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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of December 3, 2012

Gov. Jay Nixon says National Guard troops from Missouri could be on the front lines in Afghanistan as long as U.S. troops are there.

Nixon called reporters from the central Asian nation on Wednesday, during his third tour of the region. The Democratic governor said he had met with troops deployed from Missouri in both Kuwait and Afghanistan.

Nixon said he has also been briefed on the war in Afghanistan by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and a four-star general.

 

Two simple words printed on a white piece of paper in the state Capitol on Wednesday said it all; "FBI Meeting." However, federal agents weren't meeting with elected officials, they were meeting with Senate staff, for the first time in recent memory.

FBI spokesperson Bridget Patton said the meeting was only a meet and greet. "What you're looking at here is that you have new members, newly elected members, new staff members and you have our agents and our staff doing outreach to put a name with a face," Patton said.

On the other side of the building, House staff confirm the FBI previously met this year with newly elected house members but not with house staff.

Rep. Lyle Rowland, R-Cedarcreek, prefiled legislation on that would give school districts discretion in deciding what days students' should attend.

"I feel like it would help every district in the state," Rowland said. "They don't have to adhere to that rule if they don't want to. For some schools it would work better than others."

Current state law requires students to be in class for eight hours per day if their district has a four-day-a-week schedule. They have to be in school for six hours a day if they are on a five-day-a-week schedule.

Rowland said some schools would save on utility and operational costs by cutting down the number of days students are in school per week.

Mike Lodewegen, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of School Administrators, said the group worked with Rowland to craft the bill.

"Every district has different needs," Lodewegen said. "I know some districts are now moving to a four-day school week. I know of some schools that are talking about the possibility of year-round school."

Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, pre-filed a bill that would force drug dealers to by tax stamps to sell their drugs.

A similar program already exists in several states including Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kansas, with mixed results.

"We actually have been getting about $1 million in revenue the last three years from this program," said Jeannine Koranda, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Revenue.

Tennessee has actually lost revenue from the program during the last three years, according to their Department of Revenue records. Spokesman Billy Trout said this is because the state Supreme Court has awarded refunds to people who were taxed in prior years.

The real money the state makes comes from penalties enforced when someone is caught with drugs without stamps.

"The experience of states that have this program is stamps are mostly sold to collectors," Roorda said. "Criminals don't buy the stamps because they're criminals."

"Of the $1.3 million we collected in 2011, only $600 was from selling stamps," Koranda said.

Roorda said the goal of the bill is to not only increase the revenue to the state, but also to combat Missouri's drug problem.

"We're famous for our meth-amphetamine problem," Roorda said. "In the St. Louis and Kansas City suburbs we've had an explosion of this China White Heroin that is killing kids every day."

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Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, prefiled a bill calling for a cigarette tax increase, a flat 4 percent income tax rate, and an increase in the state sales and use tax.

This bill is similar to a bill Lamping sponsored last session, which also proposed cigarette tax hikes and income tax cuts.

Lamping said he expects the language of the bill to change greatly through the 2013 legislative session, and the cigarette tax portion is not his main focus.

"The bill is about raising revenue, cutting taxes to a greater degree, and dedicating revenue to infrastructure, I just chose to put the cigarette tax bill inside this bill, and if it comes out of the bill it comes out of the bill, it's not a priority," Lamping said.

Just months ago voters shot down a proposal to raise Missouri's cigarette tax by 73 cents.

Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, did not support the cigarette tax increase in November. He said this proposal is still too high.

He did add that there were certain provisions to this bill that were more agreeable than those in Proposition B.

"While we want to be cautiously optimistic, at this point in time we're going to have to oppose due to the sheer size of it," Leone said.

Rep. Jeff Roorda D-Barnhart pre-filed a bill on Tuesday to forbid retail shops from starting their "Black Friday" deals on Thursday.

Roorda dubbed the bill the "Thanksgiving Family Protection Act," representing the bill's goal to keep families out of the shopping malls and back at the dining room table.

Certain types of stores such as restaurants, gas stations and drug stores will remain open.

Roorda said he thinks "Black Friday" shopping can wait until the holiday has come to a close.

"I think people will wait until midnight on Thanksigiving and everyone can open ther doors at the same time," Roorda said. "We won't have this leap-frogging that gopes on with stores trying to out-do each other and approaching further and further into Thanksgiving day."

David Overfelt, President of the Missouri Retailers Association, said this will do little to keep families from getting out of the house after dinner.

"Consumers are doing a number of things after they get together with their families, they go to movies--that's been a tradition for decades," Overfelt said. "To single-out certain stores I think is mis-guided."

Overfelt also said that if this bill is passed, consumers will shop on the Internet rather than in the stores.

Chairman of the Committee Rep. Sue Allen (R-St. Louis County) said the committee meets to discuss the function of different levels of government in Missouri.

On Tuesday the committee heard testimony about incorporation from Fred Siems. Siems is the Chief Administrative Officer for Jackson County, and the former City Manager for Blue Springs. Siems pointed out ideas for consolidation, and how the east side of the state is completely different than the west side of the state.

Siems said they take a positive position on incorporating unincorporated areas into incorporated cities. They are trying to make county government smaller all the time, which is "180 degrees opposite of St. Louis county."

For the east side of the state, Dr. Charles Schmitz discussed two unification processes for St. Louis County and St. Louis City.

The first plan would extend the boundaries of St. Louis County to include St. Louis City. The plan would maintain municipal control, and phase out duplication of city offices.

Schmitz says the second unification plan would consolidate all government functions within the city of St. Louis to the County, create a representative county legislative body, and the process would be completed within four years, phasing out overlapping city and county departments.

Schmitz says scenario one would save at least 20 million dollars a year annually in tax payer money.

Allen said the committee is working on legislation to come from the hearings.

St. Louis has become the second largest Bosnian community in the world, after Bosnia and many believe the immigrant community is responsible for the revitalization of the South side of the city.

Bosnian immigrant Ibrahim Vajzovic said many Bosnians have purchased properties in South St. Louis.

"We purchased lots of properties, we fixed them and we increased the value of housing in St. Louis," Vajzovic said.

It's no accident that St. Louis has become home to many Bosnians.

The U.S. Department of State established the U.S. Resettlement Program in order to help refugees from war torn countries around the world.

After war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, the program decided St. Louis would be a good place for Bosnians to live, due to affordable housing and an abundance of entry level jobs.

There are currently more than 1,000 Bosnian owned businesses in South St. Louis.

Senator elect Scott Sifton, D-Affton, prefiled a bill for the 2013 session that would ban gifts from lobbyists to elected officials, challengers, legislators' staffs and family members.

"There's no reason we should be doing it," Sifton said. "Taxpayers already pay legislators $104 a day for every day in session for meals and lodging, and that should be sufficient."

Sifton said the practice of accepting gifts is widespread in the legislature, but wouldn't name any names.

"There are a couple dozen people like me, who don't accept any gifts. There's probably a middle of the pack if you will, of folks that take some but not a ton, and then there are a few that seem to take an awful lot."

Sen. Kurt Schaeffer, R-Columbia, said he doesn't accept gifts and elections tend to weed out those who take a ton of gifts from special interest groups.

"In 2008, in my campaign, that was a major issue, and I believe people make up their mind themselves whether somebody is captive (to bribes) or not"

House Speaker Tim Jones announced his plans to introduce legislation regarding ethics reformation.

Jones said it will enhance the level of transparency in the political process and ensure accountability from public servants.

Ethics reform legislation was last introduced in the 2010 legislative session, but was ultimately struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Democrats, including Rep. Kevin McManus D-Kansas City, held a press conference on legislation they plan to introduce regarding campaign finance reform.

McManus said the bill is largely modeled after the 2010 efforts including caps on contribution limits, lobbyist expenditures and other campaign finance provisions.

"There's a lot of resistance on the Republican side of the aisle to contribution limits," McManus said. "But I think theres probably an agreement on the element of transparency that Missourians should get regarding campaign finances."

Lawmakers can begin prefiling bills on Dec. 3.

Missouri hospitals are advocating for an expansion in Medicaid enrollment, citing losses in federal payments that reimburse hospitals serving large numbers of low income patients.

Those losses were one reason Gov. Jay Nixon announced his support of an expansion in Missouri's Medicaid rolls to 138 percent of the federal poverty level on Thursday.

A provision of the federal health care law cuts Disproportionate Share Hospital Adjustment Payments (DSH) in half by 2020. Those federal payments go to hospitals who serve large numbers of low income patients. Missouri received the seventh most DSH funding in the country in 2011.

Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association, said Missouri hospitals provide $1 billion worth of uncompensated care in any given year.

Dillon said without the expansion, some Missouri hospitals may suffer when the reimbursement payments are cut.

"If they disappear or are substantially reduced and we don't see an increase in Medicaid, or folks enrolling in an exchange, the hospital and health care infrastructure in the state will be significantly hurt by this," Dillon said.

Dillon said "there are hospitals in the state that are operating at the margin or in the red, and it will be more difficult for those hospitals to continue to operate."

The same day Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon announced his support of expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce said it is also endorsing the expansion .

“We support the expansion,” Chamber spokesperson Karen Buschmann said. “While we do not support the Affordable Care Act, we are supporting this expansion as part of it.. It is the law of the land. We do not feel that we should leave the federal money on the table.”

While the Chamber announced its support of the Medicaid expansion, many Republican legislators, such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Sen. Rob Schaaf have voiced their opposition.

“It might look attractive now, but later on it will be too much to afford,” Schaaf said.

Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, did not immediately oppose Nixon's stance.

"I think in order to  make an informed decision we've got to know what the cost to the state is, and really at this point nobody knows what that is," Schaefer said.

Schaefer said he looks forward to sitting down with Nixon and discussing the logistics of Medicaid expansion.

Captain Robin Markham came to the Missouri National Guard in 2009 and learned there had been five reported suicides that year.  The number of suicides motivated her to become the programs manager. She had suicidal thoughts of her own when she was a cadet in the air force in 2003.

"I can recall one night," Markham said, "when I was a cadet taking certain measures with the hopes that I wouldn't wake up the next morning and I just had to grit my teeth and finish out my schooling."

Chaplain Gary Gilmore is her supervisor and a senior leader in the guard. He pushes guard members, like Markham, to get help.

"Soldiers train to be tough," Gilmore said. "But a different kind of tough is knowing when to get help."

Suicides are on high alert for guard members with holiday season underway. Markham says money and children are the primary factors for guard suicides because without money, guard members cannot afford gifts for their children.

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Gov. Jay Nixon announced his support for Medicaid expansion in Missouri under the federal health care law. Nixon was quiet about the issue during the election, but Thursday morning announced his plans to expand the program citing a University of Missouri study that predicts more than 24,000 jobs can be created in 2014 if the state takes part in the expansion. Nixon plans to include the proposal in his budget he will lay out during his State of the State address in January.

The study, that was commissioned by the Missouri Hospital Association and the Missouri foundation for Health predicts as many as 220,000 Missourians would be eligible for the expanded program.

Under the expansion proposal the federal government would foot the bill of expanding the program for the first three years. In 2017, the state would pay 5 percent of the costs and by 2020 the state would pay up to 10 percent. According to the University of Missouri study, the federal government would pay about $8.2 billion through 2019 while the state would spend about $332.9 million and about $100 million per year after 2019 to cover new enrollees.

But the Democratic Governor faces an uphill battle expanding the program. Republicans have a super-majority in both the House and Senate. Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said he doesn't think the expansion has a chance of passing through the legislature.

"Overwhelming majorities of the legislature are opposed to this and will not go along with a gigantic expansion of welfare," said Kinder.

Republican lawmakers have opposed supporting the state expansion saying Missouri won’t be able to cover the costs in the long run, but supporters of the expansion say the added dollars in tax revenue from new jobs could cover most of it. According to the study, Missouri would generate $856 million in state and local taxes through seven years.

St. Louis-area developer Paul McKee's three-year fight to get millions of dollars in St. Louis tax credits is now in the hands of Missouri's state Supreme Court.

Four residents successfully sued to stop the deal in 2009. They say the credits have not been linked to any specific project. One of the residents, Isiah Hair, said Wednesday that McKee has dodged questions about what he wants to build on that land.

"I'm not opposed to development within my community at all," Hair said. "But what I am opposed to is the method that he's using to try and build something within my community."

McKee was present at the Supreme Court for Wednesday's hearing, but did not take questions from reporters.

The Blue Ribbon Transportation Committee has been meeting with Missourians since July to hear concerns on road systems across the state.

Missouri ranks 41st in the nation terms of revenue per mile of road. Committee Co-Chair Bill McKenna said that the Missouri Department of Transportation will need extra revenue before Missourians see safer roads. The method of doing so is the problem.

"I can't see increasing money to MoDOT unless it would come from a new source of revenue," McKenna said. "Which would be new dollars on top of our existing taxes."

MoDOT Chief Financial Officer Roberta Broeker said Missouri's gasoline and license taxes haven't risen in 20 years.

Committee member and President of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce Dan Mehan said taxpayers will have to foot the bill for their roads to improve. This comes after Missourians voted three times in a row not to increase the tax on tobacco.

"I think that Missourians will trade some sort of a tax increase somewhere in the future if and only if they trust where it's going," Mehan said.

The "fiscal cliff" refers to the end of the Bush tax cuts and a series of spending cuts starting Jan. 1, 2013.

This would raise the federal income tax rate if Congress can not come to an agreement to lower taxes before the new year. Missouri allows a six percent tax deduction on state income taxes for any federal taxes paid, with a limit of $5,000, so the fiscal cliff could lose the state revenue.

Legislators agreed that if the state revenue fell, education funding would take the biggest hit.

"It could be a significant number," said Sen. Robert Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. "I mean 6 percent of a large number can be a very large number." 

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said Missouri is one of few states that allow such a deduction, and that puts the state at a disadvantage.

State budget director Linda Luebbering said other factors, like an increase in state gross domestic income, could offset the revenue loss caused by the rise in income tax.

An audit of the Missouri State Lottery Commission on Tuesday showed issues in long-term contracts, sponsorships, advertising expenditures and violations in sunshine laws.

A sum of almost five million dollars in advertising went unreported to the general assembly. The commission said those expenses were reported elsewhere in their budget, but they did not consider them "advertising."

Gary Gonder, the lottery's chief operations officer, said those expenditures were reported under the same system as all other state agencies follow.

"Every penny that we spend whether it's a ball point pen or it's advertising is reported, there's just different object codes,” Gonder said.

The audit says the commission did not properly document some topics discussed in closed meetings, which violates the state's Sunshine Law. Gonder said the commission agrees with the audit's recommendation to correctly document what will be discussed in closed meetings.

"In order to be able to speak about something whether it's an open or closed meeting you must maintain what's on the agenda and our commission agrees with that," Gonder said.

The audit also showed the commission spent over four hundred thousand dollars sponsoring community events, but a majority had a negative return on investment. Gonder said they decide which events to sponsor based on a mathematical formula.

The commission received an overall rating of "good" and Gonder says the commission agrees with all of the audit's recommendations.

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New Senate members met on Tuesday for orientation before they begin their new jobs.

The freshmen senate members participated in a mock hearing to learn what to expect in the new legislative session.

The new members were also given a tour of the Capitol and learned about Senate traditions.

Senator Jamilah Nasheed, D-Jackson County, said she was excited to begin her first Senate session.

"I'm looking forward to working with many of my colleges I've worked with in the past by way of the House and many of them that have not ever served, as well."

Nasheed also said she believed there would be stronger cohesiveness in that Senate than there was in the House, where she previously served.

The legislative session begins on Jan. 9.

 

Missouri House Democrats announced at a press conference Tuesday they will file legislation to make changes to campaign finance and ethics laws.

Their bill would require not-for-profit organizations to disclose their donors, which is not required currently.

Not-for-profits, such as Missourians for Low Utility Costs, organized shortly before the election and donated thousands to political committees. Missourians for Low Utility costs gave $275,000 to committees to influence Senate elections.

The new provisions also include changing state law to make obscuring the source of contributions a crime, and prohibiting contributions from being invested in anything other than savings or checking accounts.

House Democrats are recycling provisions of a 2010 bill drafted by the bi-partisan House Special Committee on Government Accountability and Ethics Reform. That bill capped individual donations to one candidate at $5,000 and capped what politicians could receive from lobbyists at $1,000, and gave the Missouri Ethics Commission the power to initiate investigations, among other provisions.

Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, is sponsoring the bill. McManus said "We believe that this is not only a priority of our caucus, but a priority of Missourians throughout the state who want transparency and accountability in their government."

Democrats are addressing the issue after a Republican ethics bill in 2010 was ruled unconstitutional due to procedural violations.

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Freshmen representatives met Tuesday at the state Capitol for an introduction to the committee process. The newly elected representatives went through a mock hearing to learn the correct process and ask questions.

The orientation allowed for all the new House members to get to know one another before the legislative session begins.

“We look at each other as people that have come here with the same kind of passion that each one of us have to do the best job that we can do,” said Rep. Steve Lynch, R-Waynesville. “We may disagree on some issues, but there is no doubt that there are some sincere, determined people here.”

Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, R-Wellington, echoed Lynch’s excitement to begin the legislative session.

“It’s a little overwhelming but it really is an honor to be here,” Kolkmeyer said. “I’ve met a lot of nice people and everybody has been really helpful.”

The legislative session begins on Jan. 8.

Utility companies had a chance to meet with each other and with the Missouri Public Service Commission Monday to discuss the cyber safety of critical state infrastructure,

Public Service Commissioner Terry Jarrett said the problem the state faces is the evolution of the hacker.

"It's not just the lone man in the basement anymore doing it for fun or to embarrass the company," Jarrett said. "The Chinese have been trying to hack into businesses here in the United States, and the Iranians have been trying to hack into businesses here in the United States."

Jarrett said this poses a threat to the security of Americans.

"Attacking the grid and knocking the utilities out to Air Force bases and Army bases would be something that would be of concern," Jarret said.

Jarrett said the state's efforts mirror recent attempts at improving cyber security by the federal government.

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Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.