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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 4/16/2010 - MPA NEWS: 4/16/10

Missouri's Senate passed a measure that would remove a state prison sentence as a penalty for some non-violent, first-time felony offenders.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said the measure would cut the prison population by about 2,000 in two years and allow closing a state prison, saving about $26 million.

"You're going to make the state a saver place, if we're not sending low-level offenders to go with the hardened rapists, the murderers and the people that are repeat offenders over and over again," Bartle said.

"Most of these offense are drug and alcohol related," Bartle said about the offenders who would be covered by his bill. "If we send them up there, it's the stupidest thing we can do because we go from a 19 percent recidivism rate to 41 percent."

But one critic charged the measure would lead to overcrowding some county jails.

"These counties, these smaller counties, can't absorb these extra prisoners," warned Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington.

Another critic, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, argued that some child-sex offenders would avoid state prisoners.

"Sexual misconduct with a child is a D felony under this bill, but if you commit that, unless you've got two prior convictions, you aren't going to the Department of Corrections," Schaefer said. "And I do not think that is right because that is a danger to our society."

The Senate passed the bill with the bare minimum 18 votes needed for passage.

In early February, the state's Supreme Court chief justice had urged lawmakers in the annual State of the Judiciary address to consider exempting some first-time, non-violent offenders.

During a session that lasted until late in the evening, Missouri's Senate approved April 13 a package of bills that would substantially reduce on-going state budget obligations.

The upper chamber advanced plans to consolidate government agencies, cut teacher benefits, cut school funding and reduce prison populations in an effort to address budget shortfalls expected to approach $1 billion in the next two years.

The various measures were given first round approval the day before the Senate is expected to take up a budget plan for the next fiscal year that would cut $500 million from the governor's original spending plan presented to lawmakers in January.

The Senate spent the majority of its time debating a bill proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, which would cut more funding for K-12 education from the appropriations bill that was moved out of committee last week.

As approved by the Senate, the measure would remove guaranteed funding for the Career Ladder program, which provides supplemental income for teachers who pursue professional growth programs. The bill would also cut funds provided to schools for summer school attendance.

Earlier in the day, the General Laws Committee unanimously approved a resolution to combine the Elementary and Secondary Education Department and the Higher Education Department into one department.

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The Senate voted to go along with the House in the in-state tuition freeze plan reached between Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri's public colleges.

The governor's deal had been jeopardized when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted the week of March 29 to make an additional nearly $15 million cut beyond the original terms of the deal, as part of its efforts to cut $500 million from next year's budget.

But when the Senate began debate on the bill, the committee's chairman, Sen. Robert Mayer, R-Dexter, proposed an amendment to go back to the House-passed plan.

Because the House had approved identical figures for the state's public universities, the higher education budget is virtually a done deal.

The final version of the budget will be negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee. But legislative rules prohibit that committee from exceeding the differences between the two chambers on any an item unless both the House and Senate agree to let the conferees exceed the differences -- a rarely approved motion.

The vote came one day before the University of Missouri System Board of Curators will meet to set tuition for next year.

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Republican legislative budget leaders attacked the governor for a statement he attached in signing an appropriations bill that provides additional funding for public schools for the remainder of the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

In signing the bill, Nixon rejected language the legislature had added to override current law governing how school funds are divided among school districts.

Nixon declared the language "legal surplusage and beyond the constitutional authority of the General Assembly."

Nixon proclaimed the Education Department would ignore the language.

But his stance was immediately attacked by Republican legislators the next day.

"That's pretty harsh action on his part, really unacceptable," said the normally mild mannered Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

The Senate gave first round approval to augment existing abortion informed consent requirements Thursday. Under the proposed legislation, a physician must provide to a patient a host of new information at least 24-hours before performing an abortion.

The legislation also dictates that this information must be provided in person, rather than via telephone or Internet communication. An abortion could not be performed until the woman completed a checklist-style form certifying all requirements were met.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said he felt providing "medical information, ultrasounds, any more information we are giving these mothers to protect the lives of the unborn is a good thing."

But Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said legislators should focus their attention on education and comprehensive sex ed programs, rather than restricting abortion rights.

Similar legislation in the House includes the restrictions set by the Senate, and also expands upon it by creating the crime of coercing an abortion. The legislation would also require clinics to inform county prosecutors when women under the age of 18 seek abortions, with the intent to uncover possible rapists.

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A bill allowing pregnant women to use deadly force to protect themselves was approved by an overwhelming majority in the Missouri House April 15.

House Democrats argued that all women already had the right to defend themselves against an attacker, regardless of whether or not they are pregnant.

House Republicans said the bill closes a loophole in Missouri law.

"There is never a time when it should be OK for a prosecutor or the judicial system to convict a woman for protecting her unborn baby," said Rep. Brian Nieves, R- Washington.

The measure was inspired by a pregnant Michigan woman who was convicted of manslaughter after killing a man who punched her in the stomach.

That case was later overturned on appeal.

The Senate gave first approval on April 12 to bill that would require new state employees to contribute to their retirement system.

Sen. Jason Crowell, the sponsor of the bill, said the state's drastic financial situation requires that new employees begin contribution to their own retirement. If the state's finances improve in future years, the move could be repealed by future a future legislature, said Crowell, a Republican from Cape Girardeau.

The bill also raises retirement ages, but employees who retire before they are eligible will receive their contributions back plus interest.

The Senate needs to give the bill second approval before it can move to the House.

The House gave first-round approval to a voter ID bill that with some provisions similar to one declared unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2006.

The bill would require voters to present government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot.

The Supreme Court said the earlier voter identification bill was unconstitutional because it imposed a "heavy burden" on would-be voters without significantly preventing voter fraud.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said the current resolution differed because the identification requirement would be proposed to voters before becoming law. He also said the new legislation, if enacted by voters , would not go into effect until 2012, giving voters time to obtain the proper documentation to vote.

Diehl also said his resolution would provide a number of exemptions for providing identification, such as religious objections or financial hardship obtaining documents necessary to obtain identification.

Some Democrats, however, said the new ID requirement would reinstate pre-Civil Rights movement laws aimed at blocking racial integration and black enfranchisement.

"It's no less shameful than the poll taxes and the Jim Crow laws that we once had in this country," said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart.

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Legislation to crack down on drunken drivers passed the Missouri House April 14.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City,  admitted the bill isn't perfect, but he said the bill needs to move on to the Senate to have a chance of passing.

During the week of April 5, House members approved several amendments which repealed many of the provisions in the original bill language.

One from Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, allows those caught for a first-time driving while intoxicated offense to keep the conviction off their records. Also added, the most controversial component of the bill, which would allow police to collect blood samples from DWI suspects without a warrant.

The House Ethics Committee approved provisions to impose a limit on how much legislators can take from lobbyists.

The measure would impose a $1,000 per year limit on a legislator accepting gifts or other things of value from a lobbyist.

The measure also would impose a one-year ban before a legislator could work as a lobbyist after leaving office.

Earlier this year, the Senate had stripped any restrictions on lobbying from its ethics bill.

The committee also tacked on a limit for how much any one person can contribute to a candidate -- an issue rejected by senators and by the chamber's leader, President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who sponsored the Senate bill.

Although the House committee approved contribution restrictions, four Republicans on the committee have said they don't support limits, and chairman Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, said there will likely be more opposition on the House floor.

Get the full story here, which includes an in-depth look at the state of ethics legislation:

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His given name was Buford Wayne Robinson, but everyone at the Capitol knew him simply as B.W.

Robinson, a Senate doorkeeper since the early 1980s and one of the state's oldest employees on record, died Tuesday evening. He was 93.

"B.W. is a guy that had a thirst of life and brought that energy into a Senate chamber that at times can be very heated, can be very long days," Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau said. "He was just that guy that--Republican, Democrat; urban, rural; pro-life, pro choice--it didn't matter where the divides were. He could kinda take the tension off."

Before coming to the capitol, Robinson had dedicated his life to education. He graduated from Kirksville State Teachers College with a degree in education. At the University of Missouri, he received his M.A. and completed other graduate work.

Robinson's first teaching job was at a one room school house in Mill Creek, near his hometown of Hannibal. After being principal for ten years, Robinson became superintendent for Eldon Public Schools and then Rolla Public Schools. For nearly 20 years, Robinson worked at the Missouri Department of Education as an Assistant Commissioner of Education and Director of Vocational Education.

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Missouri gained 7,200 jobs in March, changing the unemployment rate little, according to a Missouri Department of Economic Development release.

Missouri's unemployment rate rose a tenth of a point to 9.5 percent this month. The national rate is at 9.7 percent.

Most of the jobs were in construction and leisure and hospitality. The Economic Development Department attributed this partly to a new casino in the St. Louis area and better weather. Census workers and tax processors also added some numbers.

Missouri's Attorney General was absent from a House General Laws committee hearing which discussed a resolution that would call on him to sue the federal government for violating the constitution with its passage of health care legislation.

Attorney General Chris Koster previously had said he would look into the matter. But at the hearing on Tuesday, resolution sponsor Rep. Ward Franz, R-Howell, said Koster has said he will not pursue a lawsuit against the federal government.

The attorney general was not available for comment the day of the hearing.

The resolution would encourage Koster to make Missouri a party to existing lawsuits by more than a dozen other states against the new federal health care law.

Some Democrats on the committee said the resolution was a manifestation of the state sovereignty struggle.

Rep. Don Calloway, D-St. Louis, questioned what merit Franz saw belonging to the Union and asked if Franz would be in favor of succession.

Franz initally responded that he would be interested in succession if things continue the way they are, but eventually re-focused on the need for Missouri's voice to be heard.

"I'm not saying we need to leave the union," Franz said. "I just want us to be heard, and this is the only way that I feel like we will be listened to."

No action was taken on the resolution.

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Bearing stickers, flags, and hand-drawn posters, more than 300 supporters of the Tea Party movement rallied on the Capitol's South Lawn Tuesday.

The event, hosted by Americans for Prosperity, was organized by Carl Bearden, the organization's Missouri state director. Bearden said he hoped the rally would prompt citizens to "engage and take action," whether it be at the event or into the future.

Michael Reagan, a talk show host and son of former president Ronald Reagan, served as the keynote speaker.

In regards to the federal health care plan, Reagan told the crowd, "we're going to prove this is unconstitutional. This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong."

But the Tea Party movement does not resonate with everyone. Lone protester and Capitol intern, Trevor Collins, 22, of Jefferson City, raised concerns about racial divisions with the group.

Reagan addressed claims that the Tea Party movement provided an outlet for racist groups to infiltrate. According to Reagan, "this is not new."

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The Ellis Fischel Cancer Center has another chance to receive funding for its new cancer facility.

On Thursday, the House Budget Committee approved re-appropriating $31 million needed to build a new facility for Ellis Fischel. The money had been withheld from appropriations by Gov. Jay Nixon in fiscal year 2010.

The money made available under the re-appropriation comes from a a two-year $350 million construction bill that was created last year according to House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County. The re-appropriation bill takes yet-to-be appropriated money from many bills and combines them into a single piece of legislation.

Total construction for the project costs around $52 million, Mary Jenkins, a spokesperson for the center, said. Of that money, $21 million needed to build the new state-of-the-art center comes from University Hospital operating revenue.

The project would provide Missouri, and especially Columbia, with a slew of jobs, Icet said. He said it's too early to predict how many jobs could be created from the Ellis Fischel construction project, but his conservative guess estimates many jobs for carpenters, plumbers and other craftsmen needed for the construction.

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Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson said he is unable to re-open a case against a Veterans Commission Accountant who has previously plead guilty to embezzling $18,000 from the commission.

While the accountant repaid the money she was initially accused of stealing, a recent audit charges that the woman took an additional $90,000.

Auditor Susan Montee said unless the Cole County Prosecutor takes action the woman will get to walk away with the money.

Richardson said that once this case of theft was closed he cannot continue to prosecute.