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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of September 7, 2015

Labor issues and a business tax cut will be among the issues before Missouri's General Assembly when it convenes at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 16, to consider bills vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Before state lawmakers will be 16 bills vetoed by the governor earlier this year. Several likely will not be brought up for a vote since they did not pass with the two-thirds majority that would be necessary in each chamber to override a veto.

The two labor bills vetoed by the governor have gotten the greatest attention with statewide campaigns for and against an override.

One bill would lower the number of weeks a person out of work could get unemployment compensation during periods when the state has a high rate of employment.

Under current law, a worker who has lost his or her job is eligible for up to 20 weeks of unemployment compensation.

The vetoed measure would reduce the number of weeks if the state's unemployment rate fell below nine percent.

One week of eligibility would be removed for each one-half percentage point below nine percent with a floor of 13 weeks if the unemployment rate is below six percent.

Missouri's Labor Department reports the unemployment rate was at 5.8 percent for the month of August -- which would mean a reduction in unemployment compensation benefits from 20 weeks to 13 weeks.

In August, more than 4,000 unemployed workers received the benefits.

The House overrode the governor's veto during the regular session in May.

However, Senate leaders chose not to shut off a Democratic filibuster to force a vote to override the unemployment compensation veto.

When the legislature adjourned without taking a vote, Nixon promptly declared that his veto had been sustained.

Nixon argued the state Constitution limits to the regular session any override vote of a veto made early enough for lawmakers to consider it before the session adjourns.

Republicans have disagreed.

The other labor issue is "Right to Work" which prohibits an employer from requiring a person to join a union or pay union fees to get or keep a job.

The measure cleared both the House and Senate short of the two-thirds majority that will be needed for an override.

Although Republicans command more than a two-thirds majority in both chambers, the measure has faced opposition from Republicans representing districts with significant labor membership.

About 20 percent of House Republicans and 16 percent of Senate Republicans voted against the measure.

The tax-cut measure is a retread of one of the several tax-cut measures Nixon vetoed last year.

The bill would provide a sales-tax exemption for large laundries for purchases of energy, equipment and supplies.

To be eligible for the tax exemption, the commercial laundry would have to process at least 500 pounds of laundry per hour.

Legislative staff estimate the measure would cost state government $1.5 million per year in the first full year of implementation.

In his veto letter, Nixon charged the tax break was unfair because it would provide a tax break that would not be provided to smaller commercial laundries and other types of businesses.

The bill's sponsor -- Sen. Will Kraus, R-Jackson County -- argued commercial laundries had enjoyed the tax break for several years until a recent court decision held that laundries were not covered by an existing sales-tax break provided to manufacturers for purchase of equipment and other costs.

A related tax issue before the veto session involves two bills that would impose a number of special fees on court cases to fund various projects.

In recent years, the legislature has imposed special fees on various court actions in various locations to fund courthouse improvements and retirement coverage.

In vetoing the bills, Nixon wrote that if extra funds are needed these type of projects, they should be submitted to local voters for approval as a tax increase.

Before the legislature adjourned their regular session in mid-May, it had overridden two of the governor's vetoes. One imposes restrictions and limits on one of the state's major welfare programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The other bill, now law, prohibits a current or former school district superintendent from running for the district school board.

Unlike last year when Nixon made several "line-item" budget reduction vetoes, he did not make a single veto cutting the state's budget.

Lawmakers had passed the budget early enough in the session that they would have had the opportunity to vote to override any spending cut made by the governor.

Scaffolding outside the Capitol

Legislators will encountered blocked off doors and closed elevators at the Capitol when they return for the Wednesday, Aug. 16, veto session.

The main entrances to the Capitol have been closed and half of the building's elevators removed as part of a long-term renovation of the building that was opened in 1917.

During the 2015 Legislative session, the legislature approved $40 million for the Capitol renovation. The funding was endorsed by the governor who took reporters on a basement tour earlier this year to point out growing drainage problmes for the building..

"Water infiltration from damaged exterior building elements has caused cracks and rusting to occur, compromising the structural integrity of the building," said Office of Administration Director of Communications Ryan Burns.

If these repairs can properly seal and waterproof the building, the project will be a success.

In combination with heating, ventilation and air conditioning modifications and elevator repairs, the renovation is expected to extend the life of the Capitol.

Temporary, outside scaffolding was build to search for loose stone. One unsafe stone was discovered.

In 1998, a 300 point block of stone fell onto the porch outside the governor's office. It crashed just outside the office of Gov. Mel Carnahan's chief of staff.

The state's Public Service Commission has approved a filing from Ameren Missouri to increase the fuel and purchased power adjustment charge (FAC) each customer is required to pay, according to a press release.

According to the Public Service Commission, a residential customer pays a monthly FAC of approximately $4.62.

This adjustment will increase that payment to roughly $5.08 a month.

"Fuel adjustment charges are intended to help companies deal with volatility in fuel pricing," the release from the Public Service Commission reads. "The FAC tariff requires regular adjustments to reflect changes in prices the company has incurred for fuel and for wholesale power purchased to serve customers."

Ameren Missouri is the electricity supplier to approximately 1.2 million Missourians.

The increase is expected to go into effect starting September 24, 2015.

Usually it is the spouse of a prisoner who seeks a divorce.

But on Tuesday, Sept. 8, Missouri's Supreme Court handed down a decision reject an effort by an inmate to divorce his wife.

A lower court had rejected the divorce petition based on John McNeal's inability to leave the Jefferson City Correctional Center to be present for the court divorce hearing.

A state law restricts inmates from appearing in court for civil cases, but gives the judge authority to hold a non-jury trial with the inmate remaining in the prison.

But in McNeal's case, the circuit court simply dismissed his case for failure to appear.

McNeal appealed directly to the state high court.

But in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the appeal should have filed with the appellate court.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Laura Stith wrote that the circuit court's dismissal of McNeal's divorce case raised a significant issue of constitutional rights that was a valid issue for the state high court to consider on direct appeal.

"The constitutional validity of the application of these Missouri statutes in a manner that denies the right to dissolve a marriage to prisoners such as Mr. McNeal who are unable to be present in court due to their incarceration presents a real and substantial issue," Stith wrote.

However, McNeal's divorce case is not finished.

Instead, the Supreme Court transferred the case to the Western District Court of Appeals.

The debate revolving around so-called "right to work" legislation remains tense as the 2015 legislative veto session approaches.

The bill would ban the ability to require an employee to join or pay dues to a union.

For proponents of the legislation, passing "right to work" means Missouri is on the same level as economically competitive states.

"Missouri has lost over 2 billion dollars in adjusted gross income over the last 20 years and a lot of that money has gone to Right To Work states like Texas, Arizona and North Carolina," said Rachel Payton, the deputy state director of conservatively-funded Americans for Prosperity. "While those states are seeing a 42 percent gain in total employment, and in non-Right To Work we're only seeing 19 percent."

According to critics of the legislation, right-to-work could have far-reaching consequences in Missouri.

"Even the sponsors of the bill have admitted that once Right To Work bill passes, wages are going to go down for workers," said Mike Louis, the president of the Missouri AFL-CIO.

According to Louis, workers' wages decrease by $2,500 in states with right-to-work legislation.

"So the family quits paying taxes on five-thousand dollars of their income to the state into the school districts," Louis said. "You multiply that by the number of working families in the state, you're talking one hell of a lot of money."

The veto session is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 16.

Last Week

Decisions by Gov. Jay Nixon and law enforcement officials involving the Ferguson unrest of last year was criticized in a report released Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department.

The report questioned Nixon's decision to put a Highway Patrol captain in charge over local law enforcement to handle the situation after protests became violent.

Use of military equipment, dogs and tear case by local law enforcement also was criticized.

The report charged "inconsistent leadership" and "use of ineffective and inappropriate strategies" as among the six issues that it concluded permeated all aspects of the police response.

Nixon had placed the Highway Patrol in charge of a unified command to coordinate as violence escalated.

But the report found an absence of coordination within law enforcement to address the protests.

"The lack of consistency in policy led to unclear arrest decisions, ambiguous authority on tactical orders and a confusing citizen complaint process."

The harshest criticism was directed at the Ferguson Police Department which the report found lacked relationships or trust with the community.

The tactics employed by various law enforcement agencies also was criticized.

"The use of military weapons and sniper deployment atop military vehicles was inappropriate, inflamed tensions, and created fear among demonstrators," the report concluded.

The Missouri Highway Patrol issued a statement after release of the report arguing police actions helped save lives.

"The many adaptations made by law enforcement in Ferguson during the 17-day incident period, including their work to engage residents and respond to community concerns, were important factors in preventing the loss of life or serious injuries."

The state budget office announced Wednesday, Sept. 2, that the growth in state revenue collections for the first two months of the budget year grew at a rate higher than originally anticipated.

In December, Gov. Jay Nixon and legislative budget leaders projected a 3.6 percent increase for the fiscal year that began in July.

But during the first two months of the budget year, increased by 5.0 percent.

Corporate tax collections grew at the fasted rate of 16.4 percent. Sales tax collections increased 5.1 percent and income tax collections by 6.7 percent.

The figures for the two months is a reversal of a 1.2 percent drop in collections for July.

However, budget experts warn that a one-month comparison can be misleading because of differences such as to when weekends fall when the Revenue Department does not process tax payments.

Attorney General Chris Koster announced Tuesday, Sept. 1, a lawsuit against MSB Consultants and its president for violation of Missouri's "No-Call" law.

Koster's office said the company had violated the telemarketing law by making phone calls selling insurance to phone subscribers who had signed up for the no-call list.

The attorney general reported his office had received 20 complaints of telemarketing calls from the company to phone numbers on the list.

"My office will not tolerate businesses that ignore Missouri law and bombard consumers with unwanted calls," Koster said.

The Missouri law prohibits calling a number which has been placed on the No-Call list by the subscriber of the telephone number.

The law authorizes up to a $5,000 fine for each violation -- a potential judgement of up to $100,000 based on the 20 complaints filed with the state attorney general.

The Missouri Department of Education announced Tuesday, Sept. 1, the names of six public school teachers selected as finalists for the Teacher of the Year award.

The finalists were picked by a selection committee of teachers as well as representatives of business and education organization leaders.

The winner will be picked by the selection committee on Sept. 12.

The Missouri Teacher of the Year will be Missouri's nominee for the National Teacher of the Year award.

Missouri's current Teacher of the year is a journalism teacher at Hazelwood West High School in St. Louis Countyy, Chris Holmes.

The six finalists for this years award are:

The Missouri Department of Transportation released a statement Monday, Aug. 31, that 641 bridges are now listed in critical condition - 50 more bridges than a year ago.

Missouri State Bridge Engineer Dennis Heckman said that the department is doing its best to repair the bridges with the amount of funding that is available. He said the Missouri Transportation Department will replace a few bridges each year and fix them as fast as they can.

Heckman also said that the average age for a Missouri bridge is 45 years old and most of the bridges were built to last 50 years so because of this, many of the bridges are crumbling at the same time. He said this is a problem because the bridges become too expensive to maintain and are in constant need of repairs.

Heckman said drivers are not to worry though. The bridges are still safe to drive on as long as drivers are following the weight limits posted on the bridges. The bridges are inspected at least once per year and if a bridge were to become unsafe to drive across, the Missouri Transportation Department will shut them down.

"It doesn't mean they fall down on the day they turn 50. What happens is they become too expensive to maintain. We have to fix a lot of things on them more constantly," Heckman said.

Last year, the department announced it was cutting back on construction support for a majority of the state's highways because of revenue shortfalls.

The department's decision came after voter rejection in August 2014 of a sales tax increase for transportation.

Convicted killer Roderick Nunley was executed Tuesday night, Sept. 1 for, for the killing of a 15-year-old kidnapped teenager in 1989.

The execution came after Gov. Jay Nixon rejected a final appeal of clemency in a statement indicating that Nunley had pleaded guilty to the crime.

Nixon's denial noted the victim had been "abducted, raped and then stabbed to death."

Nunley's partner in the crime had been executed last year.

"I ask that Missourians remember Ann Harrison at this time and keep her parents, Bob and Janel Harrison," and the Harrison family in your thoughts and prayers," Nixon said in an emailed statement issued earlier in the evening before the execution was carried out at the Missouri prison in Bonne Terre.

Jeff Mizanskey was freed Tuesday from a Missouri state prison after serving two decades for drug-related charges.

Mizanskey was originally sentenced to life in prison without parole for marijuana possession in 1996.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced in May that he had agreed to commute Mizanskey's sentence after the story gained national attention.

Mizanskey was then able to argue his case in front of a parole board in August, and he was subsequently granted parole.

Mizanskey had multiple previous drug convictions prior to his 1996 conviction.

In 1984 he was convicted of possession and sale of marijuana, and in 1991 he was convicted of marijuana possession.

Mizanskey was also arrested for possession of a variety of drugs in 1983, and served a 60-day jail sentence.

His life sentence came as a result of a three-time drug conviction.

The prosecutor in the case had written a letter supporting supported clemency, although the letter also detailed a history of criminal violations by Mizanskey.

A Missouri House bill that would authorize the release of any offender serving a life sentence without parole for marijuana offenses was introduced during the legislative session in February, but it failed to pass.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway announced her office will be taking additional steps to increasing accountability in the state's municipal court system.

A press release from Galloway's office stated that, under the Municipal Courts Initiative, auditors will more closely examine statistics on warrants and tickets.

The initiative will also emphasize investigating cases of unfair treatment that could damage the credibility of the courts.

Municipal court reform was a major issue in the 2015 legislative session.

St. Louis County Republican Eric Scmitt sponsored Senate Bill 5, which limits the amount of revenue St. Louis County can generate from traffic tickets.

Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill into law in July.

Senate Bill 5 went into effect at the end of August.

"True, comprehensive reform must include a series of approaches in order to effect real change and must be conducted with full transparency," Galloway said in the release. "The proposed rules filed by my office lay out clear guidance for counties, municipalities and courts in meeting critical requirements, and the process allows for full participation by the citizens of Missouri."

A public hearing will be held Nov. 2, 2015 in Jefferson City to discuss the proposed changes.