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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of October 20, 2014

An early-voting amendment would give Missourians six business days prior to Election Day to cast their ballot, not including weekends.

Amendment 6 would cost about $2 million initially and an additional $100,000 for each general election according to the Secretary of State website.

Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, called the amendment a sham.

"This is actually a bogus early voting amendment," she said.

Newman said an earlier proposal provided for voters' actual needs, starting early voting three weeks prior to election day and allowing for weekend voting.

But Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said these voters already have options.

"There are reasonable accommodations that have been made," Pearce said, such as absentee voting.

Currently, Missouri law allows certain elections to be held entirely by mail and requires an excuse for absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website.

Missouri is one of 14 states without early voting. Of the 33 states that allow early voting, the average starting time is 22 days before the election. Twelve states require early voting for at least one weekend day prior to the election.

An energy efficiency survey ranked Missouri 44th in the country compared to 43rd the previous year. 

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released the report, which shows utility policies carry 40 percent of the weight when deciding where the states rank.

A Missouri law allows utilities, owned by investors, to earn credit from efficiency programs giving them motivation to become more energy efficient while making a profit.

The option to opt out of utility efficiency programs also hurt the state's ranking. The Missouri Energy Efficiency Investment Act offers rebates and discounts on energy-efficient lighting and air conditioners but large energy consumers can opt out of the program.

A proposed amendment has critics worried the state of Missouri will start passing unbalanced budgets.

Amendment 10, which is on the Nov. 4 election ballot, would allow lawmakers to overturn a governor's withholding, much like the power they already have to overturn line-item vetoes. In a Missouri Supreme Court case, Gov. Jay Nixon was given broad and unrestrained powers to restrict legislative spending.

The Missouri legislature overrode 47 vetoes in September, only to have the governor block funding for all 47 measures two days later. The governor's withholding authority aims to prevent deficit spending without voter approval and to make sure that is enforced, state laws give the governor broad powers to block the release of money appropriated for state programs.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said with the approval of the amendment, balancing the budget would be harder to do.

"The way it changes for the people of Missouri is that it makes an unbalanced budget much, much more likely," Kelly said. "It changes it for the General Assembly because it gives the General Assembly the opportunity to override the governor's withholds. But, the governor's withholds mechanism is the way that we in Missouri ensure a balanced budget, we have done so for many years."

He said the "governor's withhold mechanism" is a tool that has "kept the Missouri budget balanced and it's foolish to risk that for short term partisan gain."

Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Clay County, said it's the governor's abuse of his power that is causing the need for an improved system of check and balances.

"Our current governor has taken the powers that he needs to have, as far as he needs to be able to control the budget, and he has taken those powers and used them strictly for a tool of political necessity and means," Berry said. "If he had been like our previous governors, who sometimes walked over the line also but were much closer to the line, and didn't use the withholds as a weapon, I don't think we would even be having this discussion. But, our current governor has used withholds not as a budget necessity but as a budget weapon."

The president of the Missouri National Education Association sent a letter to the State Board of Education calling for an open process when selecting the new commissioner of education after reports of a new leader being chosen in private.

Missouri NEA President Charles Smith would like the parents, school board members, and the communities at large to have an opportunity to voice their opinions on the next commissioner.

"From the custodian to the cafeteria worker," Smith said. "Each one has something good and valuable to contribute to the conversation."

Smith's letter is in response to reports that a new commissioner will be announced at the school board meeting next week.

This would be 37 days after current Commissioner Chris Nicastro announced her plans for retirement at the end of the year.

Nicastro's retirement was announced amid criticism for her handling of unaccredited school districts.

Public school teachers across the state would be affected if the teacher tenure amendment passes in November.

Amendment 3 would effectively get rid of traditional teacher tenure in favor of performance evaluations.

This amendment would also restrict teachers from collectively bargaining about these evaluations and would limit teacher contracts to three years or less.

Missouri National Education Association Chief Lobbyist Otto Fajen is a part of the Protect Our Local School coalition opposing the amendment.

He said these performance evaluations, which take into account student achievement, are the wrong approach to education.

"We want to make sure that teachers and districts are able to work with students as individuals," Fajen said. "We need to make sure that, you know, we can do that to help our students become good thinkers and frankly not just good test-takers."

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, supports the amendment and said that it is a good approach to reward the best teachers.

"I think it will result in a clearer recognition of the teachers that are doing the best job," Emery said.

A public forum led by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, questioned whether Missouri is prepared to handle an Ebola case.

It quickly descended into Schaefer and other senators challenging Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling.

"In this whole [Ebola] thing, it's like 'Oh, we relied on this guy to take this call. We relied on that person over there,'" Schaefer said. "And this is what I'm hearing from constituents is there doesn't appear to be a chain of command here where someone says 'By golly, that's my job. I'm the person in that position and I'm going to set those protocols.'"

"No one is willing to step up to the plate and say that," Schaefer added later.

Schaefer also asked Vasterling where hazardous Ebola waste would go should there be a case in Missouri.

"We do not have a facility in the state of Missouri," Vasterling said. "We would have to find a facility outside the state of Missouri."

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, questioned Vasterling on whether Gov. Jay Nixon has had Cabinet-level meetings on Ebola.

"No, but I have talked with him about it," Vasterling said. She also said the last Cabinet meeting "may have been before [Ebola] was an issue."

Schaefer also referenced Vasterling's lack of medical background.

"Do you have any scientific background?" Schaefer asked. "No," Vasterling said.

Schaefer then questioned the decisions Vasterling made in regards to Ebola.

"When you make determinations of what should be done, you're not making necessarily your own determinations," Schaefer said. "You're relying on the scientific or medical opinion of someone else, correct?"

"Yes," Vasterling said.

Schaefer said after the forum that any future health department director should probably have a medical background.

"When you have decisions that are this serious, I would rather rely on the judgment of someone trained in either the scientific or medical field to be making the determination than someone who is just simply interpreting information that's given to them," Schaefer said. "I think that maybe we should look at a statutory change that the Director of the Department of Health should be someone with either a medical background or a scientific background."

Gov. Jay Nixon announced a Ferguson commission in a speech Tuesday.

The commission will study the causes leading to Ferguson's civil unrest following Michael Brown's death.

Nixon asked how St. Louis would move forward following "73 days of civil unrest."

"I think of the mother of an African-American teenager, as she kisses him goodbye each morning, hands him his backpack and watches him head off to school, knowing that he might never come home again. She lives with that fear every day," Nixon said. "I think about the wife of a cop, as she kisses her husband goodbye, hands him a cup of coffee and watches him drive off to work, knowing he might never come home again. She lives with that fear every day."

The commission will study the social and economic conditions leading to the unrest in Ferguson, hear from experts to "address the concerns identified by the Commission," and "offer specific recommendations," Nixon said.

Nixon noted that the commission will not be investigating Brown's death or the facts surrounding it and said he plans to announce commission members in early November.

Criminal history could become admissible evidence in child sex crime cases if Missouri voters pass a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Rep. John McCaherty, R-St. Louis County, sponsored the 2013 joint resolution after a constituent told him her daughter was abused.

"The man had actually groomed this young lady for sexual abuse," McCaherty said. "The prosecutor determined that there wasn't enough evidence of the actual act without [prior history] to be able to prosecute."

Critics argue the amendment could prevent individuals from receiving a fair trial, citing criminal history as prejudicial evidence.

"They very well could be allegations from a disgruntled ex-spouse or a whole number of people," said Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis City, who voted against the bill in 2013. "I just think it deprives the individual of a fair and balanced trial."

Criminal history was admissible evidence in these cases prior to a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court case.

It is still admissible in federal child sex abuse cases and in 30 states.

On Friday Stericycle, Inc. which owns and operates a hazardous waste facility in north St. Louis, issued a statement saying that its St. Louis facility would not "accept, store or treat Ebola-contaminated waste."

According to the statement, issued by the company's Lake Forest, Ill. headquarters, Stericycle had reached an agreement with Attorney General Chris Koster.

"Should healthcare facilities in Missouri encounter a suspected or confirmed Ebola case, Stericycle will be available to work with these facilities to find other disposal options," according to the statement.

The night before, Koster had filed a petition that would stop the Stericycle facility from receiving Ebola-infected material.

Koster's petition came after Stericycle received a federal permit from the U.S. Department of Transportation allowing it to transfer Ebola-infected materials from Texas.

However, the permit required Stericycle to transfer materials to the "nearest appropriate disposal facility available at the time," and Stericycle operates several hazardous waste facilities in Texas.

Last Week

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced Friday morning that he had sought a state court order to prevent a hazardous waste disposal facility in north St. Louis from receiving Ebola-contaminated waste.

Stericycle obtained an emergency federal permit from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on Oct. 3. The permit allows the company to transfer Ebola-infected materials from Texas.

The permit does not specify a final destination for the waste except that it be the "nearest appropriate disposal facility available at the time."

Koster's court action is similar to one filed in Louisiana's government to stop the waste from landing in their state.

Stericycle, Inc., the international company that owns the St. Louis facility, has "the nation's largest network of medical waste transport vehicles, collection sites, and treatment facilities," according to the company's website.

Stericycle operates several waste management facilities within Texas.

The permit is what spurred Koster to seek a court order. A statement issued by the attorney general's office Friday cited an independent, three-year study that found that there had been "numerous violations" of state law at the St. Louis facility.

"This facility has a history of violations in the handling of medical waste," Koster was quoted as saying in the statement. "We should not allow this company to transport Ebola waste into our state without absolute assurance of safety."

A 2000 study by Health Care Without Harm, an international group promoting ecologically-conscious health care, noted that Stericycle had mishandled medical waste materials in several states, including Missouri.

On Monday Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell sought a restraining order to block the Dallas Ebola victim's incinerated personal belongings from being dumped in a Louisiana landfill.

"There are too many unknowns at this point, and it is absurd to transport potentially hazardous Ebola waste across state lines," Caldwell was quoted as saying in a release from his office.

However, "Ebola-associated waste that has been appropriately inactivated or incinerated is no longer infectious," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Neither Koster nor a representative from Stericycle could be reached for immediate comment.

No special actions are being taken by Missouri hospitals to prepare for Ebola, but funding from the state is limiting their preparation efforts, Missouri Hospital Association's Vice-President Dave Dillon said.

Preparing hospitals for Ebola in Missouri is not a unique circumstance, he said. "We actually are not doing anything we wouldn't do for a similar emergency, whether it was Ebola or a pandemic influenza or reacting to an earthquake or another type of disaster," Dillon said.

Missouri hospitals have prepared for similar situations in the past and have been given resources to handle these types of situations.

"This isn't new because this has occurred. In fact, we have been, for over a decade, investing resources in Missouri in equipment and in training in staff at Missouri hospitals so that they have the capacity to respond to something similar to this," Dillon said.

Most Missouri hospitals have protective equipment available to them but Dillon said it is questionable if they have access to higher level equipment.

"Most hospitals already have a certain level of protective equipment for staff and probably have levels that are, access to levels, that are above what the CDC is currently recommending," Dillon said. "What's more, we actually, as an organization, have worked with the hospital community to strategically to locate cashes of equipment and supplies so that if, in fact, we were to have a hospital that had an event, we would be able to support them with additional equipment."

National Nurses United, a national nurses union, conducted a survey and found that nurses across the country are demanding more training to handle the illness and protection from the illness itself. RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United says there is no room for error in a situation like this.

“There is no standard short of optimal in protective equipment and hands-on-training that is acceptable,” DeMoro said in a news release. “Nurses and other frontline hospital personnel must have the highest level of protective equipment, such as the Hazmat suits Emery University or the CDC themselves use while transporting patients and hands on training and drills for all registered nurses and other hospital personnel including the practice putting on and taking off the optimal equipment. The time to act is long overdue.”

JEFFERSON CITY - Anti-child abuse groups and attorneys told a special Missouri legislative joint-committee Thursday sexually abused children need better post-abuse care.

The state legislature created "The Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children" during the 2011 session and is now looking into how the task force performed and improvements members think can be made. Everyone giving testimony agreed the state needs to use more resources to provide evidence-based care to victims of sexual abuse.

"The things I have heard, the things I have seen, there is no human being on earth that can experience that and not have some very long term health issues if the trauma is not addressed," said Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst. "So one of the things the task force is really trying to promote is that any child that has been sexually abused or any child that has been traumatized that they have the ability to be part of an appropriate mental health intervention, and we spend some time trying to heal that child."

Schenkhof said the state needs to spend a higher proportion of sexual abuse money on the victims, rather than on the perpetrators of sexual abuse. She said little-to-no evidence has shown it is possible to change the behavior of a sex offender older than 30.

Several guardians ad litem, or state attorneys representing children, said a program to better treat psychological issues of the sexually abused should be a top priority in revamping state funding on the issue.

"You watch the forensic interview, you hear the child speak, and that changes you," Missouri attorney Nicholas Mebruer said. "You know that that will permeate every aspect, every relationship that child will ever have [without adequate interventions]."

Liberal watchdog group Progress Missouri has filed an ethics complaint alleging lobbyists broke the law when providing more than $3,000 worth of food and beverages.

At issue is a loophole in Missouri ethics laws that allow lobbyists to not disclose who they are when they provide gifts to lawmakers.

The alleged violation occurred in Dallas at an American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, meeting in August.

The complaint also alleges not all members of the General Assembly were invited, which Executive Director Sean Nicholson says is required by law.

He also says there is no way all lawmakers could've gotten to Dallas that night for dinner.

"When lobbyists file reports and say the entire General Assembly was at a Dallas steakhouse in August, we know and basic common sense tells us that's not true," Nicholson said.

House Speaker Tim Jones said he didn't know much about the complaint, but he did caution the public not to read much into it.

"I don't think that anybody should presume that buying somebody a dinner buys preference in any way," Jones said.

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, said Wednesday Ferguson would be helped if Missouri became the 25th right-to-work state in the nation.

"Missouri is now an oasis of big labor influence and power," Jones said. "If you look at a map of the country, we're nearly surrounded by states that have gone to worker freedom states."

Jones also said the education establishment is too powerful and unwilling to change and that is a detriment to communities like Ferguson.

"While people continue to toe the line from what their superintendents want and simply vote lock-step with the superintendents, with the education establishment, we're not going to be able to make these big changes," Jones said.

Jones' ideas come just days after St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay pleaded for help for Ferguson and the entire St. Louis area.

Missouri's state health department held an Ebola training session on Tuesday, Oct. 7, to prepare the state's health officials should there be an Ebola case in the state.

More than 150 first responders, public health officials and hospital officials attended the meeting, said Ryan Hobart, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services director of public information.

Hobart said they discussed the symptoms of Ebola and what to do with a patient who has Ebola-like symptoms.

"I think we're doing all we can to prepare," Hobart said.

While there is not a lead official on Ebola preparedness at the health department, Hobart said multiple officials in the health department's Communicable Diseases department are working on the issue, and that hospitals can contact the department "24/7" to report a case.

Because Ebola can be transmitted even after death, funeral directors must also take precautions.

For now, the National Funeral Directors Association has directed funeral homes and funeral directors to guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Jessica Koth, NFDA public relations manager.

"The CDC will be there to help guide the funeral directors," Koth said.

The Missouri Nurses Association is also trying to educate and inform nurses around the state to be prepared for Ebola.

"Nurses are often times the first point of triage when these patients come in and it's critically important they're asking the right questions and being educated," Missouri Nurses Association CEO Jill Kliethermes said.

Kliethermes said nurses also attended the state health department's meeting.

So far the Governor's office has remained silent in response to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's plea for the government's help in addressing racial challenges and violence within the city.

Several attempts were made to legislators, including the governor's office, for comment on the mayor's plea but remained silent. This comes after many protests as a result of the actions in Ferguson.

On Tuesday, three people were left dead and one hospitalized after two separate shootings in northern St. Louis bringing the homicide total to one-hundred eight in two thousand fourteen, up from eighty-eight in two thousand thirteen.

Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, says he will introduce legislation that will transfer power from local prosecutors to the state's Attorney General.

The attorney general and a law enforcement agency that is not involved with the case would work together to decide if an officer should be prosecuted in the event of a deadly shooting involving police.

"The point of having the attorney general's office make these charging decisions and handle these cases is that there is no appearance of impropriety," said Barnes.

Barnes said he wants to create a system that gives confidence to a community that has mistrust where a deadly shooting would occur.