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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of March 14, 2011

Pro-gun sentiments surrounded Missouri's House as they passed a package of six bills relaxing regulations on firearms.

One of the most debated bills would lower the legal age to carry a concealed firearm from 23 to 21.

St. Louis County Democrat Jill Schupp opposes legislation that puts more guns in the public's hands.

"Why we think 21 year olds should not be able to serve on the board of curators and yet, we think it is okay for them to carry a gun with them makes no sense to me."

Another part of package would allow non-elected staff members to carry concealed weapons in the state Capitol. Elected officials already have this right.

Callaway County Republican Representative Jeannie Riddle sponsored the bills. She says staff members should have the same rights as the lawmakers they work for.

"This bill deals with law abiding citizens to protect their God-given, constitution-guaranteed right."

The bills now move to the senate.

23,000 Missourians still don't know whether they will see an unemployment check after April 3rd.

The senate adjourned for break without voting on a plan to accept $81 Million in federal money to extend benefits from 79 to 99 weeks.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, says he will continue to fillibuster the bill if it is brought back up because he says it is wrong for the federal government to send borrowed money to the states.

He says he's been getting more calls from people in other states than in Missouri.

"They're afraid that their state legislatures, you know, might get the same idea and it would affect them. My office responding to them is saying, well what the senator is doing in Missouri doesn't affect you in Pennsylvania," Lembke said.

Republican Senate leader Rob Mayer says he would have liked to see a vote on the plan before the break.

"A few senators shouldn't hold up the progress of what's going on here and so if we have to use stronger measures we'll use stronger measures," Mayer said.

The House Retirement Committee heard a bill that would increase the amount St. Louis police officers pay to their pensions. The increase would be two percent, for a total of nine percent of salaries.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Leara R-St. Louis said this bill keeps the formula for pension the same, but increase the amount police department members pay to their retirement plans. Lear says police officers and political parties are in somewhat of an agreement with this bill, but the process will take time.

“I would like to say that we wanted to begin this process, we didn’t expect to complete this today, we just wanted to begin this and hear what the Police Board had to say.”

Executive Director Steve Olish of St Louis’ Police Retirement System said the pension needs to be sustained, seeing as members of the police department do not receive social security.

“ I think it is important to understand that St. Louis police officers are not covered by social security. They have their pension and that’s it.

Olish says some member organizations, such as the Police Officers Association and the Police Leadership, came together to agree on this bill.

David McKracken, a registered lobbyist for St. Louis Police Officers Association said he needs to see a financial statement of this bill before a decision is reached.

“We have not taken official position on this bill yet, we may or may not.”

The bill needs committee approval before it goes to the House.

According to a bill passed by the Missouri House, women no longer would be able to get an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a second doctor approves the procedure.

Additionally, doctors may be fined if they perform the late-term procedure without a second opinion.

Republican Majority Floor Leader and bill sponsor Tim Jones said a fetus is viable at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

He said, "And it is a child, it's not a fetus, it's not a section of cells, it's a life. If we're going to start talking about the health and the welfare of the mother and all that, let's talk about the health and the welfare of the other life."

Republican representative John McCaherty said it is important to remember the restrictions of the bill apply only to women who are over 20 weeks pregnant.

"At five months, my goodness, if you can't make a decision in five months, then there's more of a problem there than just the will to have an abortion," McCaherty said.

Some opponents of the bill argued it may be difficult for women of rural areas to access a second doctor, especially in the event of a medical emergency.

Others, like Democratic Representative Tishuara Jones, spoke in opposition of any government control over a woman's decision.

"Get your hands out of my belly. Get them out, because this bill criminalizes the doctor-patient relationship, and it tells women what to do with their bodies and their children," she said.

Because the bill and its substitute passed with majority votes, the measure now will go to Senate committees for debate.

Two bills introduced in a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday could decide whether or not Missouri will have a Second Injury Fund under the state's workers' compensation system.

The Second Injury Fund is a state program that provides benefits to an injured worker when a current work-related injury combines with a prior disability to create an increased combined disability.

If the program ended tomorrow, the state would still have $920 million in obligations to people who have qualified to receive the benefits.

"We are faced with a scenario where these obligations will need to be met," said sponsor of the two bills, Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. "This is a very real, very pressing and time sensitive issue that requires a solution. Senate bills 430 and 420 offer two possible solutions to this problem."

One proposed solution, SB 420, would completely dissolve the Second Injury Fund. A different solution, proposed in SB 430, would institute a different funding policy to help bolster the system. The proposed bills would make employers pay an increased premium.

Richard Moore spoke on behalf of Missouri's Chamber of Commerce. Moore cited that 28,000 cases have been filed in the Second Injury Fund, and 700 more cases are filed every month.

"The Second Injury Fund is a broken system. As a result of that broken system, the fund is bankrupt," Moore said.

Moore said this would not be an easy decision for the Chamber, and that it wouldn't be a popular one among Missouri employers.

"I am confident that if the Legislature does not act this year, the awards that have been adjudicated will be ordered to be paid for by employers," Moore said.

A resounding theme during the hearing was that something needs to be done to fix the fund. Witnesses differed was on whether or not to completely eliminate the fund, or to align it with the surcharges.

"There are no good solutions to this," Moore said. Moore also said that closing the fund would not likely be politically feasible.

Phil Hess testified on behalf of Missouri Trials Attorneys and supported SB 430 and the fiscal fix it offers.

"If you terminate the fund tomorrow, they are broke today," Hess said. "There is still not enough money to deal with the 27,000. The only way out is a fiscal fix."

Ray McCarty from Associated Industries of Missouri, however, said the fund should be closed. McCarty said the solutions were still a bit premature, but does not support any new assessments.

A bill that would tighten rate regulations and add consumer protections to the state's payday loan industry defeated a similar, but more restrictive bill, in a House committee Wednesday.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, developed the legislation in a bipartisan committee last summer. The other bill was drawn up by Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, but her bill was defeated by a 11-5 vote in the House Financial Institutions Committee.

The stark difference between the bills is that Still's would cut the annual percentage rate charged by payday loan companies to 36 percent, which is less than a tenth of the current average, while Brandom's bill would cap it at 1,564 percent.

The current average APR for the loans in Missouri is 444.61 percent, according to a report by the Missouri Division of Finance.

Brandem's bill was passed out of committee by a 13-3 vote. It will move next to the House Rules Committee

JEFFERSON CITY -- With signs reading "Keep your paws off our laws" and "When did Missouri stop being a democracy?" Proposition B supporters rallied at the state Capitol Wednesday to ensure their voices are being heard.

The protest and petition came in response to efforts under way in the Senate and House to repeal some of the mandates included in November's controversial "Puppy Mill Initiative."

On March 10, the Senate endorsed the legislation with a vote of 20-14 that would lift the 50-dog restriction and larger cage requirements imposed by the initiative.

Lawmakers who support the bill maintain that voters were confused about the effects the proposition would have on dog breeders.

According to Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, it left a lot to be desired. He said his piece of legislation would protect the rights of breeding dogs within shelters.

Lawmakers who support the bill maintain that voters were confused about the effects the proposition would have on dog breeders.

Opponents of the bill, including the Humane Society of the United States and Missourians for the Protection of Dogs, argue that voters expressed their views at the polls.

With Republican support, the House Downsizing State Government Committee passed a bill that would grant the state auditor additional fund to conduct a comparative audit over Missouri's top spending agencies. The committee approved the bill in a 9-5 vote, with every Democrat present voting against the proposal.

At a press conference last month, State Auditor Tom Schweich, backed by Republicans in both the House and Senate, proposed the legislation and said the audit would be used to analyze the "best practices" of each agency and spread these efficiencies to the other agencies in the audit. Schweich also said any money spent on the audit would be recouped from government savings once the new practices were in place.

"We will look at the best practices of up to 10 of the biggest state agencies, determine what those best practices are...and then issue a report on recommendations of how agencies can comport to these recommendations," Schweich said at the press conference. "We hope that this will save the state, literally, millions of dollars."

Democratic Floor Leader Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County, who has questioned the auditor's motives for the request in the past, said he believes the auditor's office already has the power to conduct the audit and is therefore only asking for the funds because of budget cuts.

"The fact of the matter is, as legislators we have to determine what to spend the money on," Talboy said. "If you have the ability to do [the audit] already then there is only one reason for the legislation, and it's to get the money that they've spent knowing they were going to get cut."

If the General Assembly passes the bill, Schweich would have to finish the audit and report his findings to the assembly by Aug. 28, 2013.

Protesters walked through the halls of the Capitol Wednesday, in protest of SB 113. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mike Parson, would repeal some of the provision of prop B.

The protesters want the results of the November election to be upheld. They say the bill gives dog breeders too much power.

Parson says the bill would not endanger animals, instead he says the bill actually improves upon prop B.

The protesters talked to several lawmakers, hoping to encourage them to vote against the bill.

Public voices support for expanding charter schools geographically and academically in Missouri.

The Senate Education Committee hears testimony for the expansion of charter school programs throughout the state. Currently, charter schools can only be started in St. Louis City and Kansas City school districts. Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, sponsored a bill, which would allow local school districts to sponsor charter schools across the state.

"This gives districts a lot more flexibility," Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, said.

Pearce's bill also has provisions for greater accountability for charter schools amid concerns that these schools are not performing in St. Louis.

"We like the accountability for public money," Mike Reid of Missouri School Board's Association said.

The Highway Patrol would be forced to check the citizenship status of sexual offenders under a bill given first-round approval by Missouri's House.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, requires the Highway Patrol to check citizenship status for people on the official sexual offender registry. Under the bill, if the sexual offender is determined to be an illegal immigrant then the Highway Patrol must turn them over to the federal government to begin a deportation process.

Currently, there is no statute in place requiring the state police to check the citizenship status of a sexual offender.

"We are telling the Highway Patrol how to do their job," Parkinson said.

Opponents said the bill is redundant.

Rep. Jean Peters-Baker, D-Kansas City, a former prosecutor, said local law enforcement agencies in Kansas City already determine citizenship status for sexual offenders on the official registry.

Missouri lawmakers and Ameren Missouri have not given up their plans to pursue building a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County, despite recent problems at a Japanese nuclear power plant.

Last week, a Senate committee heard testimony from both supporters and opponents of the proposed second Callaway plant just two days prior to a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan, causing three reactor explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Even though these explosions have spotlighted potential problems with nuclear plants, Ameren, the state's main utility provider, and its legislative supporters have not changed their stance on legislation dealing with plans for another nuclear plant.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, the sponsor of the bill, agreed with Eastman and said Missouri's energy future cannot be influenced by international events and that the option for nuclear power has to be left open.

"We have to continue to talk about what sources of energy we are going to get for this state," Kehoe said. "The unfortunate incident in Japan has not changed the fact that coal is a very expensive source that is under attack from various groups from A to Z, so the way we produce power in this state is, unfortunately, not going to be changed by what happens globally, and the demand for power in this state is going to continue to be there and continue to be a need that we need to address."

So far the Fukushima plant in Japan has suffered from three explosions, which have severely damaged three reactors and caused a fire in a fourth. Following last Friday's earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the Fukushima plant's cooling systems failed, causing spent fuel rods to spike in temperature, cracking the casings around the rods. Once the casings around the rods became damaged, Japanese officials believe that the rods, after coming into contact with the steam released hydrogen gas, which was then vented out of the reactors and caused the explosions.

The House heard and passed amendments to a bill that would repeal Prop B.

Then, Republican House leaders decided not to vote on the bill.

The amendments made the bill look like the one passed in the Senate last Thursday.

The sponsor of the House bill Sedalia Republican Stanley Cox says he is in favor of the senate bill and would not mind if it passed instead.

The Senate bill is now going to a House Committee which is scheduled to meet on March 29.

The Senate gave first-round approval to the bill.

That's after it approved an ammendment, which means working Missourians will no longer need to return workers' compensation benefits to employers if they sue third parties.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, says it only covers Missourians who have a disease caused by toxic exposure in the workplace.

"I want to within the workers' compensation system, narrow this gap between what it costs to just pay for your employees in workers' compensation and what it costs to provide a safer work environment," Crowell said.

Crowell and the bill's Republican sponsor spent more than an hour compromising on the amendment with hardly anyone else in the chamber.

The final vote on the bill could happen as early as Thursday.

In the middle of working through its calendar of bills, Missouri's House stopped after a St. Louis County Democrat began experiencing "chest pains."

Rep. Sylvester Taylor, D-St. Louis County, began having the chest pains around 5:20 p.m., and the House stood at ease for about 15 minutes. Emergency responders wheeled Taylor out of the House lounge on a stretcher, but the lawmaker was sitting up.

Rep. Mike Talboy, the Democratic minority leader, announced to the full House that Taylor was "stable and conscious" and was being taken to a Jefferson City hospital.

The House came back in session briefly, but adjourned until Wednesday without taking up another bill.

The House Budget Committee ended debate in record time on Missouri's 2012 budget after a mark-up session Tuesday.

This year's mark-up lasted only one hour compared to last year's which took nearly three days. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, credited the hard work of the Budget chairman, Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, and the fair process this year as the reasons the mark-up was historically brief.

"He was very professional, efficient, effective, bi-partisan and worked with people," Kelly said.

Missouri's amended $23.2 billion budget represents an overall 2.5 percent decrease from last year's budget and includes a 7 percent reduction in funds for higher education. Last year over 300 amendments were offered, but this year only 18 were brought before the committee.

The ranking member on the budget committee, Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, said "There simply is no more money" to make amendments.

A bill heard in the Senate Health Committee would implement a transition plan for people to move from habilitation institutions to community homes and apartments with caregivers.

Under the bill, habilitation institutions would be closed by the year 2018.

Parent Jackie Swinnie supports community living for all residents, even for those with severe disabilities.

Swinnie's son moved to an apartment with 24-hour care, where he lived out his 23 years.

Swinnie said, "It was like night and day. I just felt so secure, my son was so well taken care of and happy and loved all his roommates."

Despite Swinnie's support, parent Theresa Barnes disagrees that this type of setting is best for all residents. She said an institution is the only place that can handle some severe behavioral and violence problems.

Barnes said, "To me, I think of (my son) Henry, and I think of attrition, and I think of this abrupt change that he cannot handle...and he will disintegrate, and he will die."

St. Louis Republican Senator John Lamping says a plan to move residents into the community would help everyone.

He said, "What a benefit to society by getting the community involved in understanding the lives of these people, and how rewarding that would be to people in the community. It'd make it a better place to live."

The bill sponsor said average daily costs of a resident living in a community setting is far less than average daily costs of those living in institutions.

The House floor discussed a similar bill, but has not yet voted on the measure.

Missouri senators debated a measure that would change Missouri's collective bargaining rights.

The measure, termed by supporters as "right to work," would prohibit agreements between unions and employers. It would prohibit making membership or payment of union dues or fees a requirement on the basis of employment.

The debate was heard in the Senate with a full gallery of union members watching.

Democratic Representative Mike Colona presented a bill to the House Insurance Policy Committee that would allow an employee to choose a health care provider under workers' comp.

Under the current program, the employer makes that decision.

Business interest representatives spoke one after another at the hearing to demonstrate their opposition to the bill.

Colona says the bill will give employees peace of mind and add more integrity to the workers' comp program.

In the long run, he says the bill would save the workers' comp program money.

But House Insurance Policy Committee Chair Bob Nance disagrees and says he has a problem with the bill.

A Republican-backed bill is mustering yet another effort to exempt Missouri from President Barack Obama's federal health-care reforms. 

The House Rules Committee voted Monday to pass a bill to the House floor that would add Missouri to the multi-state Health Care Compact, which is pushing for state regulation of health-care. 

Regulating health-care is too complex for the federal government and should be under state jurisdiction, according to the compact.

Republican Floor Leader Tim Jones supports the bill to repeal the federal health-care reform.

"I think the states are best positioned to be in charge of their own health-care needs for their health-care populations versus the federal government doing it on a one-size-fits-all model," Jones said.

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, voted against sending the bill to be discussed in the House.

"Last time I checked, we're still supposed to abide by federal mandate," Colona said. "If the members of the state of Missouri don't want to comply with the federal mandate, then perhaps we need to elect some new congressmen, new senators and change the president; there's nothing we can do about that in Missouri General Assembly."

Missouri's House passed a bill preventing late-term abortions Monday.

The bill sponsored by Republican Floor Leader, Tim Jones, would place restrictions on physicians trying to abort a 20-week old fetus.

The bill passed by a vote of 120-37 and it now moves to the Senate.

Representative Vicki Schneider brought a bill before the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety that would make it a crime to practice medicine while under the influence of alcohol.

Paul Passanante, a medical malpractice attorney in St.Louis, supports the bill. He said, "If it's illegal to drive while intoxicated it sure ought to be illegal to perform something like surgery."

Opponent of the bill, Jeff Howell with the Missouri State Medical Association, called this particular bill "unworkable" and asked the committee to consider other options for solving this problem.

Committee chair Rep. Rodney Schad said the bill will be discussed in upcoming meetings.