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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of January 14, 2013

Gov. Jay Nixon has scheduled the special elections to fill two House vacancies -- one in a St. Louis district and the other in a southwest Missouri district -- for April 2.

Democrat Chris Carter was originally supposed to hold the 76th House District seat, but left the St. Louis seat vacant when he resigned to become a member on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

Earlier this year, Nixon appointed Republican Don Ruzicka to the Board of Probation and Parole creating a vacancy in the 157th House District, which represents most of Lawrence County.

The Republican and Democratic party committees now have two weeks to nominate candidates to run for each seat.

Republicans currently hold veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, so long as each GOP lawmaker toes the party line in the instance of a veto override. While Republicans hold 24 of 34 seats in the Senate, they only hold 109 of 163 in the House, giving them the exact number of lawmakers required to meet the two-thirds quota needed for a veto override.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order Wednesday asking Congress to take action to prohibit military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The president's action comes in the wake of the incidents in Newton, Conn. and Aurora, Colo.

Before the president was even able to speak, however, one Republican senator called on his colleagues to uphold "the rule of law" and be wary of any action coming from the federal government in regards to the Second Amendment.

"Everyone in this room, everyone in this building, in this state, in this country should watch with great anticipation and skepticism about what comes out of that process," Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said.

Schaefer's speech came after Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, introduced a bill that would make it a felony to enforce any executive order or federal law that bans the possession of a semiautomatic firearm. A similar bill nullifying any future federal gun laws was introduced in the House on Tuesday.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said she commends the president for his action on military weapons, the discussion over guns should be expanded to handguns, as well.

"Throughout this country, you have more people dieing from handguns than military weapons," Nasheed said. "In my neighborhood, we don't see the AK-47s. We see the 9 mms, the .380s, and those are guns that are actually inflicting death and destruction in our communities."

The chairman of Missouri's head utility regulatory commission said he is resigning from his post later this year.

Kevin Gunn, who was first appointed to the Missouri Public Service Commission in 2008, said Wednesday that he is stepping down as the commission's chairman on March 1. Gunn has served on the commission since his appointment by former Gov. Matt Blunt and was appointed the panel's chairman by Gov. Jay Nixon in 2011.

"I'm very proud of what we have accomplished on the Commission," Gunn said in a statement. "However, every organization can benefit from the energy and perspective of new leadership."

The Public Service Commission is responsible for regulating investor-owned utility companies that provide electric, steam, natural gas, water and sewer, and telephone services.

A Democratic motion to prohibit smoking in the offices of Missouri House members went up in flames Wednesday after a full chamber vote by the Republican-controlled chamber.

The smoking ban was defeated without a single Republican voting in favor of it. Instead the House amended the chamber's rules to allow the majority and minority caucuses to adopt their own policies regarding smoking for their individual members. Last week House Democrats announced they were adopting a policy that prohibits smoking in all offices held by the minority party.

Rep. Kimberly Gardner, D-St. Louis, proposed the smoking-ban measure as an amendment to the House rules. Gardner cited health concerns and said the ban would make the state Capitol a safe, healthy place for lawmakers and constituents.

"The only way to completely protect non-smokers is to completely eliminate smoking from indoor spaces," Gardner said.

Gardner presented the same measure before the House Rules Committee on Tuesday, but it was defeated by an 8-4 vote along party lines.  

Smoking is already banned in House and Senate chambers, as well as the Capitol's hallways. Lawmakers, however, are allowed to smoke or permit smoking in their offices if they choose.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, has filed a bill to grant tax credits to sports commissions, cities and counties in order to attract more amateur sporting events to Missouri.

The tax credit would be the lesser of $5 per admission ticket or 100 percent of eligible expenses incurred while attempting to attract the events. There is a $3 million yearly limit to the tax credits.

A similar bill failed to pass in the General Assembly the last two years. However, Chuck Purgason and Jason Crowell, two former Senators who were instrumental to blocking the bill last year, have termed out.

Schmitt said the current version of the bill is an improvement over the previous versions.

"It gets at what we're really trying to get at. Bringing these events to our state, to generate revenue, not just for the state, but also those businesses that support these kind of events," Schmitt said.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said bringing these events back to Missouri is one of the major priorities of this legislative session.

 Republican leaders in the House and Senate have both said cutting back on tax credits is a goal for this legislative session.

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With speculation heating up that Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder could soon be headed to Congress, Democrats joined Republicans on Tuesday to advance a measure that would require a special election to replace any statewide official who vacates their office.

Kinder is one of 17 candidates who has expressed interest in running to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican who represents southeastern Missouri. Just weeks after she was re-elected in November, Emerson announced that she will resign from the House of Representatives to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Republican lawmakers insist that state law already would require the governor to call for a special election to replace Kinder. But Nixon has said that the state Constitution gives him the authority to appoint someone to fill out the rest of Kinder's current term, which officially began on Monday.

Members of a House elections panel voted 11-1 on Tuesday to move forward a bill that seems to be a middle ground between the two positions. The bill could debated by the full House as soon as next week.

President Barack Obama is expected to ask Congress to tighten federal gun laws after last month's deadly school shooting in Connecticut. But at least one state lawmaker says those new rules shouldn't apply to Missouri.

State Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, has filed legislation that would make it a felony for any government official to enforce federal gun laws restricting semi-automatic weapons and ammunition.

"We've seen a lot of discussion over the last few months about the possibility of banning both guns and ammunition on the part of the federal government," Guernsey said Tuesday. "And this puts Missouri in a great position to defend ourselves as a state against the coming encroachment of that Second Amendment to keep and bear arms."

House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, said he opposes Guernsey's bill. He said Missouri should instead. increase background checks on gun buyers.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon was officially sworn in for his second term Monday, using his second inaugural address to call for cooperation among state lawmakers.

Nixon's relatively short speech focused more on Missouri's past and less on his legislative plans for the next four years, earning him the ire of one Republican senator.

Before Nixon had finished his speech, Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis, criticized the speech by tweeting: "Say nothing speech from a do nothing Governor; business as usual in Jefferson City."

"I think my tweet says it all," Lamping said later in an interview. "The Senate is ready to go. So we're looking to step forward and move quickly and decisively ... that wasn't exactly a rousing sendoff in that direction."

Not all Republicans found Nixon's speech to be short on substance, however. Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said he thinks Nixon will use his State of the State address on Jan. 28 to present a more issue-focused speech.

"I think (the inaugural address) was putting his best foot forward, reaching his hand out and recognizing that there's a Republican majority and we need to work together," Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said.

Last week, Missouri's Chief Supreme Court Justice Richard Teitleman gave House members the wrong oath of office.

Teitleman told members to swear support the government instead of the Constitution.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith, R-Salem, said it was a simple mistake but an important one to correct.

"When you swear to government it's bureaucracy and all of the different laws," Smith said. "The Constitution is what the people made, and what founded our country and founded our state."

Smith said the change was only ceremonial because the documents the House members signed contained the correct language.

Although he's just finished his first day in office, Missouri's new Secretary of State said he already has big plans.

Democrat Jason Kander, who was sworn in Monday, said he wants to clean up the state's elections and make it easier for Missourians to cast ballots. 

"There's a lot of things we can do in this state," Kander said. "Whether it be banning those gifts from lobbyists to legislators or getting rid of the money laundering process that exists in state politics by political action committees being able to wash money back and forth."

Kander said the state should have "no excuse" absentee voting, allowing people to vote absentee for any reason -- or no reason at all -- could shorten lines on Election Day and make it easier to cast a ballot.

Missouri's Second Injury Fund was once again declared insolvent Friday when the state auditor's office issued a report stating the fund does not have enough money to make up for unpaid obligations.

"The fund is currently insolvent, with unpaid liabilities totaling over $28.1 million, and no means to pay the benefits required by statute," according to the report issued by State Auditor Tom Schweich and his staff.

The fund had $3.1 million as of Dec. 31, 2012, leaving it with a deficit of $24.9 million. Schweich said it would take increasing the current 3 percent surcharge to 7 percent for one year and then be reduced to 5 percent in subsequent years to pay the fund's obligations.

The fund was created in 1943 to entice employers to hire workers with preexisting injuries, including veterans of World War II. It provides benefits to workers with preexisting injuries and covers any additional injuries these workers sustain while on the job. Money for the fund is produced by a surcharge placed on employers' workers' compensation insurance premiums.

The most recent report, as well as a 2007 audit, attribute the fund's insolvency to a 2005 law that capped the surcharge at 3 percent.

The report calls on the governor and General Assembly to "work together" to determine what to do with the fund.

Schweich said there are three ways state lawmakers could address the fund's insolvency: increase premiums to 7 percent, a combination of increasing premiums and reducing payouts, or eliminating the fund altogether.

Schweich said he and his staff conducted the report during the past month at the request of the attorney general's office, which is in charge of the overseeing the fund.

Missouri needs to decide whether or not to expand Medicaid to cover anyone under 133 percent of the federal poverty line instead of the current 18 percent mark for most adults.

The federal government would pay 100 percent of the financial burden imposed by Medicaid expansion for the first three years, but starting after the initial grace period, Missouri would start to become responsible for some of the cost.

Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday that since elections are over, it's time for real debate about the issue.

"It was just are you for it or against it," Nixon said. "Elections are over, and now the depth of analysis that has to come to get to public policy decisions is beginning."

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, said the federal government cannot be trusted to keep its promise because of how much debt it is already in.

Nixon said Missourians would benefit by Medicaid expansion because they would get their taxes back.

"I think the Missourians that pay $1.8 billion of their taxes and send it to Washington are much more interested in those being expended here, in the Show-Me State, than they are to provide health care for folks in New York or California," Nixon said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder has expressed interest in running for Missouri's 8th U.S. House District.

If he wins, he would leave the lieutenant governor's office, causing lawmakers to speculate on how the position would be filled. Democrats, including Gov. Jay Nixon, say the vacancy should be filled by a gubernatorial appointment, citing a section of the state Constitution that allows the governor to "fill all vacancies in public offices unless otherwise provided by law."

"The two times in recent history where that position has become open for reasons...the governor has appointed lieutenant governor," Nixon said Thursday, referencing two past instances where Missouri's governor has filled a vacancy in the lieutenant governor's office.

One such instance occurred in 2000 when Jean Carnahan was appointed as lieutenant governor after former Gov. Mel Carnahan's death.

Republicans, however, are citing a different section of state statute that seems to exempt a vacancy in the lieutenant governor's office from being filled by the governor.

On the opening day of the 2013 session both Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, and House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said they would prefer a special election should Kinder vacate the office. Dempsey and Jones also said that lawmakers need to work to clarify state statute regarding this issue.

House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, said the only reason Republicans want a special election is because they think Nixon will appoint a fellow Democrat.

"If the governor was a Republican, I don't think we would even be having this discussion," Hummel said Wednesday.

The Missouri General Assembly convened Wednesday for the first day of the 2013 legislative session, which goes until May 17.

Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate opened the session by promoting their priorities for the session, which focus around education funding and economic development.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, used the acronym BIG to summarize his overall objective during this session. This includes building infrastructure, investing in technology, and growing the economy.

Dempsey said improving infrastructure, such as the state's transportation system, would bring more revenue to the state.

"As you look at us geographically on a map -- Missouri being in the center of the country -- we should be a hub for the movement of goods and services and we need to have an infrastructure system that can handle that activity," Dempsey said.

The House agenda, presented by Speaker Tim Jones, R-St. Louis, largely echoed Dempsey's proposals. While Jones agreed with Dempsey that the 97th General Assembly should work on economic development and education funding, he also included improving Missouri's energy policy as a legislative priority.

Dempsey and Jones both said lowering income taxes and fostering a pro-business environment would be a better method to grow the economy instead of raising taxes. Both of the Republican leaders said they wanted to address the state's workers' compensation laws and 61 tax credit programs.

"We're going to be looking to create jobs as best we can," Jones said. "Government will not create them, but the government will look at what it can do to facilitate that and to remove barriers to innovation and reform."

Republicans hold 24 of 34 Senate seats and 109 of 163 House seats, giving them veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Two seats in the House are currently vacant.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan presided of the House for the last time. Jason Kander, a former state representative, will replace Carnahan as Secretary of State during the state's inauguration on Monday.