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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of October 5, 2015

In a surprise announcement, Gov. Jay Nixon announced Friday, Oct. 9, the resignation of his current Health Department director and her replacement with another lawyer.

Both the outgoing Health Department director and the incoming director had worked for Nixon when he was state attorney general.

Gail Vasterling's resignation letter to the governor does not cite a reason for her decision. The governor's spokesperson, Scott Holste, said her resignation was not requested by the governor.

Nixon announced that her replacement will be Peter Lyskowski, the department's deputy director who, like Vasterling, had worked as an assistant attorney general under Nixon.

The switch will take effect Oct. 19.

Vasterling will become the general counsel for the Mental Health Department.

To continue in his new job, Lyskowski's appointment as an acting director will require confirmation by the Missouri Senate when the legislative session begins in January.

Attorney General Chris Koster announced Friday, Oct. 9, that he will join 20 other states in a lawsuit against the Federal Environmental Protection Agency's rules that would limit carbon emissions from power plants.

In a speech to the annual meeting of the Missouri Electric Coop, Koster argued that the EPA restrictions would have adverse effects on the economy and electric rates.

In a news release after his speech, Koster argued the restrictions on carbon-generated power would cost the state more than $6 million.

"Renewable energy is a vital piece of our state's energy profile," Koster was quoted as saying. "It is essential that we achieve this goal in an economically responsible way that makes sense for Missouri.

Dan Viets

A prominent attorney in the effort to legalize marijuana filed the paperwork for a statewide ballot issue to legalize marijuana.

Columbia Attorney Dan Viets said he has represented dozens of clients who had been charged with using marijuana for various medical conditions.

Viets said the ballot issue proposal would only give doctors the power to prescribe marijuana when medical conditions warrant.

"Right now under Missouri law, doctors can prescribe hundreds of dangerous and addictive, deadly drugs," Viets said. "No one has ever died from cannabis. And that's not true of aspirin. That's not true of most pharmaceutical medications."

Endorsing the petition campaign is the former head of the Missouri Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Tom Mundell told reporters in Jefferson City how he had seen marijuana help veterans overcome the horrors of war.

"They had found that this was the Holy Grail to them; That they had found something that had relaxed them, that had actually started an inner healing," Mundell said.

The measure would earmark for veterans programs tax revenue generated medical marijuana sales.

If supporters can gather enough signatures -- about 160,000 -- the proposed constitutional amendment would appear on the November 2016 ballot.

If approved, Missouri would join 23 other states that have legalized marijuana for medical treatment.

A data breach of an Experian server gave an unauthorized party access to the personal information of 263,000 Missourians.

T-mobile customers who applied for postpaid services between Sept. 1, 2013 and Sept. 16, 2015 are affected by this breach.

Information taken from the server included customer names, addresses and social security numbers.

Attorney General Chris Koster alerted Missourians of the breach Oct. 7.

"My office is monitoring the situation to ensure the Missouri consumers are properly notified," said Koster in a press release.

Koster said consumers who are affected should consider registering for a credit freeze.

In a letter to consumers, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said he will focus on helping consumers.

"Obviously I am incredibly angry about this data breach and we will institute a thorough review of our relationship with Experian, but right now my top concern and first focus is assisting any and all consumers affected," said Legere in the letter.

T-Mobile representatives refused to comment for radio.

The Missouri Hospital Association has released a study suggesting the state has a growing problem of abuse of commonly prescribed painkillers.

This study shows that hospital treatments of the abuse of opioid painkiller drugs in Missouri have more than doubled in the last decade.

"We found, over the course of a decade which was 2005 to present, was that the rate of prescription drug abuse had skyrocketed in Missouri," said spokesperson Dave Dillon. "During that period it has increased 137 percent state-wide."

The growth rate of painkiller related hospitalizations in Missouri is the highest in the country.

"The medical problems related to prescription drug abuse are staggeringly high and continue, basically, to grow in Missouri at a rate that is much higher than the Midwest, which is the highest rate in the country," said Dillon.

Within Missouri the abuse problem covers a broad demographic and geographic range. The highest growth rates were among white males under the age of 30.

The Missouri Hospital Association plans to work with prescription providers to find a solution to this state-wide problem.

"We're certainly going to work with the provider community now that the problem has been identified to try to work through solutions that can be done on our end, meaning in the people who provide health care services," Dillon said.

Six slightly different tobacco tax increase petitions were approved Wednesday, Oct. 7, for circulation to place the issue on the November ballot.

All six would raise phase in an extra tax on tobacco that ultimately would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes from 17 cents to 60 cents.

Money raised from the tax would be used to fund early childhood education and health programs.

Two other petitions have been approved that would phase in a 23-cent-per-pack tax increase with the money going to transportation.

The tax increase for childhood programs has been promoted by a coalition of Kansas City area business and health leaders.

In late September, Gov. Jay Nixon all but endorsed the proposal -- saying it was "good public policy" that efforts were underway to get the issue before Missouri voters.

The secretary of state must verify the initiative petition form complies with state law and prepare a ballot title before signatures can be collected.

Signatures must be submitted by May 8, 2016.

To be placed on the ballot, an initiative petition that would change state law requires the signatures of five percent of the voters in six of Missouri's congressional districts -- slightly more than 100,000 signatures.

A constitutional amendment requires signatures from eight percent of the voters in six congressional districts -- more than 163,000 signatures.

If the secretary of state determines that a sufficient number of signatures have been collected, the measure will be placed on the November ballot.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has expanded pheasant hunting statewide for this hunting season, which starts with a youth-only weekend Oct. 24, 2015.

Before this season, pheasant hunting was only allowed in the Northern half of the state, along with a portion of Southeast Missouri.

According to the department, expanding pheasant hunting across Missouri simplifies rules for hunters without hurting the state's pheasant population.

"Hens are protected from harvest and one rooster often mates with multiple hens," Conservation Department Resource Scientist Beth Emmerich said. "Our rooster-only hunting season has very little impact on overall population size and growth."

However, not all areas of Missouri have pheasant populations and Emmerich said the hunting expansion "does not imply that birds can be harvested or even observed in all areas of the state."

Pheasant hunting in Missouri was only permissible in what the department called a North Zone consisting of all counties north of Interstate 70 and a portion of St. Charles County south of I-70.

The Southeastern portion of Missouri that allowed pheasant hunting was comprised of Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot and Stoddard counties.

Missouri's pheasant hunting season starts Nov. 1, 2015 and ends Jan. 15, 2016.

Since 2013, there has been a partnership between mental health centers and the state to help identify people who are in need of mental health care.

President and CEO of the Missouri Coalition of Community Behavioral Healthcare Brent McGinty says the Missouri Community Mental Health Liaisons program will now focus on quicker intervention.

"Well what we really need to do going forward is find ways to really engage the clients in treatment at the front end of their illnesses versus waiting until folks get deeper into their illnesses," said McGinty.

The Liaisons program was created by Governor Jay Nixon shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings.

For two years the program has worked with law enforcement and health officials to make more than 12,000 referrals for individuals in need of care.

"That gap in that service continuum between law enforcement and the metal health providers can be a barrier for someone getting the care that they need at the appropriate time," said McGinty. "So that's really been a critical factor and a critical feature in the CMHL program."

Missouri's acting budget director announced Monday that Missouri has lost $50 million as a result of a federal appeals court decision involving tobacco settlement payments.

Under the national settlement with several states, including Missouri, the major-brand tobacco companies pay the states for the costs the state claim they bore for financing health treatment for lower-income smokers.

As part of the agreement, the states are required to impose a tax on other tobacco companies that were not part of the settlement -- to avoid non-participating companies able to sell tobacco products at lower prices since they are not paying for the settlement.

Several years ago, the tobacco industry filed suit charging Missouri had not met the requirements of the agreement.

On Monday, Oct 5, Acting Budget Director Dan Haug reported that the federal Eastern District Court of Appeals held Missouri's portion of tobacco settlement payments should be $50 million lower than the state had expected under an arbitration agreement.

Despite the lost revenue, Haug reported that for the first quarter of the budget year, state revenue collections met the original projections of the administration and legislative leaders when they put the state's budget together earlier this year.

For July, August and September, revenue collections grew by 3.6 percent.

But the figures suggest Missouri paid a budget price with the lower tobacco settlement payment -- experiencing only a 1.6 percent growth for September.

A retired St. Louis business executive who spent more than $7 million of his own money in a failed race for the U.S. Senate in 2012 announced Monday, Oct. 5, that he was running for the GOP nomination for governor in 2016.

John Brunner formally announced his candidacy in emails Monday after what his campaign organization reported was a private speech Sunday night to 200 supporters.

In his speech distributed the next day on the Web, Brunner cited his background as a business executive.

"I am the only candidate with decades long record of bringing billions of dollars of business to Missouri including thousands of jobs."

Brunner narrowly lost the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate to Todd Akin in 2012.

Akin subsequently lost the election to Sen. Clair McCaskill following criticism of his use of the term "legitimate rape" to defend his position defending abortion restrictions.

In his announcement, Brunner acknowledged he has never held public office, but the St. Louis businessman cited that as an advantage in his campaign.

"I'm not part of the establishment, I've never held public office," Brunner said to his rally. "But, I'm a threat to the political class and the big-dollar donor because I cannot be bought."

Brunner demonstrated his financial independence in 2012. According to Federal Elections Commission financial disclosure reports, Brunner was the sole contributor of more than $7.7 million in his failed primary campaign.

Brunner joins a crowed GOP field of candidates for the gubernatorial nomination including former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, State Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Dixon and former Navy Seal Eric Greitens.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is the only announced Democrat for the race.

In his Web-announcement speech, Brunner alluded to Koster as a chameleon in apparent reference to Koster's decision to switch from a Republican to a Democrat before his initial campaign for state attorney general.

Last Week

The senator who help lead the efforts for concealed weapons and to restore higher speed limits on highways passed away Oct. 1.

Harold Caskey died from complications of Parkinson's disease at the age of 77.

In 2003, Caskey led the Senate effort for passage of the bill to legalize concealed weapons. He made the motion to shut off a filibuster by his fellow Democrats and later made the motion to override the Democratic governor's veto of the bill.

Earlier, in 1996, he was leader in legislation to re-establish the higher, 70mph speed limits on multi-lane highways.

He helped add a provision that prohibits driving license violation points from be assessed for speeding that is less than 5mph above the limit.

Ironically, Caskey could not take advantage of the two laws he helped pass. Legally blind, he was not able to have a concealed weapons permit nor a driving license.

Caskey also was a leader in legislative efforts for public school funding and college scholarships.

Caskey served 28 years in the Senate, beginning in 1977 until forced out by legislative term limits after the 2004 legislative session.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway announced Wednesday, Sept. 30, a series of audits to determine how well public schools protect digital information.

"A school and school district has a responsibility to protect that information," Galloway said.

"If they're going to require Social Security numbers, health information, if they're going to require personal information about you or your students, then they have a responsibility to collectively protect it."

Beyond examining what protections school districts have to avoid hacking, she said the audits also will examine what policies are in place when protections fail.

"We're looking to see a school district detect a data breech. And once it's detected, do they have procedures and plans in place to address it?" Galloway said.

Galloway said more than 250 schools across the country had experienced data breaches in the past decade including at least three in Missouri in the past year.

Her audit will start with five schools districts:

Juvenile sex offenders would avoid permanent listing on the state's sex offender website under a case argued before Missouri's Supreme Court Wednesday, Sept. 30.

The case involves an unnamed 14-year-old juvenile who was found responsible in a juvenile proceeding for rape of an adopted sister in March of 2014.

At issue is whether the juvenile who never was convicted as an adult in the crime, must register with the state's sex-offender registry when he becomes an adult.

"Missouri is one of the few states who put children on the adult sex offender registry for life, with no possibility of removal -- ever," argued St. Louis Law Clinic Attorney Patricia Harrison.

Under questioning, Harrison noted that juvenile proceedings do not include the same rights for a defendant as the trail of an adult, such as the right to a jury.

Arguing on the other side, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Laudano argued registration was a public safety issue in which only the most serious juvenile offenders are required to register for the rest of their lives on a list that the state makes available on the Web.

"Only a subset of juveniles found delinquent, those 14 or older at the time of their offense and who commit an act equal to more to more severe than aggrivated sexual abuse under federal law must register as adults."

As is customary with cases argued before the Supreme Court, no indication was given as to when a decision would be issued.

Chris Koster's gubernatorial campaign issued a statement attacking the Republican Party for efforts against stem cell research.

His statement came just one day after release of an investigation of his office that confirmed Planned Parenthood arguments that it had not sold fetal body parts from abortions performed in its Missouri facility.

Some anti-abortion advocates have argued that certain types of stem-cell research involve destruction of human life.

Koster says a possible assault by Missouri Right to Life would deter medical researchers from coming to Missouri.

"At a time when we are trying to attract the best and brightest to come and work in our state, it is imperative our government leaders stand up and protect the intellectual freedom of doctors searching for cures to the world's worst diseases," Koster was quoted in the release as saying.

Koster was not immediately available for questioning.

Koster's release cites his support of stem-cell research when he was a Republican in the state Senate.

Koster switched parties in 2007 shortly before his campaign for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in which the Senate's top GOP leader was running.

At the time. the western Missouri senator cited opposition to stem-cell research by some of his Republican colleagues as the reason for his switch.

Koster's attack of the GOP on stem-cell research came one day after his office issued a report that an investigation could find no evidence that body parts of aborted fetuses had been sold by Planned Parenthood in Missouri.

A University of Missouri agriculture expert says the wet weather of early summer followed by a lack of rainfall in the fall has hurt pumpkin production in the state.

"It's worse than having a drought year. At least in a drought year we can water where as this year was so wet for so long that we're having things there's just nothing there and at the end of the year there's just nothing to water for example our tomatos to try and get some more. So it's just been a big disaster really," said Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the University of Missouri Bradford Research Center.

Reinbott said the price for a pumpkin is almost double the cost of last year.

"Also the size is way down this year also. I was just out there today and we maybe have two thirds the size of what we normally have. The dry late weather really affected that," he said.

One agricultural products store in Jefferson City reported they had to get their pumpkins from outside of Missouri.

The propriety of municipal judges and prosecutors holding other jobs along with consolidation of municipal courts are among specific topics the Missouri Supreme Court has asked its work group on local courts to study.

Also requested by the court was a review of issues dealing with municipal court penalties and remedies when a defendant will not or cannot pay a court-imposed fine.

The task force to study municipal courts was appointed in May by the state Supreme Court after the U.S. Justice Department issued a report criticizing some aspects of municipal courts including jail sentences for defendants who could not post bond or pay fines.

During the last legislative session, the Missouri legislature approved a measure that imposes tougher limits on how much of a city's budget can be financed by court fines.

To give the Supreme Court's task force more time to review the new questions, Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge wrote the group that the court had extended the deadline for a final report from December of this year to March 1, 2016.

The seven-member working group is co-chaired by two former members of the Missouri Supreme Court.

In a 47-page report, Attorney General Chris Koster reports there was no evidence of Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parts during the one-month covered by an investigation by his office.

The investigation covered 317 abortions performed in June at the only Planned Parenthood facility in Missouri that performs surgical abortions.

In every case at the St. Louis facility, the attorney general's report found that aborted fetuses had been shipped to a pathology lab, as required by state law, and then incinerated.

"The information and documentation we reviewed did not reveal any irregularities involving the transmission, examination, or disposal of the fetal organs and tissue," the report concludes.

The attorney general's investigation came after release of videos of national Planned Parenthood officials discussing what critics alleged involved the sale of body parts from fetuses aborted at Planned Parenthood facilities.

In the aftermath of the videos, a special Senate committee held contentious hearings in which members questioned the level of oversight by the state Health Department of Planned Parenthood operations.

Shortly after the last hearing, the University of Missouri announced it would terminate a relationship with a Planned Parenthood affiliated physician that allowed the Columbia Planned Parenthood facility to offer non-surgical abortions.