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MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members: 1/15/2010 - MPA News: 12/15/2010

In a split decision, Missouri's supreme court held that the legislature could not retroactively apply restrictions to previously convicted sex offenders.

One law requires sex offenders to stay at home on Halloween and post a sign that no treats are available. The other prohibits sex offenders from living within one thousand feet of a school or child care facility.

The court held that those restrictions could only be applied to a person who committed a sex offense after the restrictions passage. Apply the restrictions to sex offenders sentenced before the restrictions were in place would violate a provision in the state Constitution that prohibits laws from applying retroactively.

Judge Mary Russell, the only judge voting against the majority on both provisions said the restrictions did not affect sex offenders "vested" or "fundamental" rights.

A bill to require drug screening of welfare recipients is getting fast-track treatment in Missouri's legislature.

The bill, which would require the screening of all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applicants as well as the testing of those reasonably suspected of drug use by the Social Service Department, is among the first to be heard. A modified version of the bill was voted out of committee Jan. 13.

Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Skieston, the sponsor of the bill, said taxpayers don't want to subsidize drug use.

"Why are you focusing on poor people?" asked former Sen. Patrick Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, who was representing Catholic Charities, who opposed the originally filed bill. He said that if the bills goal was to prevent taxpayers from subsidizing drug use, everyone, or at least a large section of the population should be screened.

Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, said Missouri's current budget constraints would make it impossible to expand the screening or provide treatment for all who are referred.

The House Rules Committee will decide when the bill will be heard before the full House.

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Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder spoke in a closed-door meeting to the Republican caucus Jan. 11 about the cost of federal health care legislation, Republican Senate leadership said.

Kinder sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon saying the legislation would bankrupt the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said "it would be devastating, right now, the impact, if something does change, it would have on our state budget."

Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, stressed caution before making judgments based on bill that has not yet been passed through the U.S. Congress.

"The problem is, what does the federal health care bill look like?" Callahan asked. "We should take a look at it when the federal government passes it, when the House and Senate pass it."

One version of health care legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Congress would increase the number of people eligible for Medicaid. Medicaid programs are funded by states that receive a portion of the money back in the form of federal matching funds, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, described the proposed health care legislation as "the biggest unfunded mandate that's ever been sent to the states."

Missouri businesses are given a tax discount for doing the same thing may Missourians do each year: paying their taxes on time.

State Auditor Susan Montee said the legislature should consider repealing the discount. According the Montee, the 2 percent discount businesses receive for paying their taxes on time cost Missouri $93 million in potential revenue in 2008.

Montee said that the discount was instituted in over fifty years ago when taxes were tabulated by hand, but retailers argue that technology has not made the process easier.

"If anything our costs are greater and it's more complex than it was then," said David Overfelt, Missouri Retail Association President.

Tracy King, Missouri Chamber of Commerce director of tax policy and fiscal affairs, said the repeal would amount to a tax increase and disproportionately affect small businesses.

King said that tax collection costs small businesses more than 2 percent.

Three of the states bordering Missouri do not provide the same exemption for businesses and four of the five others cap the amount of tax funds businesses can retain, according to Montee's report.

While previous legislation to address this refund have been unsuccessful, Overfelt said retailers are not opposed to new legislation in this arena.

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Abolishing the state income tax and allowing Missouri to go into debt were two budget fixes proposed to a Senate panel Jan 12.

Five witnesses testified on the benefits and complications of allowing eliminating Missouri's income tax, currently the state's largest source of revenue. Lost revenue would be made up by increasing the state sales tax - currently 4.2 percent.

Joseph Haslag, executive vice president of the Show-ME Institute - a conservative think-tank - said Missouri was falling economically behind states that do not have an income tax.

Amy Blouin, Director of the Missouri Budget Project - a liberal group that advocates for lower income Missourian - said the bill that would eliminate the income tax places sales tax on services other states do not.

Show-ME's estimate of raising the tax to 5.11 percent may not be enough to offset income tax losses, Haslag said, adding that Missouri could consider taking on debt until a correct rate is determined.

Former state Budget Director Jim Moody, now a lobbyist for various businesses and health interests, said the proposed 5.11 rate would leave the state about $1.3 billion short. Health care services would have sales taxes levied on them under the proposed bill.

In closing remarks, Sen. President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said that Missouri's current budget situation requires legislators to look at solutions they had not previously considered.

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Like many in the current economic climate, Missouri has been living paycheck-to-paycheck, according to state Budget Director Linda Luebbering.

To address day-to-day cash flow issues, the state has borrowed $350 million from a budget reserve fund. Luebbering told a House Budget committee that her department is "looking at the cash balance every day. It's that tight."

The state must return these funds no later than May 15.

House Budget Chair Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, questioned how Gov. Jay Nixon will be able to repay these funds.

"We have more problems than we have money," Icet said.

Luebbering said her office will unveil a plan to replace the borrowed funds after Nixon's state of the state address on Jan. 20.

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Appearing in St. Louis on Jan. 13, Gov. Jay Nixon and Treasurer Clint Zweifel announced a new program designed to encourage home ownership in Missouri.

The Home Ownership Purchase Enhancement Program - detailed by Nixon and Zweifel at the St. Louis event - will provide up to $1750 for Missourians who purchase new homes.

The program will give those that purchase new homes the equivalent of their first years property taxes, up to $1250. In addition, new home buyers would be eligible for an additional incentive if they purchase an energy efficient home, remodel, or purchase an item that would make an existing home more energy efficient.

"Putting Missouri highly skilled tradesmen and women back to work is a vital step toward jumpstarting our economy," Nixon said in a release.

Funding for the program comes from a reserve fund, not general revenue, and is not subject to the legislature's appropriation process.

According to the Associated Press, the Natural Resources Department has created a Web site to begin accepting donations to maintain state parks.

State parks are funded through a special sales tax. With consumers are buying less in the down economy, tax revenue has declined.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced a new initiative on Jan. 11 intended to train Missourians for employment in high-tech fields.

The program, called Training for Tomorrow, will provide $12 million in grant money to community colleges to create or expand high-tech training programs.

"To turn this economy around, more Missourians need access to training programs in high-tech, high-demand industries," Nixon said in a statement. "In growing industries like health care, technical training beyond high school is absolutely vital."

Nixon announced the program in appearances at two community colleges, Crowder College in Neosho and Three Rivers Community College in Popular Bluff.

Under the program, Missouri Community College Association member institutions would partner with their county governments to apply for the grants. Money for the grants come from a federal program designed to assist with economic recovery efforts.