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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of February 21, 2011

Just months after Missourians voted to limit the number of dogs in breeding facilities, lawmakers already are attempting to change that restriction  Many breeders have converged at the Capitol to argue for easier regulations in order to save their businesses.

Hubert Lavy owns a large dog breeding facility in Silex in Lincoln County. He sells many puppies, but also donates some to organizations as companion dogs for people with special needs. He says under Prop. B legislation, he no longer will be able to sustain his business.

"Please don't let these people take this away from me. It's all I have. It's all I want to do," says Lavy.

Lavy says Proposition B, which restricts breeders to owning only 50 breeding dogs, is flawed because its authors do not have knowledge of the breeding process. He says cage size dimensions specified under Prop. B are too big for puppies to survive in.

"If you have this area for the mother when she has her puppies, the puppies will walk away and go into the corner and chill, and you will lose the puppies because it's too big. You need a smaller area no bigger than a 4 by 4 (ft)," says Lavy.

Columbia Second Chance founder Betsy Casteel says her no-kill shelter has had difficulties rehabilitating dogs from bad breeders, and thus is a supporter of Prop. B.

She acknowledges current legislation may not be perfect, but says it's better than nothing.

"It is probably flawed, so people who are critical may have some weight, but to me it is flawed in that there is no funding to go with it. If we had sufficient funding for the inspectors we already have, there probably would be no reason to have Proposition B," says Casteel.

Both Senate Bill 113 & 95 and House Bill 131 would take away the 50-dog limit for breeding facilities and repeal other restrictions if passed.

School choice debate raged in a Senate committee as members considered whether to allow students to leave the unaccredited St. Louis City Public Schools.

According to the Missouri Supreme Court case Turner v. Clayton, parents living in an unaccredited school district may send their children to any other public school. The Senate Education Committee heard testimony Wednesday about a bill that would create limitations for students wanting to leave. The bill only applies to St. Louis City Public Schools.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, would prohibit students from leaving St. Louis City Public Schools.

"Ultimately this is about rebuilding community," Lembke said

"I'm afraid about making a student stay in a failing district... I would not want to be the parent in that district," said Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington.

A house bill was met with support banning the use of all tobacco products on Missouri's prison campuses.

Former inmate Gordon Bell talked about the extreme lengths that inmates would go to in order to smoke a single cigarette.

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Chris Molendorp says banning cigarettes will eliminate the black market cigarettes provide.

The bill has no set deadline to be enacted.

The absence of a deadline allows staff and inmates alike to ween off tobacco.

Without a single opposition vote, Missouri's House approved a measure that would require the governor to disclose details of all of his travel including costs and accompanying passengers.

Among those voting for the proposal was the House Democratic leader.

Not one member of Gov. Jay Nixon's own party spoke against the proposal nor voted against it.

The provision was added to a bill dealing with state government's public website that contains information on state expenditures.

The provision was sponsored by the House Budget Committee chair who said it took him a month to get information about the governor's use of airplanes that revealed Nixon had spent nearly $400,000 from other agencies to finance his plane flights.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Judge Gary Oxenhandler faced off Wednesday over a bill that would abolish the Sentencing Advisory Commission.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, would abolish a commission that has been working since 1993 to advise the state's justices of suitable alternatives to incarceration, with a goal of alleviating Missouri's exploding prison population.

The state Transportation Department has spent $7.7 million to clean up after Missouri's worst snow storm in a decade.

More than 2,500 workers logged 90,000 hours in the aftermath of the blizzard, MoDOT said in a statement. The department used 30,000 tons of salt, but has said it has plenty of salt supply to last the rest of the winter.

The Feb. 1-2 storm dumped 18 inches of snow on Jefferson City and trapped more than 100 lawmakers in the state Capitol overnight. Gov. Jay Nixon had called a state of emergency for all of Missouri.

At a news conference Wednesday State Auditor Tom Schweich, backed by Republicans in the House and Senate, proposed legislation that would allow his office to begin a "comparative analysis" and audit of the costliest five to ten agencies to streamline procedures among them. Schweich hopes that that information gathered by the analysis will help make the agencies more efficient and ultimately save the state money.

"We think its really going to introduce a new ability for the legislature to evaluate agencies and budgets in the future," Schweich said. "Instead of having to do a 'meat cleaver' approach because of a lack of insight into how these agencies operate, we will have some real data to determine where the savings can be made on a more precise basis."

In order to pay for the analysis, Schweich is requesting $300,000, which he said would be recouped once the standardized procedures are in place. Schweich does not know an exact number for how much revenue could be saved by this proposal, but believes it should be a significant amount.

Democratic Floor Leader Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County, questions the auditor's motives in proposing the legislation and said he does not see why Schweich needs the proposal or the money to do a job that his office should already have the ability to do.

"I realize that [Schweich] is new to the job but I don't understand why he can't do a comparative audit now," Talboy said. "I understand he may be upset about his budget being cut but if it's a matter of money than I think we should be having that conversation instead."

The multi-state debate over negotiating labor contracts has swept across the Midwest, but Missouri lawmakers do not think the issue will get as heated.

"I think the way we have been able to interact right now has been cordial, even if we don't necessarily agree on things," said House Democratic Leader, Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County.

Democratic lawmakers in Indiana and Wisconsin fled their states in order to avoid voting on such labor negotiating measure.

One Missouri representative does not agree with the way things have been handled.

"I think they are doing a disservice to their state and their constituents by not being there," said Rep. Barney Fisher, R-Richards.

The issue has divided business in Missouri. The measure was left out of six initiatives introduced before the legislative session by business operatives who said they would help fix the economy.

"I think that tells us all what we need to know about where business stands on it," said Talboy.

St. Louis Country Senator Jim Lembke is sponsoring SB 16, the bill would ban red light cameras.

Lembke says the cameras violate several constitutional amendments.  He also says that it is not fair to give tickets when the driver cannot be positively identified.

Witnesses in favor of the bill also borught up the fact that cities have no way to enforce if people pay their tickets.

Several people spoke against the bill.  Attorney Edward Dowd disagrees with Lembke, saying the cameras do not violate the constitution.  An officer from the Hazelwood Police Department says after his city installed the cameras, accidents went down by 16 percent.

Dowd says installing red light cameras should be a choice made by individual cites based on need.

Kathy Tremeear lost her daughter, Kayla, in a 2002 car accident.  She now speaks out in favor of red light safety cameras.  Tremeear believes these cameras could have saved her daughters life.

Traditional public schools would face more competition under a bill presented to the House Education Committee Wednesday.

Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis City, sponsored the bill, which would allow school districts outside of Kansas City and St. Louis City to create charter schools.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded, are governed by an independent school board and are currently sponsored by a Missouri public university. They are held to the same performance and attendance standards as other public schools around the state.

"The bill would give superintendents another tool in their toolbox," Jones said. 

"The vision is simply not happening at charter schools right now," said Byron Clemens, a spokesman of American Federation of Teachers Missouri.

The House Education Appropriations Committee voted to increase funding for Bright Flight, a state college scholarship program which rewards students that have received a 31 on the ACT test.

The new funding would come after a decrease in funding from the state's A+ program. The A+ program gives incentives for low-income high school students to attend college.

Although, this amendment passed, it did face some opposition from Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville. Thomson said rather than rewarding high-achieving students who will likely go to college, the state should focus on students for which college is less certain.

"I'm not too sure it's more important than incentivizing that student that might go into further training," said Thomson.

The committee also voted to take funding from the AP program, which enables high school students to take college courses, and put this funding toward the state's Early Literacy Program.

The literacy program helps first graders improve their reading skills.

Following the vote, lawmakers start the process of creating a task force to study the effectiveness of Missouri's teachers.

The 14-member panel would look for a correlation between higher teacher pay and more effective teaching.

The bill is sponsored by Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, and would give recommendations to ensure educators are evaluated fairly.

Pearce said he wants high performing teachers to be paid more.

"It's not just money, it's not just dollars, it's what do we get for those dollars," he said.

The Missouri National Education Association says it supports the current proposal but that evaluations of teachers should be created by local school districts.

The Senate's small business committee heard testimony from businesses for and against letting the state's minimum wage exceed the federal limit.

Sponsor of the bill is R. Senator Jason Crowell, and he was unavailable to comment.

Chairman of the committee, Scott Rupp is in favor of the bill because it supports business in Missouri.

"Well I think the bill is very interesting because if we start to exceed the national minimum wage then we all of the sudden become even more uncompetitive compared to neighboring states," said Rupp.

However, opponents of the bill say Missourians have voted against a piece of legislation like this.

In 2006, a majority of 75% of Missouri voters said they wanted the Cost of Living Adjustment. Meaning as inflation rises on a yearly basis so will minimum wage.

The House Committee for education appropriations approved a budget that included a 7 percent decrease in funding for higher education.

This is no change from what the Governor proposed in his budget.

No one proposed an amendment for increasing or decreasing funding for higher education.

Committee Chairman Mike Lair R-Chillicothe said, "From what I'm hearing at the senate, I think that 7 percent is probably pretty solid. Its something that colleges have told us they can live with and its something we are going to be able to fund."

Representative Mary Still D-Columbia said she is not so happy with the decrease in funding.

"I am very, very disappointed that we are in this situation in this state, because I firmly believe there are things we can do to increase revenue." She said she thinks there are things the state could do to raise funds for education. Also that University will probably have to raise tuition to deal with the decrease funding.

House bills 2 and 3 were approved and the next step is to go to the budget committee.

A proposed change to current minimum wage legislation could affect thousands of Missouri workers.

The Missouri Senate bill calls for 2012 state elections to decide whether to bind the state minimum wage to the federally-mandated wage. The Senate Small Business, Insurance and Industry Committee heard the bill Tuesday.

Chairman of the Committee Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, said he sees the change as benefiting Missouri's business community.

"If we start to exceed the national minimum wage, then all of a sudden we become even more uncompetitive compared to neighboring states," Rupp said. "[The bill] is something to look at, especially in an era of low employment."

While the federal and state wage are both currently set at $7.25, critics worry that inflation could eat up the amount that workers will receive in the future.

The current law was enacted in 2006, after voters supported an increase in the state's minimum wage levels. Lara Granich, director of the Missouri Jobs with Justice Coalition, helped push for passage of the 2006 increase. She said the amount of support the proposal received around the state proves that lawmakers should keep their hands off.

"76.4 percent of Missourians voted for the increase in minimum wage. Actually, even more powerfully, it passed in every single county by 16 points or more," Granich said.

However, Rupp said the current economic downturn makes it imperative to try and attract employers to the state.

"We can kick it back to the people and say is this something that you wanted to do to try to spur economic growth in our small businesses, which hire most of the employees here in the state," Rupp said.

Sponsor of the bill Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, was unable to be reached for comment.

A bill that would require driver's tests to be taken in English has been sent to the House by a 5-4 partisan vote in the Rules Committee.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said the English requirement will make for safer drivers and less risk for emergency workers. Nolte also said it is "unfathomable" to accommodate the 320 spoken languages in the U.S.

"This is just to encourage people to assimilate into our country and our culture and in the state, certainly anyway," Nolte said.

Republican lawmakers said the bill is a matter of public safety, not a discrimination tactic. 

Some Democrats said the bill is "mean-spirited." Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, said the bill is a "detriment" to legal citizens in the state.

"Let's not punish those who are here legally doing the right thing," Meadows said. "Let's punish those who are here illegally and those corporations who hire those people illegally."

After 2010 census results revealed a population decline costing Missouri a congressional seat, lawmakers have been waiting for completed census data from the U.S. Census Bureau in order to reorganize the state's districts.

In a news conference Monday, Rep. John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, and Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, announced the federal report will arrive this week. The state must implement changes to the current districts before the 2012 elections.

Diehl and Rupp, the respective chairs of the House and Senate redistricting committees, announced they would be working together in joint sessions to streamline the process of drawing the new districts. Diehl said they planned to collaborate to address what he called a "time crunch."

"To an extent, we can coordinate resources...but I think it's important for each body to begin on its own because we need to get a [district] map done by early May," Diehl said.

Even though Republicans are in charge of the redistricting process, Minority Floor Leader Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County, said he trusted the leadership to do what needed to be done.

"There is always a concern when you lose a congressional seat, but you hope that there are no shenanigans during the process and you need to take the representative at his word." Talboy said. "It is no fun to lose a congressional seat because the state loses representation at the same time."

A House committee heard supporters of a bill to make the department pay for elk-related car crashes. Plans are already in place to release elk into Missouri within the coming months. This frightens some because of the destructive nature of elk around farming areas.

Those against the bill say that releasing elk into Missouri would improve the hunting industry in state. Those against the bill also say that if the bill passed that people would demand the Department of Agriculture to pay for car-crashes involving much smaller animals.

No decision was made but further discussions will occur.

The House Special Standing Committee on Disability Services met for the first time Monday to hear testimonies from families and groups was split in its support for the bill.

Families of moderately disabled individuals favored the closure of some or all of the six rehabilitation centers throughout Missouri.

Families of severely disabled families were more concerned about the treatment their relatives would receive if they were moved out.

The House Education Appropriations Committee is expected to endorse the proposed higher education budget cut.

Gov. Nixon's 2012 proposed budget calls for an overall 7 percent cut in state higher education funding. The House Education Appropriation committee will meet Tuesday to mark-up the budget. Chairman, Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, said he expects that the budget cut will pass unamended through the committee.

"As of right now it is going to be a 7 percent cut," Lair said.