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The Missouri Senate held an open meeting regarding legislative changes in immigration policy for the 2013 session.

In 2008, lawmakers passed a law that prohibited illegal immigrants from obtaining a driver's license.

Vanessa Crawford had the most to say at the meeting. She is the executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, a collaboration of groups looking to improve the standing of immigrants in the state.

"Placid and explicit local policies against immigrants is a real problem in people's life. That is what is driving people out of communities," Crawford said.

Sen. Will Kraus, R-Jackson County, voted for the 2008 law and said a big problem with illegal immigrants is that they get into car accidents without insurance.

"But those people could be allowed to legally access driver's licenses, which they're not allowed to do currently," Crawford said.

Doug Rau, a spokesperson with a group that advocates immigration for economic growth, said businesses are hurt by Missouri turning illegal immigrants away from the state, and therefore, the state workforce.

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Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, the Senate Appropriations Chairman, said Medicaid expansion will be the biggest issue from a fiscal perspective in the next legislative session.

Schaefer said "One of the biggest things we are looking at right now is Medicaid expansion, what the cost is going to be the state. I think that singly that is going to be the largest thing that we're going to take a look at in the upcoming session that is going to have an impact on our revenue."

Some Republicans have voiced opposition to the expansion because of its cost, but Gov. Jay Nixon, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, and several hospital groups have voiced support.

An October poll paid for by the Missouri Foundation for Health found that 52 percent of Missourians favor the expansion.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Missouri would spend between $432 and $773 million during the first six years of the expansion.

The Missouri Public Service Commission approved a rate increase of $260 million for Ameren customers in Missouri Wednesday.

“The overall rate impact for an average customer will be about $10 a month,” said Kevin Gunn, the chair of the Public Service Commission.

The rate increase will cover increased fuel costs, energy efficiency programs, storm recovery costs, vegetation management and infrastructure improvements. About $90 million of the $260 million rate increase will go toward energy efficiency programs.

“Every customer is going to pay a little bit to offer these energy efficiency programs, however, you as an individual consumer may be able to, by implementing some of the energy efficiency measures, actually see dollar reductions to your bills,” Gunn said.

This is the fifth time Ameren has raised rates in the past six years, however, Gunn said he hopes this order brings rate stabilization.

At least five investors may lose $800,000 after investing in what the Secretary of State's office is calling a "classic high-yield investment program scam."

Michael Kitchen, President of PIF Financial Services in St. Peters, failed to register the money with the Missouri Securities Division. The investments date back to 2008.

After investigation, the Secretary of State's office sent a cease-and-desist order that alleges Kitchen spent the invested money on cars, pet products, rent dues and entertainment expenses.

Matt Kitzi, a representative in the Missouri Securities Division, said that financial restitution in past cases where this much time has passed is unlikely.

"Unfortunately in cases of fraud," Kitzi said. "Too often the money is gone by the time regulators are made aware of the problem."

No criminal charges have been filed, though Kitzi said the division has made contact with state law enforcement officials.

Kitchen was unavailable for comment.

In the past, Right to Work bills throughout Missouri have not made it as far as the governor's desk.

Protests erupted throughout Michigan over the legislature sending a Right to Work bill to the governor's desk on Tuesday.

Dan Mehan, President of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce said a Right to Work bill is necessary in Missouri for the state to stay competitive with other states.

Mehan said "It definitely works, it's not an anti-union thing, it's a pro-growth, pro-jobs initiative that should be adopted." He also said, "I think what you're seeing in Michigan is going to inspire other states, potentially Missouri, to match up with them."

Right to Work is a predominant Republican supported idea and Missouri now has a strong Republican majority in the legislature. A Right to Work bill has never made it to the governor's desk in Missouri.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said he thinks it will be difficult for Right to Work laws to pass in Missouri during this legislative session. "With a governor that's opposed to it, and I don't think present leadership in the Senate is not really wanting to push Right to Work for obvious reasons," said Mayer.

The legislative session starts January 9th.

Some Christmas tree farms have been forced to close while others have only lost seedlings.

Jack Bridges said he lost his tree farm in Diamond, Mo. to a fire in July started from the dryness of the drought.

Ann Harmon and Mary Rood own farms and both said their main loss was the seedlings and young trees that could not survive the drought.

Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, said he has not seen any Christmas tree sales hurt this year, however private businesses could be hurt in the future from the drought.

A joint legislative committee met Monday to begin working on a model for funding higher education in Missouri.

Work will have to be done during the session in order to make the college funding formula official.

Committee Chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he is optimistic about the progress made before Christmas break.

"This is a work in progress," Pearce said. "Our deadline was Dec. 31, 2013 and yet I think we're making very good progress."

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"

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

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