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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 3/5/2010 - MPA News 3/5/10

The very structure of Missouri government may need to be altered, the House Budget Chairman predicted Tuesday after a series of private meetings between the governor and legislative leaders.

House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, and the committee's senior Democrat -- Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia -- both said that between $400 million to $500 million would have to be cut from the governor's spending plans for the 2011 fiscal year that will begin July 1.

A cut of that magnitude would be of generational historic proportions. It's in the same magnitude as the entire state appropriations for the University of Missouri System.

The governor held separate, private meetings with House and Senate legislators in single-party sessions Tuesday to discuss the state's budget situation.

The budget shortfall stems from increasing doubt that Missouri will get all of the federal funds projected in Nixon's budget along with a steeper decline in state tax collections than the administration and legislature had predicted.

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As lawmakers fled the Capitol for a week-long spring break Friday, they left many questions about education funding in Missouri.

New budget bills were filed Thursday by House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, after Gov. Jay Nixon held a week of private meetings between Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate to discuss the states declining revenue situation.

Icet's bills reduce the amount of general revenue in Nixon's budget by $50 million.

Icet's bills include $300 million in federal stabilization funds that some legislators had previously said they doubted would come to Missouri. Part of this money will be used to help fully fund the K-12 Foundation Formula.

"The governor still believes the $300 million may occur," Icet said.

Nixon's budget recommendations, released in January, had provided for an $18 million increase to the Foundation Formula from last year's appropriations, $87 million short of the amount required to fully fund the program.

Icet also said he isn't sure if Nixon's in-state tuition freeze agreement with higher education institutions could be kept.

Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, said at this time the in-state tuition freeze is viable under the Icet's current bills, but that the decision could not be finalized until after hearings are held on Icet's substitute bills.

The bills would be a starting point, Icet said, for changes that could occur if the state revises its revenue estimate for fiscal year 2011.

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State Budget Director Linda Luebbering announced Mar. 2 that revenue collections fiscal year have declined 12.7 percent compared to last year.

Individual income tax collections, the state's largest source of revenue, have fallen by over $400 million for the eight months of the fiscal year compared to the same period the year previous. The fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30.

For the month of February, collections had decreased 14.6 percent compared to February 2009.

The February collection numbers follow January collections that were more than 20 percent lower than the previous year.

The Associated Press reported that the Missouri Senate passed its ethics reform bill Feb. 4 and the House was working on more rigid version.

The bill passed by the Senate would require lawmakers to report within 48 hours donations of $250 and above during the legislative session. The bill would also allow the Missouri Ethics Commission to begin investigations if approved by unanimous vote. Currently, the commission can only investigate following the filing of a complaint. Transfers of money from one political committee to another would be banned under the Senate measure.

The House version would require the reporting within 48 hours of all donations of more than $2,000 regardless of whether the General Assembly is in session. The House bill would require votes of only four of the six members of the ethics commission to begin an investigation. Lawmakers would also be banned from accepting more than $1,000 annually from lobbyists under the House bill.

The House legislation was filed before legislators left for spring break on Feb. 4.

The Missouri House voted 113 to 40 to give initial approval to a bill that would prohibit state residents from being compelled to obtain health care coverage or participate in a health care system.

Debate on the House floor ranged from the bill itself to an overall debate on the current health care system and federal reform efforts.

The Associated Press reports that the bill would create a state constitutional amendment which would would ban penalties against people or employers that decided not to carry health insurance and pay out of pocket for their health care. Those that provide health care would also be exempt from penalties for taking direct payments.

According to the Associated Press, similar legislation has been filed in 33 other states.

Cutting the front license plate requirement will save Missouri $3 million, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said before the measure received first-round Senate approval.

The change was added on to a bill that modified certain laws dealing with automobiles, including upping the requirement to qualify for special license plates for fleet vehicles, that was passed by the Senate Wednesday. The bill needs to be approved once more before it can go to the House.

While the State Highway Patrol is neither for or against the bill, its spokesman said the front license plate helps in a variety of ways when trying to identify vehicles.

"It's much easier for witnesses to get a description of that plate and possibly a license number. Also if you have a license plate on the front of a vehicle that strikes another car and then, for example, leaves the scene, often times the imprint of that plate can be left on the other vehicle," said Highway Patrol spokesman, Lt. John Hotz.

Bartle said the Patrol already deals with drivers from other states like Kansas that only require one license plate. Missouri is one of about 30 states that requires two.

Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Jackson County, disputed Bartle's comment that police don't have problems with out-of-state cars with only one license plate.

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A group of Senate Democrats accused Republican colleagues Mar. 1 of carrying out a "political witch hunt," as they countered a committee report on E. coli testing with a harshly worded report of their own.

The report under fire directed pointed criticism at the Department of Natural Resources and its handling of high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks this summer. Notably, it suggested state water testing should fall under the purview of the Health Department instead of that of the Natural Resources Department.

Democrats from the committee took issue with the Republicans' report and said they were upset to have not been included in its drafting.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, questioned the accuracy of some facts in the Republicans' report and said the issue at hand had become overly politicized.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville Lager said he likely wouldn't "waste my time" reading the Democrats' report but he would be open to incorporating suggestions from Democrats into the final draft of the Republican report.

Lager said he expected the two reports would be combined into one, rather than simply submitted together. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said that changes will still be made to the committee's report and it should continue to be viewed as a draft.

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Officials and students from both public and private institutions testified before the House Higher Education Committee on a bill that would change how much money students can receive under the Access Missouri scholarship program.

Currently, students in four-year and two-year public institutions receive a maximum of $2,150 and $1,000 respectively. Students at private institutions can receive up to $4,600.

Under the proposed legislation, students at four-year and two-year private and four-year institutions would then receive $2,850. Students attending two-year public institutions would receive $1,250.

"Our goal is to make this even and equitable across the board," said the bill's sponsor Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff. "We do not begrudge our private institutions. However, especially in the economy today, we'd like to equalize these amounts."

A large group of private students voiced their opposition to the bill. Some said they think the bill provides money to Missouri students unfairly because students at private institutions pay more than those attending public institutions.

If the bill passes, the change would not be implemented until the 2014-2015 school year.

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The House Health Care Policy Committee held a hearing Mar. 3 on a bill that would place stronger regulations on indoor tanning facilities.

Robert Cooper, R-Camdenton, a medical doctor, is sponsoring a bill requiring tanning salons to obtain licenses from the state's Health Department.

In addition to requiring facilities to obtain and post licenses, the bill also prohibits individuals younger than 16 from tanning and requires those under the age of 18 to obtain written parental permission. Under the bill, facilities would be required to get customer signatures before using tanning equipment and prior to every contract renewal for long-term tanning services.

John Overstreet, spokesman for the Indoor Tanning Association said parts of the bill are unnecessary.

"It's an expensive proposition for negligible results," Overstreet said.

Overstreet said that in the current economic climate, tanning businesses are already suffering.

Dr. John Despain, past president of the Missouri Dermatological Association, said limiting children's ability to tanning and clarifying risks are the most important part of the bill. The Missouri Dermatological Association has supported similar legislation for four years.

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The University of Missouri System president's October call to the state to provide matching funds for science, technology, engineering and math programs was heard Wednesday, but something was lost in the translation.

UM System President Gary Forsee testified before the Senate Education Committee in support of a bill that would establish the Missouri Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Initiative and create a fund to process donations supporting the program.

Under the language of the proposed bill, however, the state would not be obligated to provide matching funds for these donations.

The bill's sponsor, committee chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said the bill is important for the message it sends.

"I think more than anything else it shows, if it passes, it shows that the state is very serious, that it is a priority of ours," he said.

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Extended debate stalled a vote in Missouri's House Wednesday on a bill that would outlaw fake pot.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, would ban substances that mimic the effects of marijuana and that, he said, youths in southern Missouri are accessing with ease.

Franz said he had hoped the bill would come up for a vote, but House Floor Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said the debate ran on too long.

Tilley said he had heard concerns from Republicans that making it a felony to possess fake pot would be far too harsh.

On the floor of the House, Democrats said that far too many non-violent offenders were being incarcerated already, and this bill would do nothing but increase that. Under state law, a Class C felony is punishable from anywhere between a fine and seven years in prison.

Franz said he welcomed a potential amendment from Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, which would make possession of 35 grams or less a Class A misdemeanor, putting it on par with how the state handles those caught with marijuana. While he said he was "fine" with the bill as is, he did say lowering the classification levels may help the chances of his bill passing.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, the sponsored the Senate version of the fake pot ban, said he opposes making separate punishments based on the amount an offender is possessing. He said fake pot is "much worse than marijuana" and possessors should be punished accordingly.

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A House Committee passed a bill giving St. Louis control over its police force Mar. 1.

Currently, the police forces of St. Louis and Kansas City are each overseen by a board of commissioners. The House bill, which would only apply to the St. Louis police force, would eliminate the board and give control to a commissioner appointed by the mayor.

On Mar. 2, a Senate committee heard a similar bill sponsored by Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis City. Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, sponsored the House version of the bill.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, testifying in favor of the Senate bill, said localizing the police force would benefit civilians, giving them "someone to turn to for results."

Joe Steiger, Vice President of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, spoke out against the legislation in the Senate committee.

Steiger countered Slay's statement that the current department set-up causes lack of accountability, pointing out that Slay was an ex-officio member of the board of police commissioners, and had input into every decision made.

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As state leaders prepare to develop a budget with less money than last year, about 100 protesters gathered on the front steps of the Capitol Building Thursday denouncing cuts to social services and proposed changes to the state's tax structure.

The rally, Grass Roots Organizing, included speeches on issues affecting the poor in the state, including access to health care and higher education, as well as proposals in the General Assembly that would scrap the state's income and corporate taxes and replace them with what supporters call the "fair tax."

To offset lost income tax revenue, the fair tax would increase the states sales tax rate, as well increasing the number of items and services that would be subject to sales tax. Services such as health care and tuition, which are currently not subject to sales tax, could be taxed as part of some fair tax proposals.

Show-Me Institute founder and former investment banker Rex Sinquefield was the main focus of protesters. Sinquefield has bankrolled efforts to institute a fair tax in the state.

The Senate debated the fair tax proposal on Feb. 4.

Debate on the proposal in the Senate ended after 35 minutes, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Although the fair tax proposal could be brought back to the Senate floor, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields said passage of the proposal this year was doubtful.

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The Missouri Senate Agriculture Committee discussed adding methane to the list of renewable energy sources.

The bill would add methane to Proposition C, which aims to increase renewable energy use across the state during the next decade.

Bill sponsor Frank Barnitz, a Lake Springs Republican, says the bill will make it easier for Missouri to reach its Prop C goals.

A federal investigation into radioactive gas has been confirmed by the Natural Resources Department .

An official with Missouri's Natural Resources Department confirmed Friday that there was an active investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office involving radioactive material but declined further comment.

The department cannot "comment on the situation due to an active investigation into the matter by the United States Attorney's Office," said Mark Conner, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources Waste Management program.

Conner referred all questions to Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office Western District.

Ledford said as a matter of procedure the U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment until charges are filed. Ledford refused to confirm if an investigation was even going on in the matter, referring all questions back to the Natural Resources Department.

A state environmental official said last week that the department found radioactive gas being illegally stored in the Columbia area within the last month. The official asked to remain unnamed.

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Representatives from the University of Missouri System opposed legislation Mar. 1 that would consolidate all of the state government employee health care plans.

Betsy Rodriquez, vice president of human resources for the UM System, said one of the system's main reasons for opposing the bill was the legislation's "involuntary nature." The UM System, along with the Transportation Department and Conservation Department, would be required to merge into the health care plan known as the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan.

Rodriguez said in order for the system to remain competitive in attracting prospective employees, it must keep costs low. But if consolidated under the proposed plan, she said, those costs would rise.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said he didn't believe the system's claims. He doubted consolidating health care plans would raise costs. The system estimates the increase at $55 to $62 million.

That estimate "defies simple logic," he said because by merging administrative roles, costs would decrease. He said the system doesn't want to concede control. However, he said, because the system gets hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, they should join the state employee health care plan.

A document presented by the system to the Senate Financial Committee reported that UM premiums are almost $100 lower for employees than those under the state's health care plan. Rodriquez said they don't know why premiums are lower for the system compared to the state's but they want to keep them that way.

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The wife of Rep. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, issued a letter Monday alleging infidelity on the part of her husband and criticizing a state statute she said is delaying her divorce. Current statute allows active lawmakers to delay certain court cases during the legislative session.

Neena Cunningham first filed for divorce from her husband more than a year ago in January 2009. He used state statute to put the divorce proceedings on hold.

Now, Neena Cunningham said she hopes to address the statute in the state legislature. She said she made her struggle public in order to convince a representative to carry the bill.

Mike Cunningham was unavailable for comment. He told the Associated Press he did not have time for a trial due to his responsibilities in Jefferson City.

Mike Cunningham also told the Associated Press that his wife had an affair, too, which she has denied.

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