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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 2/19/2010 - MPA News 2/19/10

The Missouri House passed a measure that would mandate insurance coverage for autism spectrum disorder by a vote of 135-18 on Feb. 18.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County, would designate up to $36,000 annually from insurance providers for children ages 18 and under diagnosed with autism.

Scharnhorst also added an amendment in response to concern that the legislation would raise insurance premiums at the cost of small business owners. The House passed his amendment - granting small employers a waiver - allowing them to opt out of the provisions if their insurance premiums jumped 2.5 percent or more during a calendar year.

The House initially gave first approval to the bill in a voice vote late in the evening on Feb. 16.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles, has proposed separate legislation in the Senate requiring insurance coverage of autism. The Senate version also calls for the same small business exemption, but would require insurance policies to cover $55,000 per year of therapy for children 20 and under.

A bill requiring coverage of autism passed the Senate last year, but was held up in the House.

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A tuition deal reached by Gov. Jay Nixon and state colleges and universities has cleared its first hurdle, the House Education Appropriation's Committee Chair said.

After two days of presentations by Missouri's colleges, committee chairman Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, said he is likely to recommend upholding the tuition plan announced in November.

Under the plan, Missouri's colleges agreed to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition in exchange for preserving 95 percent of the current higher education appropriation, pending approval by the legislature.

On Feb. 17, Thomson said the recommendation would be finalized the following day and passed on to the House Budget Committee. It would then need to pass the House floor and Senate before going to Nixon for approval.

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A House committee voted against a bill stripping funds from prisons, part of a budget cut plan to help the governor keep his in-state tuition freeze promise.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, has asked the six House appropriation committees to make five percent cuts to their budgets. Gov. Jay Nixon's tuition plan requires Missouri's colleges to freeze in-state tuition in order to receive 95 percent of their budget from government appropriations. To execute the promise, Icet has asked the six committees to spread the brunt of the cuts.

The House Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee voted for Icet's $1.5 million cuts for public safety, but voted against a bill cutting $19 million from the Corrections Department.

Rep. Michael Brown, D-Jackson County, said the Corrections Department has faced continuous budget cuts over the past four years, even though there has been an increase in the number of inmates in Missouri correctional facilities.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, - a member of the budget committee - said Icet's instruction to cut budgets is especially needed during the budget crunch. He said the main priority is to keep the budget balanced.

"You can't spend more than you don't have," Kelly said.

Corrections Appropriations Chairman Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County, said the committee needs to approach Icet before anything further can be decided.

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The Associated Press reported Feb. 19 that Gov. Jay Nixon will re-examine Missouri's fiscal year 2010 budget in March and consider if additional budget cuts are needed.

From July to January, state revenue collections declined by 12.5 percent compared to the same period in 2008. Nixon based cuts he made in early February on a projected revenue decline of 6.4 percent for the fiscal year.

Overall, Nixon has already cut over $700 million from the fiscal year 2010 budget, a budget that covers the period from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010.

Dozens of private school students descended upon the capital on Feb. 17 to speak in opposition of a proposal to eliminate a higher state scholarship award for private college students.

Currently, the Access Missouri scholarship grants low- and middle-income students of public four-year universities and Linn State Technical College in Jefferson City up to $2,150 per academic year, while students of private four-year institutions can receive up to $4,600. Almost 46,000 Missouri college students receive Access Missouri funds.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has proposed a bill that would cap the scholarship at $2,850 for all students who are eligible for the scholarship. He proposed a similar bill last year, but it stalled in the Senate Education Committee, which held the hearing for the new bill.

The Senate Lounge, where the hearing was held, was filled over-capacity with students and administrators from colleges and universities across the state. Some students took to standing in the center aisle or sitting on the floor in front of the committee to hear witnesses' testimony.

Students from several private schools from across the state were in attendance to speak in opposition to the bill.

Kayla Kell, a student at Webster University in St. Louis and an Access Missouri recipient, held back tears as she told senators that she grew up in poverty, and is the first person from her family to attend college.

Schaefer said private institutions are not subject to state budget cuts or proposed tuition caps, as public universities are.

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According to an Associated Press report, the Missouri House has rejected a tax increase on farms proposed by the State Tax Commission.

By a vote of 143-11, the House rejected the increase which would have taken effect in 2011. The Senate rejected in increase last month by a vote of 30-3, the Associated Press reports.

Two proposed bills would decrease the minimum wage for workers under age 20 and also require the Missouri minimum wage to always be equal to or less than the federal rate.

Supporters hope that decreasing the minimum wage will create jobs, specifically for Missouri's young workers.

Bradley Harmon, representing Communications Workers of America, said he was concerned about the effects of the two bills.

"There are a lot of low income people who are under the age of twenty and who are currently receiving food stamps or other state assistance," Harmon said. "As their income decreases because this bill passes, it is quite likely that the state has to pay out more."

Sen. Jason Crowell, R- Cape Girardeau, said he sees promise in lowering the minimum wage.

"Statistics clearly show if you want a higher unemployment rate, make your state minimum wage higher than the national minimum wage," Crowell said.

As debate on ethics reform continued Feb. 17 in the Missouri Senate, some lawmakers worried the legislation might be going too far.

The morning's debate centered around an amendment filed by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. Crowell's amendment would require former legislators to wait two years after leaving office before becoming a lobbyist or being appointed to a state departmental position.

Opposition to Crowell's amendment came largely from legislators who expressed concern that restricting former legislators from accepting lobbying jobs would jeopardize the quality of state government operations.

Majority Floor Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said he worried that making it too difficult for former legislators to become lobbyists would compromise the institutional knowledge of the state government and open up important positions to amateurs.

Crowell, however, defended the measures taken by his amendment and said a "cooling off period" should be required before former legislators can become lobbyists.

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Supporters and opponents of legislation requiring women seeking abortion to undergo an ultrasound gave testimony to a senate committee Feb. 15.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, would require abortion providers to perform an ultrasound before performing an abortion.

"The most effective way to protect children and keep women from being wounded for life is to ensure that women facing unplanned pregnancies have received factual information concerning their decision," Mayer said.

Opposition to the legislation disputed the effectiveness of the bill, saying an ultrasound would be ineffective.

"Women who come in the day of the procedure -- they've made up their mind," said Michelle Trupiano, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. She said most women choose not to view the ultrasound.

Mayer's bill would not require women seeking an abortion to view the ultrasound.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 15 on a bill that would ban synthetic cannabinoids.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said that synthetic cannabinoids have rapidly grown in popularity in mid-Missouri and have "a more potent effect than marijuana." He said it was troubling that a substance that can vary widely in effect and impairment has no regulation on it.

His bill would classify cannabinoids as a Schedule I controlled substance, which would put it in the same category as marijuana, heroin, Ecstasy and other drugs that have been classified by the federal government as having "no currently accepted medical use."

Schaefer told the committee that, in the past month or two, hospitals in mid-Missouri have reported multiple instances of adolescents entering emergency rooms complaining of negative effects from the drug.

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Hours after President Obama dedicated 8 billion dollars to build a nuclear plant in Georgia, the house utility committee blocked a bill that would include nuclear power as part of Missouri's renewable energy plan.

Missouri voters passed Proposition C in 2008, a measure that requires energy companies to generate higher percentages of renewable energy every year.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, would add nuclear energy to the list of renewable resources encompassed within Proposition C.

The committee refused to replace a proposition that the public voted on so recently.

Nolte says he is willing to compromise if the utilities committee considers legislation that favors nuclear energy in Missouri.

The House Administration and Accounts Committee unanimously voted to freeze per diem increases for Missouri legislators as an attempt to aid the state's ailing budget.

The committee heard testimony on two similar bills that would freeze legislators' daily expense reimbursements at Sept. 2009 rates - $87.20 per day. Currently, legislators are reimbursed $103.20 for each day spent at the capitol, 80 percent of the federal per diem established by the Internal Revenue Service for Jefferson City.

The bills come in the wake of a state budget that's $800 million below the General Assembly's original projection. Lawmakers fear an even more dire budget for fiscal year 2012, once federal stabilization funds are not available.

"I think we're going to show the people of the state of Missouri that we're cutting back," Rep. Kenny Jones, R-Clarksburg, said during the hearing.

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The House Crime Committee spent its third week debating a bill that would increase penalties for serious DWI offenders.

Under the proposed bill, convicted drunk drivers would have to wait longer to get back on the road especially if they are repeat offenders.

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said he disagrees with the harsher penalties and instead would prefer requiring DWI offenders to install breathalyzers in their cars.

Under the proposed bill, DWI offenders would have to wait 15 years to expunge an offense from their record. Currently, those convicted of a DWI have to wait 10 years.

According to the Associated Press, on Feb. 18 the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would give access to original birth certificates to adoptees born after Aug. 28 of this year.

On the same day, the Senate also passed a bill that would create a program to recruit foster parents by a vote of 29-2 according to the Associated Press.

Both bills will now move to the House of Representatives.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, is sponsoring a bill that would allow DNA testing of robbery suspects.

Bartle said the testing would give county prosecutors the ability to link past crimes to current arrests.

Currently, the DNA profiling system allows for DNA collection for those arrested on suspicion of murder, burglary, and sex crimes.

Bartle said county prosecutors average 3 DNA hits per week and expanding the pool would lead to the resolution of more cold cases.

A bill that would provide a tax credit to small businesses for hiring teens during the summer was heard by a House committee Feb. 16.

Rep. Michael Brown, D-Jackson County, said the proposed legislation would benefit urban teens.

Businesses would receive the tax credit only if the teen employed had above a 2.0 GPA and a good attendance record.

Rep. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, testified in opposition, saying the bill does not help out needy Missouri families and that many Missourians hurt by the bad economy need these jobs more than teens. 

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl both testified in support of a bill that would give the city of St. Louis control of their police department.

Slay says he supports the bill because the taxpayers should control the services they pay for.

Several current and retired St. Louis Police Officers testified in opposition of the bill.

St. Louis Police Veterans Association spokesmen John Cullen says he is concerned this could cause political corruption of the police department.

Sen. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, sponsored the bill that says each animal owner must restrain their pet or animals effectively before it causes physical injury to another person.

Under the bill, an owner of an animal that injures another would be charged with a class C misdemeanor. The new law would not apply to animals owned for agricultural purposes.

The House Special Committee on Emerging Issues in Animal Agriculture heard testimony on the bill Feb. 16, but did not vote on the legislation