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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of February 28, 2011

A day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled funeral protesting was protected free speech, Missouri's House voted to restrict protesting.

Nearly 90 percent of representatives voted to make it a crime to protest within 500 feet of funeral ceremonies. Another restriction of the bill prohibits protesters from picketing two hours before and two hours after funerals. The bill would make it a crime in Missouri to violate these restrictions.

Rep. Jeanette Oxford, D-St. Louis, was one of the few to vote against it. Oxford criticized her colleagues for voting for the bill. She said, "If we'll go back to our districts and we'll work with our constituents to help them understand that we're doing here is protecting the constitution when we vote no, our constituents are grown-ups and they'll understand that." oxford urged her lawmakers to protect free speech, even if it is unpopular.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ward Franz, R-Howell, said this bill would protect grieving families. Howell said, "It's a simple idea to allow families to mourn the loss of a loved one in peace and to give them a chance to have some closure in a very difficult time. Franz got overwhelming approval from the House.

Yesterday the high court ruled against a group that filed suit, saying funeral protesters inflicted emotional pain on them. Just two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Missouri law restricting funeral protesting.

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling has very little to do with this bill. Colona said, "That case yesterday dealt with a civil lawsuit where an individual was suing the Westboro Baptist Church not for breaking a law but for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The bill goes to the Senate next.

In response to the continued absence of Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin and Indiana, Missouri lawmakers introduced an amendment to the state constitution that would discourage legislative walkouts.

Central Missouri Republican Representative Sandy Crawford is a sponsor of the legislation.

"I think this is just a precaution and I think we just need to have it for future purposes," says Crawford.

On the other side, Democrats say this proposed amendment is meaningless because the Missouri legislature can hold session as long as there are a majority of lawmakers present.

Democratic Representative Jean Peters-Baker says walkouts aren't an issue in Missouri.

"It's irrelevant because it's not what we were sent here to do. It's not to create jobs, it's not to balance our budget, we are doing none of that with this resolution," says Peters-Baker.

Peters-Baker says walkouts in Missouri would not slow legislative action. She says that even if every Democrat walked out of the Missouri legislature, business could go on as usual.

The Missouri Senate adjourned before noon on Thursday without making a decision on extending unemployment benefits for more than 20,000 Missourians without jobs.

The plan calls for the state to accept $81 million in federal money. This money would extend the maximum length of jobless benefits from 79 to 99 weeks for Missourians.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, opposes the bill, saying Missouri lawmakers need to send a message to Washington.

"You have the federal government stealing from this generation and generations to come by spending money they don't have," Lembke said. Lembke also says that nearly two years of jobless benefits is too long.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensberg, is the sponsor of the bill and says that people collecting unemployment would much rather have a job.

"For those who have a job it's pretty easy to say that's too long, but when you're suffering and can't find a job, that's tough," Pearce said.

Republican leaders say they will meet over the next week to discuss the bill. The extended benefits for an estimated 23,000 Missourians will run out April 3.

As part of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Week, dozens of middle school robotics teams competed in the First LEGO League challenge at the Capitol.

Fourteen of 200 teams from around Missouri faced off their homemade robots in a battle different from what the Missouri Legislature is used to.

First LEGO League coordinator Anna Simmons, with the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering, says having the event at the Capitol is significant.

"It gives us an opportunity to kind of put this in front of the Senators and State Representatives and say this is what is happening with our kids, and this is what we are doing in the stem fields," said Simmons.

In a two-part competition, teams built robots to compete, as well as made presentations about this year's topic, Body Forward.

Wildwood eighth grader Jordan Pack says his team researched and problem solved stroke intervention.

"We came up with a solution using microbots and nanobots to stop a stroke while it's happening, and then restore the brain to better function once the stroke's over," said Pack.

Simmons said the First LEGO League targets middle schoolers because it is important to steer kids like Pack and his sister (also a fellow team member) toward pursuing science careers.

"We've got to get them while they're young. And sixth grade is when girls usually lose interest in math. Anything in the engineering math fields, they just back away from."

Debra Hollingsworth with AT&T and the Missouri Math and Science Coalition spoke with the kids about how the development of science and technology will depend on them.

She said, "You will be the Mark Zuckerbergs of the future. I know you're going to do great things because you realize math and science are the language of economic prosperity."

Get the radio stories here.

If passed, the bill would make illegal discrimination a motivating factor in an employment discrimination lawsuit.

The bill would would make suing an employer more difficult for an employee claiming racial discrimination.

The Senate perfected the bill and will continue to review it.

  Lottery privatization an option for Senate committee 03/02/2011

The Missouri Lottery will begin talks with the Senate starting in April about potentially moving control of the lottery from the government to the private sector.

Lottery Executive Director May Scheve said it was difficult to comment on the issue since the Missouri Lottery is currently ascertaining the opinion of state vendors on the matter and since privatization was only recently brought up by the Senate's Rebooting Government initiative.

"We really haven't engaged in conversation with the Senate," Scheve said. "But beginning in April we will work with the Senate to provide as much information as we can."

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, said he moved back a hearing on privatizing the lottery because none of the vendors working with the lottery are willing to testify until after they are finished with the lottery. Lembke is the chairman of the Senate Governmental Accountability Committee, which will hold a hearing on lottery privatization once the process begins next month.

"The lottery has to be kind of reserved with their comments since it might affect some of the [answers]," Lembke said. "My concern and interest in the lottery is I'm looking at all areas of state government to find out how we can become more competitive."

Missouri's public labor union leaders say the public sector is weak because of the inability to effectively to collectively bargain.

"I think the biggest factor is our collective bargaining rights are only four years old," said Bradley Harmon, president of the Communications Workers of America.

Despite a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that extended collective bargaining rights to public unions, Herb Johnson, the secretary-treasure of the AFL-CIO, said there is no enabling legislation for public unions to collectively bargain.

"We continue to have the current statute, which talks about meet and confer. This means we get together and talk but you don't hear anything about it," Johnson said.

The public labor landscape has changed several times in recent history.

In 2001 Gov. Bob Holden issued an executive order that extended collective bargaining to state employees. In 2005, however, the new governor, Republican Matt Blunt, rescinded it.

Since then there has been a 2007 court ruling that established collective bargaining rights for state employees, but public unions still remain weak in Missouri.

The House Committee on Health Care Policy held a public hearing on Wednesday for three bills, which collectively aim to protect young athletes from the consequences of multiple head injuries.

Health specialists spoke in support of the bills, with a general consesus that all involved parties: parents, coaches, and trainers need to be educated about the repercussions of a child sustaining multiple concussions.

In addition, the bills would prevent athletes from returning to games the same day they suffered an injury.

Proponents of the bills support a lengthier time-frame for recovery, including follow-up examinations, cognitive testing, and physician's approval to return to the field.

The bills would require schools to work with MSHSAA to develop a set of precautions when dealing with head injuries, as well as a requirement for coaches to be trained in identifying serious head injuries.

No opponents spoke out against the bill.

 Lawmakers take the next step to prevent taking children from homes because a parent has a disability.

Parents with disabilities testified Wednesday about a bill, which prevents them from losing their child solely because they have a disability. The parent supporters said that people with disabilities are qualified to be parents and should not live in fear of losing their children.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Thomas Long, R-Battlefield, said his bill comes on the heels of some parents with disabilities losing their children unfairly. He said two parents recently lost custody of their daughter for 57 days because they were blind.

"I cannot imagine another person with a disability having to not know where their child is...I do not want another family to go through this heartache," Debbie Wunder, a supporter of the bill, said.

While no one spoke in opposition to the bill, some questions were raised during the hearing.

Many of the bill supporters said they used special technology to help them raise their children. A spokesman for the Paraquad Independent Living Center said that these technologies were often too expensive for many people to purchase.

Planned Parenthood and other groups offering family planning services would be required to disclose details of their federal financing under a measure heard by the House Children Committee Wednesday.

But there's an interesting complication to the issue -- Planned Parenthood says it already is doing what the proposed law would require.

The measure would require detailed financial reports to the state Health Department by organizations receiving federal family planning funds.

The bill covers organizations that get money from a federal program that covers contraceptive services, supplies and information.

The Missouri Senate debated but didn't vote Tuesday on a bill that would cap the damages state courts can award in workplace lawsuits.

Earlier in the day, a Senate committee heard testimony from several attorneys for a similar measure that would also limit discrimination lawsuits. St. Louis attorney Dan O'Keefe says without these caps, the state sees too many lawsuits.

"[Anyone] can make a complaint" and get a trial, O'Keefe said.

But Lynne Bratcher, a representative of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said that for the most part these lawsuits are fair in her experience.

"Juries usually get it right," Bratcher said.

The plan would give the state an extra $81 million in federal funds for unemployed Missourians.

This money would add up to 20 more weeks of unemployment benefits.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, filibustered, saying more time on unemployment leads to fewer applicants for jobs.

"We've got people saying we have jobs but if you extend that the people that generally work in our industry will not come back to work," Lembke said.

Other GOP Senators say they are concerned about out-of-control federal spending.

But Republicans and Democrats say if Missouri turns down the money it will instead be given to other states.

The Senate must vote by Thursday for the state to get the federal funds.

Popular new synthetic drugs are being sold around the state as bath salts. But they're not for your bathtub.

The House General Laws committee heard but didn't vote on a bill that would ban the sale and use of the product. Supporters of the bill say the drug has cocaine-like effects when taken.

"We need to understand that these aren't bath salts. They are simply a drug sold under the heading of bath salts to avoid DEA and FDA approval," St. Joseph Police Officer Frank Till said at the hearing.

Smoke shops and convenience stores around the state currently sell the drug under various names, such as Ivory Snow and Vanilla Sky.

Critics, such as Columbia Attorney Dan Viets, say the bill would make criminals out of too many people and increase the costs to house them in jails.

"For the past 27 years, we have engaged in an orgy of incarceration, mainly of non-violent people," Viets said.

Chairman of the Committee Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, says people using the drug could cause major problems for the state.

"I firmly believe that these individuals using these products are going to cost the state a great deal of money if we don't ban this," Franz said.

House Republicans voted Tuesday to overturn a minimum wage law that Missouri voters approved five years ago.

The vote came nearly along party lines, as not a single Democrat approved the measure after nearly two hours of debate. The bill would prohibit Missouri’s minimum wage from exceeding the federal level. Both are currently $7.25, but Missouri uses the cost-of-living adjustment to set its minimum wage. That means when inflation rises, the state’s minimum wage might increase past the federal level.

The bill needs another vote in the House before moving to the Senate. Opponents cited a 2006 ballot measure, in which 76 percent of Missouri voters approved raising the minimum wage and tying it to the inflation rate. The House bill would repeal that vote. Employees will be at a disadvantage if the measure passes, said Rep. Sylvester Taylor, D-St. Louis County.

“If you don’t take care of your workers, what message are you sending to your workforce?” Taylor said.

Republicans, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Clay County, said that lowering the minimum wage would create jobs. By eliminating the inflationary increases, businesses wouldn't need to pay higher labor costs and could maintain jobs for low-skilled workers, he said.

“Those of you who are voting on this bill, go home this weekend, go to your small businesses, look them in the eye and ask yourself, ‘Can I tell them how I voted on this bill? Can I tell them that I am standing with them to create jobs?’” Nolte said during House debate.

Allowing Missouri’s minimum wage to increase more than the federal wage and more than surrounding states would make doing business in Missouri less attractive for employers, said Republican Floor Leader Timothy Jones, R-St. Louis County.

“None of the bordering states which we compete economically with and competitively with have this provision. It is an anomaly,” he said.

All 57 House Democrats joined with four Republicans to vote against the bill. They said lowering the minimum wage would cost Missouri thousands of jobs and hurt families that live below the poverty level. Rep. Mike Colona, D-St Louis County said Republicans don’t care about the voice of the people.

“House Republicans today told the people of Missouri that their opinion as expressed at the ballot box doesn’t matter,” Colona said.

For the third time this session, Republicans have voted to undo Missouri voters’ decisions. Republicans in the House and Senate are in the process of repealing restrictions on dog breeders, which voters approved last fall. GOP lawmakers have also approved a plan to force Missourians to foot the bill for Ameren Missouri to pursue a permit to build a second nuclear reactor in Callaway County.

“Some things are passed by the voters and I think we should respect that. But if there's unintended consequences that we feel like the residents in our district didn't understand or didn't realize were going to occur, we have an obligation as their representative to fix it,” said House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville.

Gas prices in Missouri are up nearly 20 cents from last week due to ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East. This increase makes the cost of fuel the highest it has been in two and a half years.

The higher cost of fuel is raising budget concerns for the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesperson Captain Tim Hull says the department's vehicles drove almost 27 million miles in 2010.

Hull says the highway patrol is concerned about the rising prices but has yet to make any adjustments to their budget.

"When that number goes up over what we have budgeted, that's where we run into issues. So if it stays there for an extended period of time, that's when it becomes a problem," says Hull.

He says the highway patrol may try to cut costs by putting more miles on patrol cars and condensing travel during officer training if prices continue to rise.

MoDOT spokesperson Jorma Duran says it is too soon to tell if the higher gas prices will impact the department.

"As of right now, I don't think anything is going to be affected. What we have decided to take on in terms of projects, paving, winter operations, you name it, those things are not going to change. We still need to provide the service to the taxpayers," says Duran.

Duran says MoDOT plans their budget every year to have enough wiggle room to accommodate fluctuations in gas prices.

The public testified Tuesday for a bill that would require that all presidential candidates, including President Obama, prove their citizenship to Missouri's Secretary of State before being placed on the state ballot.

Former defeated Secretary of State candidate Mitch Hubbard says Missouri should check the federal government and enforce proof of citizenship.

"Hawaii, during the years our President was born, issued short-form birth certificates to people who were born in Hawaii...but because it had just recently become a state, they also issued short-form birth certificates to people who were not born in Hawaii, but who were living there as children at the time," says Hubbard.

The bill is sponsored by Republican Cedarcreek Representative Lyle Rowland, who says no one on the federal level is checking the Article II Constitutional qualifications of candidates. He says the Missouri Secretary of State should require Presidential citizenship documents, like those required by candidates for other offices.

St. Genevieve Democratic Representative Joe Fallert says federal law under the Constitution already prevents unqualified citizens from running for President.

"If federal law would say you have to be a citizen of the U.S. to do this, why do we have to double check? I'm just curious because it's like we're a solution looking for a problem because federal law would preempt this already," says Fallert.

Naturalized citizen Hector Maldonado initially was born in Mexico. He says when running for the U.S. Senate last year, he had to provide proof of citizenship to the Missouri Secretary of State, and thus wants Presidential candidates to have to do the same.

Maldonado says, "This next coming election, if I choose to do so, I can run for U.S. President, and no one's going to stop me until I actually hold office...but by then, it's too late."

The House Elections Committee says it does not know when the bill will be heard again.

In a continual effort to alter Missouri's tax policy, lawmakers in the House followed the Senate's example Monday by giving first-round approval to a proposal to eliminate the corporate franchise tax.

Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, who sponsored the bill, said removing the corporate franchise tax would foster corporate growth and business' interest in the state.

"This puts us in a bad competitive situation with other and in fact the state of Kansas has just eliminated their franchise tax," Nolte said. "For those of us living on the west side of the state, we know how competitive [business] is."

House Democrats, such as Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, spoke against the proposal, saying that Missouri could not afford the loss in revenue that abolishing the corporate franchise tax would cause. Webber said the loss in revenue would have to be made up for by making cuts to the budget.

"The folks we really do hurt by voting for this are kids because that money has to come from somewhere and as we look at the budget there is no place to take $80 million out of the next couple of years' budgets besides programs that affect kids," Webber said.

Department of Revenue officials estimate that the corporate franchise tax brought in about $87.5 million in revenue last year. \