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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of March 7, 2011

The Senate passed a bill that calls for the state's employee discrimination laws to mirror the federal government's.

It would stop former state employees from suing for discrimination after the state fired them.

Senator Brad Lager, R-Maryville, says taxpayers are paying for lawsuits against the state.

Senator Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, was the only Republican to vote against the bill, saying the plan does exactly what people hate most about government.

"We are carving out a special status for government where that they're not liable for the same amount of damages that the private individual and private business is held responsible for," Ridgeway said.

But Ridgeway's opposition wasn't enough to stop the bill from moving onto the House.

Missouri Senators will debate legislation allowing workers to opt out of union and not have to pay union service fees next week.

Supporters say it would make Missouri more attractive to businesses.

Critics say losing those fees would make union weaker.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Luann Ridgeway, D-Clay County, says the legislation would help improve Missouri's 9.6 percent unemployment rate.

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's House of Represenatives passed a bill eliminating all languages except English for drivers examinations.

The Missouri driver’s test bill is heading to the Senate after a 64% percent majority vote in the House of Representatives.

The House gave its final approval to this bill Thursday. The current Missouri driver's test is offered in 11 other languages, not including English. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Galdstone, said this limitation would make Missouri roads safer and protect the state from liability to lawsuits.

The supporters of the bill focused on safety issues.

“There are substantial number of signs saying things like “left lane closed” or “bridge out” that especially at highway speeds people need to be able understand relatively quick for safety,” Rep. Nolte said.

However, Nolte said he admits there were no statistical data available on how many road accidents were caused by foreigners because of their incapacity to read English on traffic signs.

Critics of the legislation say this is discriminating against legal immigrants who have not learned English, and also to people who use their driver's license as a form of identification and for voting.

In 2010, more than 10,000 out of 167,000 written tests passed in Missouri were administered in foreign languages, the most common ones were Spanish and Chinese.

One of these opponents is Rep. Joe Fallert, D-Ste. Genevieve. Fallert said this bill will not remove non proficient English speakers from Missouri roads, anyway.

"International driver’s license holders and foreigners who got their licenses in other states were still going to be able to drive here. Insisting that rules should be the same for all, he proposed an amendment requiring everyone driving on Missouri roads to take the test of English proficiency," Nolte said.

However, 102 Representatives in the Missouri House disagreed. “Driving is not a right. It is a privilege,” said Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles. Parkinson also said everyone applying for US citizenship is required to prove a sufficient ability to speak English and it should be a part of the American transition.

“Being a US citizen is one of the highest privileges in the world,” he said, arguing that he saw no reason why requirements should be lowered when it comes to drivers’ license tests.

After two sessions worth of discussion, the Missouri House passed the original bill with the addition of a clause that American sign language interpreters were allowed to interpret for applicants.

A spokesperson of the Public Information and Education Division of the Missouri Highway Patrol said the illiterate “can have the examiner read the test to them.”

Nolte also said another motive to write the bill was a recent lawsuit for discrimination filed in 2007 against the state of Oklahoma, after immigrants were denied the option of taking the driving test in Farsi, the predominant language of Iran.

However, Democrats say this is an anti-jobs move that will make Missouri less appealing to workers who have not mastered the English language.

Democratic House Minority Leader Mike Talboy says that it also discriminates against legal immigrants.

Other Democrats say the bill would prevent thousands of legal immigrants from working if they can't drive to their jobs.

Missouri's unemployment rate remained at 9.6 percent in January, where it has remained nearly stagnant since summer 2009.

The state gained about 5,700 jobs in the first month of 2011, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force, which measures employed Missourians as well as those looking for work, ticked up in January, indicating people either moved to the state or began hunting for jobs after having given up the search.

Still, Missouri's unemployment rate is now tied for 12th-worst in the nation. The state has lost about 175,000 jobs since the recession began in 2007, according to federal data.

The Missouri Senate removed a year's worth of efforts to restrict Missouri dog breeders by passing a bill easing most Proposition B restrictions.

With a vote of 20 to 14 on Senate Bill 113, the bill moves out of the Senate.

The bill removes the Prop. B limitation on 50 dogs in breeding facilities and also dissolves bigger cage size requirements.

Missourians voted 52 percent in favor of Prop. B back in November.

Since then, some lawmakers have argued voters were unaware that the measures passed in Prop. B were harming good breeders and an industry in the state.

A Humane Society spokeswoman Barb Schmitz said this isn't true.

"The issue was thoroughly debated for a year. Voters knew what they were doing. And if lawmakers are really intent on overturning the will of the people, then I find that extremely disappointing," said Schmitz.

Republican St. Louis Senator John Lamping warned there is a problem with easing restrictions Missourians voted to pass with Proposition B.

He said, "There's a risk to legislating this way, by proposition. I think I'm quite confident that my district read the bill, did their best to understand the bill, and voted their will. I think this is a very dangerous way to legislate."

Also representing St. Louis, Democratic Senator Maria Chappell-Nadal voted against changing the law, but acknowledged supporters' arguments about voter confusion in November.

She said, "Proposition B does not deal with pounds, yet it is messaged to our constituents that Proposition B is saving puppies."

The bill now will be sent to the House for debate. If it is voted on and passes, it will be sent to the Governor for signing.

Testifiers on a plan for a second nuclear plant for Callaway County gathered outside two Senate hearing rooms Wednesday a hour before a hearing on the issue even began, causing blockage of a hallway that continued even after Senate doormen allowed some of the crowd to enter the rooms.

The crowd, consisting of both supporters and dissenters of the plan, were forced to accumulate on nearby benches and watch the proceedings on a TV provided for them in the hallway. Each person in the crowd came to provide their opinions on an attempt by the state's main utility provider, Ameren Missouri, to put the cost of building the plant on its ratepayers.

In order to build the plant, Ameren needs to acquire a early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would allow the utility company to hire outside researchers to analyze environmental, geological and safety aspects of the proposed building site. Sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said the bill is a compromise between Ameren, supporting energy providers and state lawmakers to ensure the site permit moves forward, while ratepayers are still protected from suffering a major tax-increase.

"After multiple meetings, I came up with [the bill], which is laid out to be a compromise, but I want to be clear, it is not an agreement to the letter from either side." Kehoe said. "No one on either side of this equation was 100 percent happy with it but it represents, me, as a common sense guy, saying I recognize what needs to be done and the need for consumer protection, and I thought that was fair."

The public lined the staircases and the upper galleries; in the rotunda, every seat was filled.

Advocates arrived in masses at the Capitol building Wednesday for a rally in support of legislation that will expand the rights given to Missouri's citizens with disabilities.

Among those speaking at the rally were Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Speaker of the House Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville.

They spoke amidst cheers and chants from a crowd calling for the extension of their civil rights, the end to institutionalization, and the appropriation of funds for disability services.

State law enforcement officials, pharmacists, and lawmakers alike deliberated about the possible ban of pseudoephedrine, or sudafed, from being sold over-the-counter.

Pseudoephedrine is the base element for making methamphetamine.

Missouri enacted legislation December 28, 2010 an electronic system tracking the sales of pseudoephedrine.

Two other states, Oregon and Mississippi, have implemented similar laws in the past decade.

Meth lab busts in the two states have fallen by 80% and 68% respectively since the implementation of each state's law.

There was opposition by one pharmacist and lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and retail associations in Missouri.

The Senate Agriculture Committee debated a bill that would require owners to obtain permits for and neuter their primates incited passionate testimonies from several Missouri primate breeders.

Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis City, sponsored the bill after Eric Miller, veterinarian and senior vice president at the St. Louis Zoo, requested these large and exotic animals be regulated.

"Missouri is one of the few states with no [statewide] regulation of large and exotic animals," Miller said. "It's a national standard Missouri is working on catching up to."

If the bill passes, the Missouri Department of Agriculture would issue the statewide permits to primate owners, however, they have not yet taken a position for or against the bill.

The Missouri House held discussions on HB 213. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Timothy Jones, R-Eureka. This bill would ban the abortion of any child considered to be viable, except in cases of medical emergency.

Jones says the bill is supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle. However, some democrats came out in fierce opposition to the bill. They said that the bill takes away a personal decision from women and their families.

The discussion on the bill was tabled, it will be picked up in a later House session.

House gives first-round approval to English-only driving tests.

The bill would allow driving tests to be administered only in English. Currently, the test can be administered in 12 languages.

Supporters say the bill would make Missouri roads safer and free the state from potential liability lawsuits.

Opponents argue the bill unfairly targets immigrants and prevents them from getting to their jobs.

JEFFERSON CITY - In a public hearing Wednesday, the House Committee on Children and Families heard a bill that will require hospitals to provide emergency contraception for victims of sexual assault.

According to a study completed in 2009 by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League, the amount of hospitals in the state of Missouri that currently stock emergency contraception is just less than 50 percent. The bill, which has been called the Compassionate Assistance for Rape Emergencies Act, will ensure that 100 percent of Missouri hospitals and health care facilities have the drug in stock at all times. The patient would not be required to take the drug, but the hospital would be required to inform her of its availability.

Missouri's Senate gave first round approval to undo the decisions of voters. Just months after 52 percent of Missourians voted to place restrictions on dog breeders, Missouri's Senate is trying to overturn that vote.

The changes to Prop B include lifting the 50 dog limit, increasing licensing fees, and clarifying what a domesticated animal is.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, said Prop B has the potential to shut down good businesses.

"If you had 50 of those medium sized dogs, under proposition B, and those dogs each had five pups, which is very likely they could, in a year's time you would need a facility of 11,000 square feet," he said.

Parson's bill got voice-vote approval, which was after senators defeated a plan to put the restrictions back on this year's ballot.

No Senator spoke in opposition of the bill. The bill needs one more vote in the Senate.

A bill to exempt Missouri Public Schools from extending their calender year for the snow days during the last week of January has died.

House Chairman of the Education Committee, Scott Dieckhaus said there was no purpose to have a hearing on the bill because of strong opposition coming from the Senate.

Dieckhaus also says he does not want to give hope to schools when there is no chance of it passing.

However, the sponsor of the bill said he had a lot of support.

"I mean there have been a lot of parents, a lot of teachers, and a lot of administrators. I had 31 cosigners here in the House," said sponsor Joe Aull.

The Senate gave first-round approval Tuesday to a bill that would overturn dog breeding restrictions Missouri voters passed last November.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, would lift the 50-dog restriction that was part of last year's Proposition B. Senators approved by voice vote after defeating an amendment to give voters a re-do on the restrictions this November.

The bill needs one more vote to clear the Senate.

Senators debated, but did not vote, on a bill to allow students from the non-accredited St. Louis Public School District to transfer to suburban schools.

St. Louis schools lost accreditation in 2007 for not meeting academic standards. Only 19 percent of students meet math knowledge standards in the district, state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data indicate.

Students are supposed to have the option to transfer to county schools, but the county schools have not accepted a single student, said Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County.

“Colleges look for accreditation, future employers look for accreditation. We are handicapping these children,” Cunningham said.

The bill allows for expansion of charter schools outside the city of St. Louis, gives parents the option to transfer their students to other schools, and makes sure suburban districts accept the students.

The county schools are aware change is necessary, said Deanna Borland, a spokeswoman for the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, which advocates on behalf of area schools.

“They agree they need to accept transfer students with some reasonable parameters and control,” she said.

St. Louis schools are making progress in getting back on track, said Mary Armstrong, a spokeswoman for St. Louis’s American Federation of Teachers. In a district that has gone through several superintendents, she said that the bill will harm the progress the current superintendent has made.

“This bill doesn’t give the superintendent a chance -- he is trying to right the ship,” she said.

She said the bill doesn’t offer anything new to the St. Louis Public School District students because of the desegregation laws.

Other opponents to the bill worry about the charter school provision. The bill allows for accredited county schools to open charter schools to accommodate more students, but it won't be successful, said St. Louis’s American Federation of Teachers Vice President Byron Clemens.

Missouri National Education spokesman Otto Fajen agreed.

“There is a great concern for their expansion -- they need to be accountable, transparent,” he said.

The Senate General Laws Committee will vote on the bill within the month, said an aide to Cunnningham, the committee's chairwoman.

  Patients would have greater power in deciding whether prescription drugs can be switched by insurance companies  03/08/2011

Doctors and patients would have more power in deciding whether pharmacy benefit managers can switch prescriptions, according to a bill heard by the Missouri Senate Health Committee.

Former legislative staff member Tracy Joyce says she is the reason Columbia Republican Senator Kurt Schaefer's bill started.

Joyce fell years ago and tore her rotator cuff. When she went to get a refill of her medication one day, a pharmacist said her insurance coverage had switched her medication from drugs to step therapy.

Joyce said, "I was all for this until I said, 'Well, what are you talking about as far as the medications?' And they basically said Advil and Aleve. And I said, 'No, I have a history of ulcers...I have a history of bleeding ulcers.'"

CVS Caremark spokeswoman Lauren Rowley opposes the bill. She says even now, no prescription can be switched to anything other than a generic drug without consent from the patient's physician.

Rowley said, "If the doctor says no, then the drug that is going to be dispensed to you is the one that was originally written. If the doctor says yes, then the drug can be dispensed. We also followed up you have to approve it as well. As an individual, you can agree to the switch."

This process was not fast enough for American Cancer Society's Government Relations Director Misty Snodgrass. Snodgrass says when she went to refill her daughter's respiratory virus script, the pharmacy told her the drug no longer was approved.

"And, after five hours later of them trying to talk to the physicians, them trying to talk to the pharmacists, and trying to get someone on the line at Express Scripts, I finally just said, 'Look, I'm paying for the drug. My daughter cannot breathe.'"

The committee says it most likely will vote on the legislation later this week.

Get the radio stories here.

10-year-old Sean LaRochelle sat quietly while his father, Matt LaRochelle testified during a public hearing Wednesday.

According to his father, because of Sean's severe autism this feat would have been nearly impossible four years ago, prior to his family's ownership of Cady, Sean's service dog.

"I would have to be chasing him out of the room, or down the hall," said Matt LaRochelle.

Without the assistance of Cady, Mat LaRochelle said their family would be essentially home-bound.

"If we were to go into a store and I tried to write a check, he's going to walk away. If he sees a puddle, if he sees a bird or something like that, the awareness to know that crossing a street with oncoming traffic is going to be a dangerous activity is not there," said LaRochelle.

It is in support of Sean LaRochelle and others who have attained new levels of freedom due to their use of a service dog, that witnesses testified in support of a bill - suitably named "Sean's Law."

"The House Special Standing Committee on Disability Services heard the bill, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, which will extend the right to use service animals in places where the public is invited currently afforded only to those with physical, visual, and hearing disabilities, to those with mental disabilities as well.

The auditor's request for $300,000 for a collective analysis of the top-spending state agencies was heard by the Senate Financial Committee on Wednesday.

State Auditor Tom Schweich was not in attendance at the hearing.

Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto said Schweich would concentrate the analysis on a department’s “best practices.”

“It’s often said the auditor goes in and counts the dead and bayonets the wounded,” Otto said.

Otto said, “The reluctance of some agencies to admit us or let us perform this type of audit is why we think the statute is necessary. ... We’d encourage the [agencies] that weren’t doing the best to adopt the practices of those that are.”

The idea is to find agencies that are efficient and suggest those practices to the others.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who is sponsoring the bill, announced the top spending agencies. The top three spending agencies are:

The governor would no longer be able to charge his travel expenses to other state agencies under new bill language introduced by the House Budget Committee Monday.

Since elected, the governor has billed around $400,000 in travel expenses to other departments. The new bill language would prohibit this practice for the governor's office, as well as other statewide elected officials.

The bill language appears on every state appropriation bill except for the Department of Public Safety, which provides security for the governor, and the offices of the elected officials.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans spoke up to oppose the changes.

The governor's office was not immediately available for comment.