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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 3/12/2010 - MPA NEWS: 3/12/10

Facing the largest revenue decline in Missouri history, Gov. Jay Nixon cut an additional $126 million from the current budget Thursday.

Almost 60 percent of the money will come from Medicaid payments states are currently not required to pay to the federal government under increased federal match rates, according to state Budget Director Linda Luebbering.

School transportation programs and a Public Safety Department program designed to facilitate communication between emergency responders were two of the largest cuts that made up the remaining $51.1 million.

The state's operating budget also received a cut of $1 million, a cut that could result in lost jobs, Luebbering said. Although the cut could be offset with lowering operating expenses, she said, her speculation is that some positions will be lost.

Revenue collections for fiscal year 2010, which began July 1, 2009, have declined 12.7 percent as of March 1, according to a release from the Office of Administration. A total of over $850 million in cuts have been made to the fiscal year 2010 budget since it was passed last May, according to the release.

The original fiscal year 2010 budget, initially based on higher than received 2009 revenue estimates, would have required collections to increase by 4.1 percent, Luebbering said. A revised estimate, announced in January and accompanied by $55 million in cuts, expected a revenue decline of 6.4 percent. The new cuts are based on an estimated decline of 9.6 percent in state revenue compared to 2009.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, said the new estimate fits within economists projections of a decline between 8 to 11 percent. Icet, however, said he would not be surprised if another $100 million in cuts would still be required to balance the budget.

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The consolidation of education departments and the elimination of state holidays were some measures proposed by Gov. Jay Nixon in Springfield on March 9.

Speaking to a group of businessmen, Nixon said $500 million needs to be cut from the fiscal year 2011 budget he proposed in January.

One way to save money, Nixon said, was to combine the Higher and Elementary Education Departments into one department.

State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said that while no estimates have yet been made on how much the consolidation would save Missouri, the savings would come from eliminating similar positions in both departments.

Higher Education Commissioner Robert Stein said that interest is growing across the state and the nation for programs that align elementary and higher education together.

Nixon also proposed eliminating three state holidays, specifically naming Truman's Birthday. He said he was also considering capping the amount of taxes that can be forgone under certain tax credit programs.

Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for the governor, said the $500 million is comprised of $300 million of initially expected federal money and $200 million in money lost to economic decline.

Former House Speaker Rod Jetton has confirmed he is the focus of an investigation into bribery and conspiracy charges and denied any wrongdoing. The FBI is looking into whether Jetton got an illegal kickback from strip club owners in exchange for killing a 2005 bill that would have placed major restrictions on the adult industry.

After appearing before a federal grand jury March 8, Jetton, 42, said he knew nothing of a $35,000 donation from the adult entertainment industry to a campaign committee he was affiliated with until a year later when the FBI asked him about it. He said he opposed the restrictions philosophically and had a personal dislike for the bill's sponsor but never sought to profit from it.

Jetton acknowledged investigators must have some reason to be targeting him but said he was confused as to how he found himself at the center of a federal probe.

Earlier in the day, Jetton was arraigned on a felony assault charge in Benton, a six-hour drive from Kansas City.

The assault charge stems from a separate issue concerning a Sikeston woman who claims she blacked out after a night of drinking wine with Jetton, and when she came to, the former speaker was having sex with her and beating her face. Through his attorney, Jetton pleaded not guilty and asked for a change of venue; he did not have to appear in court.

Jetton said he wasn't worried about his very uncertain future and he is happier now than when he was speaker.

"You can't get worried about it, that's not going to help," Jetton said of his legal troubles. "I wish I wasn't here. I wish it wasn't all happening, but if things don't turn out my way, I'll just keep getting up and going on."

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Proposed legislation extending a texting while driving ban has raised questions about the law's enforceability.

Currently, Missouri law prohibits drivers aged 21 and under from texting while behind the wheel. If a bill proposed by Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, is enacted, that ban would encompass drivers of all ages. While many have spoken out in favor of the legislation's goal, law enforcement officials have voiced concern that such a law would be challenging to maintain.

According to Capt. Michael Smith of the Jefferson City Police Department, texting while driving bans are "extremely difficult to enforce." Smith said he hopes enforcement would become easier with time, likening possible implementation methods to those used in early drunk driving crackdowns.

Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, a former chief of police with 17 years of law enforcement experience, said the present ban needs revision.

"The current law is incredibly subjective," Roorda said. "Not only does an officer have to look at a moving vehicle and determine whether the driver is 21 years of age or younger, but they must also determine if the device is being used for a prohibited or allowable use."

The House bill is expected to be discussed by the Public Safety committee March 16. A Senate version of a texting ban must be approved once more before going to the House.

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While Gov. Jay Nixon said March 8 that a new statewide database will help prevent methamphetamine production, a trooper from the first state to employ the database said it has actually made it more difficult to arrest suspected meth producers.

The database will keep tabs on buyers of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine production, and prevent buyers from buying more than the daily limit of 3.6 grams, or the monthly limit of nine grams.

Because it prevents buyers from buying more than the maximum amount in a given day or month, Kentucky Trooper John Hawkins said it has actually made it easier for meth producers to recruit pseudoephedrine purchasers -- known as smurfs -- because the database prevents them from actually breaking the law.

The system might be more effective if it allowed purchases above the legal limit and notified the police of any such purchases, he said.

Since implementation of the software, Kentucky has actually seen an increase in the number of meth labs, but Hawkins said the software is still helpful in untangling networks of suppliers and producers.

The Missouri General Assembly required the creation of an electronic tracking system in legislation passed in 2008. The system is expected to be installed within three months.

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