of illegal controlled substances, including spice.

Kansas is currently the first state to try to outlaw the substance. The Kansas Senate passed their version of the bill two weeks ago and the Kansas Senate heard the bill yesterday. Missouri is the second state to file a bill against this drug.

Even with support from representatives of Missouri's labor community and the attorney general, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said she doubts her bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation will pass through the Missouri legislature this year.

The Senate Progress and Development Committee heard testimony Tuesday on Justus' bill to add sexual orientation to Missouri's current civil rights law. While the majority of testimony was in favor of the bill, she said it is unlikely her bill will become law.

"I don't think that in an election year (the bill) could pass through the legislature," Justus said. "But we need to have the debate on the Senate floor."

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A lawmaker has waltzed into the House with new legislation giving students the option to get class credit for ballroom dancing.

Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, has written a bill allowing students in public schools to take a ballroom dance class instead of a physical education or fine arts class.

"Maybe you're not good at volleyball, or running, or playing soccer," Flook said. "But you could take a ballroom dance course for P.E. class credit."

Citing popular dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Flook said he believes if the choice were offered, schools would likely offer the option for student demand.

The bill has yet to be scheduled for committee hearing.

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One week after the state Gaming Commission voted to sink the gaming operations at the President riverboat casino in downtown St. Louis, the Senate Ways and Means Committee heard a bill that could save the casino.

State Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, sponsored the bill, which she says will have an emergency clause. The clause would take effect immediately if the bill is passed by the legislature and the governor signs it.

The casino's closure would mean the loss of 241 casino jobs and an estimated 40 more in the City of St. Louis due to lost tax revenues.

The Gaming Commission cited declining performance, including lost jobs, smaller operations, and lower revenues, as the reason to close the casino. Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns the President, has a little more than three weeks to appeal the commissions ruling.

The House Special Standing Committee on General Laws met Thursday to discuss a bill that would keep business owners from being held liable for criminal acts committed on their property.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, also specifies that a business cannot outlaw citizens from carrying guns in parking lots.

Several representatives spoke out against the bill, including Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis City, who said he felt present legislation did not need to be altered.

Republican senators urged the Senate Rules Committee to stop recognizing the authority of many federal decisions.

Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said Missouri has a legal right to refuse national legislation.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, said he agreed with Engler and added that it's time for Missouri to look out for its own interests and not those of the federal government.

The Senate Commerce Committee met Thursday to hear a bill that would modify the Motor Vehicle Franchise Practices Act to provide more franchise protection for auto dealers.

Missouri car dealers came forward to share their stories of bad relations with manufacturers.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, said the dealers should associate and make demands instead of asking the government to place more restrictions on their industry.

Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, held a press conference Tuesday morning introducing a resolution asking Congress to continue support of the federal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Stouffer said it is the wrong time to be addressing the issue after President Obama announced last Wednesday that he would ask that the policy be repealed.

Ryan Hobart, communications director for the Missouri Democratic Party, said he qu