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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 4/23/2010 - MPA NEWS: 4/23/10

Missouri's budget director announced an unexpectedly low collections for the current month as of April 20, as income tax payments are being processed.

Because of the decline in collections, Gov. Jay Nixon's administration announced that another $45 million in state spending will be curtailed on April 21.

Including the most recent withholds, the state has held back more than $900 million originally appropriated for the 2010 fiscal year budget year that ends on June 30.

The cuts included $4.9 million to the Parents as Teachers program, bringing its total withhold for the year to nearly $7 million.

Luebbering said Missouri's April tax collections are down 19 percent for the first 20 days of the month compared to the same period last year. A major part of the decline was because income taxes paid to the state for 2009 have been below expectations.

Income tax payments have dropped 30 percent, while refunds have increased by 8 percent, Luebbering said.

"Not only is the average payment down, but the number of payments is down" Luebbering said.

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Voters would have final say in November whether or not to combine the state's education departments into a single over-arching department under a measure cleared by the Senate.

Following a sluggish session on April 21, senators unanimously approved resolutions the following day to combine the two education departments into one responsible for overseeing kindergarten through the completion of undergraduate education. A single board would also oversee the state's entire public school system.

Senate action had been stalled over arguments as to how much power the new education board should have over higher education institutions. Ultimately, the passage was assured when the version before the Senate effectively made no substantive changes in the current level of independence by the various higher education institutions.

As with the existing board, the new board would not take any new powers and will continue to be subject to state law.

After discussion on the size and term limit for the board, the senate decided it would consist of six members appointed by the governor and approved by the senate to serve six year terms. No more than three members can be from a single political party.

Since the resolutions would alter the state constitution, they would go on this November's ballot for the approval of voters. If the resolutions pass, they would go into affect July 1, 2011.

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Missouri college students in private schools will lose nearly half of the money they can receive in a state need-based scholarship under a bill passed by the House.

Under the legislation, students in four-year schools would receive up to $2,850 through the program whether they attend a public or private institution. Two-year community college students would receive up to $1,300.

The bill covers lower-income students who qualify under federal income standards.

Currently, private school students that qualify get up to $4,600 while those who attend four-year public schools can receive up to $2,150. Two-year community college students receive up to $1,000 under the program currently.

The bill also would allow students to renew their Access Missouri scholarship if they held a grade point average at 2.0 or above. Currently, students must maintain a 2.5 GPA or greater for all four years to keep the scholarship.

The House ultimately passed revised approach that would postpone the implementation date for equalizing the difference between funds available for public and private student until the 2014-15 school year. The passed version also removes the current expiration date for the program.

Get the story on the bill's first passage here:

Future state employees have to pay into the retirement system under bill passed by the Senate.

Under the legislation, state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, would have to contribute four percent of their pay to the retirement system. Currently, state employees are not required to contribute any percentage of their salary to their retirement plans.

The bill would also alter the age at which state employees could receive retirement benefits. To receive those benefits, most new government employees would have to wait an additional five years.

Currently, a state employee can retire at age 62 after working at least five years. Alternatively, a state government worker can retire when the employee's age and years service of service to the state equals 80 years.

The Senate-passed plan would raise the combined age and years of service requirement from 80 years to 90 years with an additional requirement of a minimum age of 55. For those with fewer combined years, the minimum retirement age would be raised to 67 with a requirement of at least 10 years service to the state.

An umbrella organization would be created by the legislation to organize the investments of the Missouri State Employees Retirement System and the Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees' Retirement System.

The bill passed by a vote of 27-5.

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The Missouri Speaker of the House said he's not letting any tax credit reform bill get passed his desk.

Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said making drastic changes in the last three weeks of the legislative session would send too many shock waves .

"We're going to have certainty (for businesses), and I'm going to make sure we have certainty," Richard said, saying "I know more about economic development than all of you guys in here put together and probably the governor, and I'm telling you that I will do economic development (and) what's best for Missouri."

The announcement came after a press conference where the governor and education leaders pushed for tax credit reform, saying tax credits have ballooned 86 percent over the last decade.

Gov. Jay Nixon specifically targeted the Historic Tax Credit Program and low income housing credits. He said Missouri has given out double in historic tax credits than Virginia and double what California gives in low income housing credits.

"Every dollar we spend on tax credits is a dollar that isn't available for education," Nixon said.

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The Missouri Senate advanced a bill April 19 that would reduce in-home services for those on the state's Medicaid program, over the objections of some Senators who said it would cut benefits without saving money.

Legislative staff estimated the bill, as written, would save the state $11 million in 2011. Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, who sponsored the bill, said this would be achieved in part by reducing reimbursements to those on Medicaid and allowing the state to privatize its assessments of who is eligible for in-home health care. Currently, the state's health department is responsible for all assessments.

But Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said he questioned whether the move would save the state money. He added that privatizing in-home assessments would be damaging to a state workforce that he said is already underpaid and under appreciated.

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A bill that would allow private citizens to take legal action on cases of Medicaid fraud stalled in the Senate on April 19.

Under current statute, only the Attorney General is authorized to take up Medicaid fraud cases. But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said the system left many important cases ignored.

"Why isn't the Attorney General doing our bidding?" Schmitt said.

Legislators opposed to the action, however, said the bill was not necessary without a request from the Attorney General for additional resources in fighting Medicaid fraud.

Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, said she worried the legislation would, if passed, result in unrestricted false accusations against physicians.

"This is opening the door to abuse and frivolous lawsuits," Ridgeway said.

Ultimately, the legislation was laid over.

Efforts to close discrepancies in the state's drunk driving laws were met with skepticism from the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.

Before opening the hearing, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, surveyed the crowd of potential witnesses and assured them that the bill the House passed last week will not be one that his committee does.

Currently, the bill that was passed through the House includes provisions allowing police officers to, without a warrant, obtain a blood sample of a driver they believe to be intoxicated. It would also establish DWI-only court dockets, which the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, said would allow judges to more easily enforce penalties evenly statewide.

The blood collection provision garnered most of the opposition. Dan Dodson, speaking on behalf of the state's defense attorney association, said it would be ruled unconstitutional.

There is mixed precedent on the constitutionality of obtaining blood samples without a warrant. The Arizona legislature passed a similar blood draw provision a few years ago, and it was upheld in the state supreme court. A woman's blood sample was omitted from an Iowa case, however, by the state supreme court there that said it violated the state constitution.

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The House Public Safety Committee held a hearing on a Senate-passed bill that would ban synthetic marijuana, often referred to as K2.

Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, said the law should address real and fake marijuana the same way - make them illegal.

"People say that accidents are not caused by people driving under the influence of marijuana or its chemical cousin and we all know that's not true." Roorda said.

Micah Riggs, however, testified in opposition to the bill. Riggs owns a Kansas City coffee shop and sells K2.

"In my observations, it's not something addictive like you would see in nicotine, or tobacco," Riggs said.

The committee took no action on the bill.

A House committee heard legislation on April 20 to classify power derived from methane gas as renewable energy.

The bill would expand the types of renewable energy sources covered by a law passed by voters in 2008. The law requires investor-owned utilities, such as AmerenUE, to get at least 15 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2021.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, calls the legislation "one more tool for that toolbox to make sure that we can make it" to the requirements set by the voter-approved proposition.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown, said his priority was keeping costs low for citizens, whether it was through solar, wind, or methane gas powered energy.

No one testified in opposition to the bill which had previously passed the Senate by unanimous vote.

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Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder has picked a Washington D.C. lawyer to represent him as he sues the federal government over recently passed health care legislation.

Thor Hearne, who formerly worked for Missouri based firm Lathrop and Gage, will represent Kinder.

Kinder set up the fund, Healthcare in Action LLC, to collect donations from people who want to contribute to his case.

"Right now there are a number of people from across the country that are contributing to this effort" said Gary McElyea, spokesman for the lieutenant governor's office.

"The majority of those are from Missouri and want their voices heard," McElyea said.

The case will not be"The People of Missouri v. U.S., " he said, it will be "Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder v. U.S."

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard support for a bill that would allow Missourians to vote this November to prohibit Missouri government from enforcing federal laws concerning the right to bear arms, health care, same sex marriage, home schooling and the separation between church and state.

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, said she sees the issue of federal law influencing state policy as one of freedom.

No action was taken on the bill which received no opposition from committee or audience members.

With less than four weeks remaining in the legislative session both the House and the Senate took time out of their lawmaking schedule to play softball.

The annual legislative softball tournament is a charity event. This year's proceeds will benefit the American Red Cross.

The night off comes less than a month after a week-long legislative recess.

To this point in the session, three bills have reached the governor's desk with two other pending. All of them came from the House. No bill that originated in Senate has reached the governor's desk.

House Higher Education Committee Chair Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said he wants to raise nearly $70 million for higher education scholarships by 2014.

Kingery said no tax or fee increase would be required for the increase, as he hopes the economy will improve and the money will become available as part of the state's general revenue fund.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said he doubts this money will be available, even if the economy begins to improve.

On the same day Kingery announced his intentions, Gov. Jay Nixon cut additional funds from the current budget due to lower than expected revenue collections.