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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of October 27, 2014

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, said he will create a special committee to investigate alleged bribes to Attorney General Chris Koster's office after a New York Times report.

The New York Times report accused Koster of dropping the investigations of several companies in return for campaign contributions. Koster said in a statement Wednesday the contributions to his campaign did not influence his decisions to pull out of the investigations. Koster, a Democrat, is expected to run for governor in 2016.

"This Attorney General’s office has consistently protected Missouri consumers from fraud, regardless of the identity of those responsible," Koster stated in the news release.

Koster blasted The New York Times article in the release, saying that it, "misrepresents the facts, distorting events to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists."

Despite numerous attempts to reach out to Koster's office, it has given no comment on the story.

The New York Times reported Koster directed his office to halt further actions into the investigation of 5-Hour Energy because of deceptive advertising. The lawyer for 5-Hour Energy approached Koster about dropping the lawsuit in exchange for political contributions, according to The New York Times article.

Missouri's attorney general issued a statement late Wednesday in reaction to a New York Times story connecting campaign contributions with Koster's decisions to drop investigations involving the contributors.

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Tim Jones told MDN he would appoint a special committee to investigate the allegations.

The Times' story examined financial contributions funneled to various state attorneys general by companies that were under investigation or litigation by the states.

Koster charged The New York Times story  "missrepresents the facts, distorting events to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists."

The newspaper's story made Koster a major figure in a national investigation into the campaign contributions and other financial benefits provided by companies to the chief legal officials of various states involved in litigation or potential litigation against the companies.

Except for issuing a prepared statement, Koster did not return calls for a response.

While studying to become a veterinarian, all students learn about Ebola in various settings, said David Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Kirkpatrick said it's part of the curriculum.

"Veterinarians receive extensive knowledge in veterinary school about zoonotic diseases," Kirkpatrick said. "Of which Ebola is one."

This means that it can be transferred to people from animals.

"Their educational level regarding zoonotic diseases certainly makes them experts," Kirkpatrick said.

Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla said he learned about Ebola when he was in vet school.

"When I was in veterinary school we did a study on Ebola and its transmission," Brown said.

House Speaker Tim Jones said Wednesday he will use his remaining two months in office to form and start the process of investigating what he calls the "pay-to-play scheme" involving Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster.

This comes after the New York Times published a story late Tuesday night featuring Koster and other Attorneys General in a lengthy report on lobbying spending for chief lawyers of the states that have issues with the way the energy drink company Five Hour Energy was advertising their product.

The report says the lawyer for Five Hour Energy approached Koster about dropping the lawsuit in exchange for political contributions.

Soon after that, the story says Koster called his office and had his staff drop the state's lawsuit against the company.

Jones says this is an outrageous abuse of power.

"It's one of the most dramatic and massive abuses of power I think we've seen in this state in decades," Jones said.

Jones later added he will set up an investigative committee to look at the Times' allegations.

"I believe we're going to look into setting up an investigatory committee as we've done on other issues," Jones said. "I will set that up."

Jones is barred from running for reelection because of term limits, but he said he hopes Speaker-elect John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, will proceed with the investigation.

On primary election night while many politicians and other groups were celebrating victories, there was one group that was dealing with the bitterness of defeat.

Those folks were part of the many groups pushing for Missourians to approve a new constitutional amendment that would've raised the state sales and use tax by three-quarters of a cent over 10 years.

Proponents of the measure said it would've raised $5.4 billion for transportation projects around the state.

MoDOT Director Dave Nichols said despite the defeat, MoDOT has already been downsizing.

"We had been preparing for a smaller program for many, many years, and that's really the mode we were in before the election and it's the mode that we're in right now," Nichols said.

Currently, MoDOT gets 50 percent of their state funding through a 17 cent per gallon fuel tax, 25 percent through sales taxes when a person buys a vehicle, and another 25 percent through registration fees on vehicles and driver's licenses.

However, Nichols says the funding issue isn't the legislature's fault.

"The funding issue that we're having right now is not a result of the legislature doing any manipulation with our budget," Nichols said. "The issue is we haven't had a funding increase for transportation in our state since 1992 and we can't keep up with the cost of building projects and the fact that our revenues are declining because vehicles are more fuel efficient and people are driving less."

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, is the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

He says he is working to solve the funding crisis.

"I would say there's not a day that goes by where I'm not talking about it or discussing it with constituents," Kehoe said. "There are discussions every day, ideas floating around."

No more specific proposals have been put forward by MoDOT or lawmakers yet, but Nichols said he and his colleagues will have meetings with lawmakers over the next few months to determine a path forward.

The Board of Education has been under fire for moving too fast with the hiring of a new commissioner to take over for Chris Nicastro after she steps down.

The board announced a longer selection process that will run through the end of the year.

They will accept applications as well as recommendations from the public about what they would like to see considered by the board in the evaluation process until Nov. 21.

According to a news release, the most qualified applicants will be notified and invited to interview with the board. The process will end with a vote of approval from the board who says they would like to see a new commissioner approved by Dec. 31.

Lawmakers heavily criticized the outgoing commissioner for her handling of the state's unaccredited school districts. 

Parents and educators from across Missouri voiced opposition to national Common Core standards during a Missouri Education Board meeting Monday.

After a House bill prohibiting the implementation of Common Core passed during the legislative session, the state Education Department was required to create new Missouri public education standards in response.

Some parents and teachers fear the state will adopt standards like Common Core and that it could be detrimental to public education.

"I beg you, consider non-Common Core standards when you're considering all of the Common Core standards that are clearly going to be put back in front of you and I beg you to reconsider this rigorous testing that is destroying children across the state of Missouri," parent Jessica Boyster said to the board.

Retired educator Pam Hedgpeth said the move toward Common Core is purely political.

"It's really tough because there's a strong political agenda driving this force," Hedgpeth said. "And that political agenda often times is not representing the 75 percent of teachers across the state that think the current standards we have make a lot of sense for kids."

But St. Louis resident Robert Miller said Common Core standards in language arts and math help prepare students for college readiness exams like the ACT and SAT.

Moving forward, Missouri Education Board President Peter Herschend said he will look into some concerns raised by public commentary.

He also said work groups for different subject areas like math and social studies will continue to create the new standards.

The Missouri State Employees Retirement System, or MOSERS, announced Monday the program will allow same-sex couples to receive benefits if they were married in other states.

State Treasurer Clint Zweifel made the motion to change the existing law during a meeting of the MOSERS Board of Trustees and praised the decision in a statement released Monday afternoon.

"The tide of history and the march towards equality must not be ignored," Zweifel said. "In order for Missouri to move forward, we must show the world we stand for inclusion and equality for everyone."

The vote was made during a closed meeting of the board Monday morning. It's unclear how other members of committee voted.

Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Matt Wills said the decision by Zweifel is an attempt to stay relevant.

According to a spokeswoman for MOSERS, the decision will go into effect after November 13.

An early-voting amendment would give Missourians six business days prior to Election Day to cast their ballot, not including weekends.

Amendment 6 would cost about $2 million initially and an additional $100,000 for each general election according to the Secretary of State website.

Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, called the amendment a sham.

"This is actually a bogus early voting amendment," she said.

Newman said an earlier proposal provided for voters' actual needs, starting early voting three weeks prior to election day and allowing for weekend voting.

But Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said these voters already have options.

"There are reasonable accommodations that have been made," Pearce said, such as absentee voting.

Currently, Missouri law allows certain elections to be held entirely by mail and requires an excuse for absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website.

Missouri is one of 14 states without early voting. Of the 33 states that allow early voting, the average starting time is 22 days before the election. Twelve states require early voting for at least one weekend day prior to the election.

An energy efficiency survey ranked Missouri 44th in the country compared to 43rd the previous year. 

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released the report, which shows utility policies carry 40 percent of the weight when deciding where the states rank.

A Missouri law allows utilities, owned by investors, to earn credit from efficiency programs giving them motivation to become more energy efficient while making a profit.

The option to opt out of utility efficiency programs also hurt the state's ranking. The Missouri Energy Efficiency Investment Act offers rebates and discounts on energy-efficient lighting and air conditioners but large energy consumers can opt out of the program.

A proposed amendment has critics worried the state of Missouri will start passing unbalanced budgets.

Amendment 10, which is on the Nov. 4 election ballot, would allow lawmakers to overturn a governor's withholding, much like the power they already have to overturn line-item vetoes. In a Missouri Supreme Court case, Gov. Jay Nixon was given broad and unrestrained powers to restrict legislative spending.

The Missouri legislature overrode 47 vetoes in September, only to have the governor block funding for all 47 measures two days later. The governor's withholding authority aims to prevent deficit spending without voter approval and to make sure that is enforced, state laws give the governor broad powers to block the release of money appropriated for state programs.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said with the approval of the amendment, balancing the budget would be harder to do.

"The way it changes for the people of Missouri is that it makes an unbalanced budget much, much more likely," Kelly said. "It changes it for the General Assembly because it gives the General Assembly the opportunity to override the governor's withholds. But, the governor's withholds mechanism is the way that we in Missouri ensure a balanced budget, we have done so for many years."

He said the "governor's withhold mechanism" is a tool that has "kept the Missouri budget balanced and it's foolish to risk that for short term partisan gain."

Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Clay County, said it's the governor's abuse of his power that is causing the need for an improved system of check and balances.

"Our current governor has taken the powers that he needs to have, as far as he needs to be able to control the budget, and he has taken those powers and used them strictly for a tool of political necessity and means," Berry said. "If he had been like our previous governors, who sometimes walked over the line also but were much closer to the line, and didn't use the withholds as a weapon, I don't think we would even be having this discussion. But, our current governor has used withholds not as a budget necessity but as a budget weapon."

The president of the Missouri National Education Association sent a letter to the State Board of Education calling for an open process when selecting the new commissioner of education after reports of a new leader being chosen in private.

Missouri NEA President Charles Smith would like the parents, school board members, and the communities at large to have an opportunity to voice their opinions on the next commissioner.

"From the custodian to the cafeteria worker," Smith said. "Each one has something good and valuable to contribute to the conversation."

Smith's letter is in response to reports that a new commissioner will be announced at the school board meeting next week.

This would be 37 days after current Commissioner Chris Nicastro announced her plans for retirement at the end of the year.

Nicastro's retirement was announced amid criticism for her handling of unaccredited school districts.

Public school teachers across the state would be affected if the teacher tenure amendment passes in November.

Amendment 3 would effectively get rid of traditional teacher tenure in favor of performance evaluations.

This amendment would also restrict teachers from collectively bargaining about these evaluations and would limit teacher contracts to three years or less.

Missouri National Education Association Chief Lobbyist Otto Fajen is a part of the Protect Our Local School coalition opposing the amendment.

He said these performance evaluations, which take into account student achievement, are the wrong approach to education.

"We want to make sure that teachers and districts are able to work with students as individuals," Fajen said. "We need to make sure that, you know, we can do that to help our students become good thinkers and frankly not just good test-takers."

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, supports the amendment and said that it is a good approach to reward the best teachers.

"I think it will result in a clearer recognition of the teachers that are doing the best job," Emery said.

A public forum led by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, questioned whether Missouri is prepared to handle an Ebola case.

It quickly descended into Schaefer and other senators challenging Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling.

"In this whole [Ebola] thing, it's like 'Oh, we relied on this guy to take this call. We relied on that person over there,'" Schaefer said. "And this is what I'm hearing from constituents is there doesn't appear to be a chain of command here where someone says 'By golly, that's my job. I'm the person in that position and I'm going to set those protocols.'"

"No one is willing to step up to the plate and say that," Schaefer added later.

Schaefer also asked Vasterling where hazardous Ebola waste would go should there be a case in Missouri.

"We do not have a facility in the state of Missouri," Vasterling said. "We would have to find a facility outside the state of Missouri."

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, questioned Vasterling on whether Gov. Jay Nixon has had Cabinet-level meetings on Ebola.

"No, but I have talked with him about it," Vasterling said. She also said the last Cabinet meeting "may have been before [Ebola] was an issue."

Schaefer also referenced Vasterling's lack of medical background.

"Do you have any scientific background?" Schaefer asked. "No," Vasterling said.

Schaefer then questioned the decisions Vasterling made in regards to Ebola.

"When you make determinations of what should be done, you're not making necessarily your own determinations," Schaefer said. "You're relying on the scientific or medical opinion of someone else, correct?"

"Yes," Vasterling said.

Schaefer said after the forum that any future health department director should probably have a medical background.

"When you have decisions that are this serious, I would rather rely on the judgment of someone trained in either the scientific or medical field to be making the determination than someone who is just simply interpreting information that's given to them," Schaefer said. "I think that maybe we should look at a statutory change that the Director of the Department of Health should be someone with either a medical background or a scientific background."

Gov. Jay Nixon announced a Ferguson commission in a speech Tuesday.

The commission will study the causes leading to Ferguson's civil unrest following Michael Brown's death.

Nixon asked how St. Louis would move forward following "73 days of civil unrest."

"I think of the mother of an African-American teenager, as she kisses him goodbye each morning, hands him his backpack and watches him head off to school, knowing that he might never come home again. She lives with that fear every day," Nixon said. "I think about the wife of a cop, as she kisses her husband goodbye, hands him a cup of coffee and watches him drive off to work, knowing he might never come home again. She lives with that fear every day."

The commission will study the social and economic conditions leading to the unrest in Ferguson, hear from experts to "address the concerns identified by the Commission," and "offer specific recommendations," Nixon said.

Nixon noted that the commission will not be investigating Brown's death or the facts surrounding it and said he plans to announce commission members in early November.

Criminal history could become admissible evidence in child sex crime cases if Missouri voters pass a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Rep. John McCaherty, R-St. Louis County, sponsored the 2013 joint resolution after a constituent told him her daughter was abused.

"The man had actually groomed this young lady for sexual abuse," McCaherty said. "The prosecutor determined that there wasn't enough evidence of the actual act without [prior history] to be able to prosecute."

Critics argue the amendment could prevent individuals from receiving a fair trial, citing criminal history as prejudicial evidence.

"They very well could be allegations from a disgruntled ex-spouse or a whole number of people," said Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis City, who voted against the bill in 2013. "I just think it deprives the individual of a fair and balanced trial."

Criminal history was admissible evidence in these cases prior to a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court case.

It is still admissible in federal child sex abuse cases and in 30 states.

On Friday Stericycle, Inc. which owns and operates a hazardous waste facility in north St. Louis, issued a statement saying that its St. Louis facility would not "accept, store or treat Ebola-contaminated waste."

According to the statement, issued by the company's Lake Forest, Ill. headquarters, Stericycle had reached an agreement with Attorney General Chris Koster.

"Should healthcare facilities in Missouri encounter a suspected or confirmed Ebola case, Stericycle will be available to work with these facilities to find other disposal options," according to the statement.

The night before, Koster had filed a petition that would stop the Stericycle facility from receiving Ebola-infected material.

Koster's petition came after Stericycle received a federal permit from the U.S. Department of Transportation allowing it to transfer Ebola-infected materials from Texas.

However, the permit required Stericycle to transfer materials to the "nearest appropriate disposal facility available at the time," and Stericycle operates several hazardous waste facilities in Texas.

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