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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of September 14, 2009

The Missouri Department of Higher Education reports that the state student loan default rate increased by 40 percent this year.

State officials say the economic downturn and high unemployment rate are both contributing factors.

The fund's board of directors changed an accounting practice that would have cost taxpayers almost $50 million more.

State Sen. Jason Crowell,R-Cape Girardeau, called the change "a politicized outcome."

The state will forgo the opportunity to apply for $100 million in federal grants, Missouri's education commissioner said Wednesday.

In her first time speaking before the Joint Committee on Education, Chris Nicastro shared with lawmakers her goals for Missouri public education. The commissioner said participating in the national competition for $4.3 billion in Race to the Top funding is a priority.

There are two application dates for the federal funds. Nicastro has recommended the state not apply for the first phase in December.

Two senators said they are concerned about the new plan to expand high-speed Internet access to rural Missouri because the equipment purchased might duplicate what is already underground.

Transform Missouri Director Paul Wilson said this is the only way the get usable Internet to rural areas.

State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said that her office may have to make further recommendations on budget cuts.

Revenue is down 4.2 percent from this time last year.

In response to Monday's audit, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields said using lobbyist contributions to buy meals keeps the legislature from using tax dollars for business expenses.

State Auditor Susan Montee said they used lobbyist money for more than meals, but rather parties and Christmas gifts.

A Bill requiring that the administration give keys to the Capitol dome to all lawmakers failed to receive enough votes to overturn Gov. Jay Nixon's veto.

State Sen. Jason Crowell said next session he will add the dome-key provision to every bill he can.

The House Interim Committee on Autism Spectrum Disorders met Tuesday to hear testimony of witnesses and gather information.

The hearing turned emotional as legislators and witnesses alike shared their personal stories.

A bill to insure autistic children is expected to be introduced when the legislature reconvenes in January. A similar bill was killed in the House during the 2009 session.

Missouri lawmakers convene Wednesday to take up bills vetoed by the governor.

Legislative leaders say they do not expect any of the governor's vetoes to be overridden.

The bill getting the most attention is one that would strengthen legislative review of how the administration is spending federal stimulus funds.

The governor had vetoed the measure because lawmakers added a provision to require that the administration give every legislator a key to the top dome of the Capitol.

The 16 member interim committee on state intelligence oversight met Tuesday and no one objected to a more watchful of the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC).

MIAC came under serious pressure in January when one of its reports leaked to the public. The report on the American Militia Movement drew a harsh response from lawmakers because it described supporters of presidential candidates Ron Paul and Chuck Baldwin as dangerous militia members.

The members present at the meeting all agreed more oversight is necessary but made no decision on how to specifically govern the MIAC.

State Economic Development Director Linda Martinez resigned Monday after just eight months on the job.

In her resignation letter, Martinez told Nixon she was sorry the two couldn't meet to resolve their differences on how to move the state forward. Nixon spokesperson Scott Holste didn't deny Martinez' words, but wouldn't say whether the governor and his economic development director clashed.

Martinez wasn't available for comment.

For years, House and Senate members used lobbyist money to buy gifts and throw parties, according to a report released by the state auditor Monday.

Some of the lobbyists' donations went unreported, a violation of state law. The Senate has used about $61,000 from its slush fund since 2003. The House doesn't have an account; instead, lobbyists paid vendors directly for gifts and parties, the auditor's report said.

The Senate also spent more than $4,000 of taxpayer money since 2006 on framed and engraved silver trays for outgoing members, according to the report.

Last Week

After President Obama's called for an overhaul health care during his congressional address Wednesday, one Missouri health care provider agrees the time for reform is now.

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield spokesperson Scott Larrivee said he is pleased with the President's support of market reforms that many health care providers proposed last year.

He also said overhauling the nation's health care system will provide more stability in the future for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

President Obama said in his congressional address Wednesday he wants to cut back on health care costs by decreasing medical malpractice suits.

However, Federal Government traditionally has no oversight over state medical malpractice suits.

One Missouri Attorney says the federal government has no place in the matter, especially since the number of Missouri malpractice lawsuits are at an all-time low.

The flu season started with the new school year as Missouri college students met H1N1 in their residence halls.

Some universities had contingency plans ready, while others took another approach.

Former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, outlined the crime that led him to plead guilty to two federal counts of obstruction of justice in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article Sept. 8.

In the letter, Smith said his actions were "stupid and dumb."

Smith resigned from the state Senate the same day to pleaded guilty to the federal charges.

Smith and Rep. Steve Brown, D-St. Louis County, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from Smith's failed 2004 Congressional campaign. Smith authorized Brown and several campaign aides to send out a mailer about the opponent Congressman Russ Carnahan without disclosing the campaign's connection.

Smith wrote in the letter, "I apologize to my constituents, my senate colleagues, my family and friends and to anyone who has lost faith in government because of my actions."

Top state education officials were unavailable for comment regarding one of the most talked about education speeches.

Other officials offered praise for the president's message.

Visiting Hours for the public could be affected if the H1N1 virus spreads in the state's prisons.

If Missouri's prison's see an H1N1 outbreak, its educational programs could also take a hit.

At least that's what some experts are saying.

The University of Missouri's Agricultural Department warns the cold and wet weather is dangerous for certain crops.