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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the week of January 4, 2016

Lobbyists could be required to report their sexual relations with legislators and legislative staff under a bill filed on the opening day of the Missouri legislative session for 2017.

The bill would define sex between by a lobbyist with a legislator or legislative staff as a "gift" that is required to be included in the public reports lobbyists must report to the state.

However, the bill would exempt the lobbyist from having to attach a monetary value to the sexual relations -- essentially declaring sex to be of no value.

The measure, sponsor by Rep. Bart Korman, R-High Hill, would exempt sexual relations by a lobbyist with a spouse or that had begun prior to the legislator's election to office.

The bill follows a police report last year in which a lobbyist who had worked for Missouri's governor reported she had sexual relations with former House Speaker John Diehl.

By an overwhelming vote, Missouri's Senate approved a rule change that will move reporters from the Senate floor to an upstairs gallery overlooking the Senate.

The proposal's sponsor -- Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin -- said he was motivated by a couple of times a reporter had tweeted conversations that Senators had expected to be private.

"Some in the press violated the code of ethics by tweeting out discussions between senators and I will not stand for that, so they will not be on the floor of the Senate any more," Richard said when asked during the short Senate debate why he was seeking to remove a Senate press table of more than four decades.

One of the two conversations involved a relatively loud reprimand by a former Senate president pro tem who criticized a senator for failing to maintain decorum in the Senate when he was serving as the temporary presiding officer.

Four Democrats voted against the rule change that passed 26-4.

One of the opponents said banishing reporters to an upstairs gallery would harm the ability of journalists to obtain information for the general public as to what the Senate was doing.

"It makes it easier for them to take the short walk to the side gallery to kind of explain some of the background on the complications that may not come across in debate," said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City.

But at a news conference with reporters, Richard argued that it was the fault of reporters themselves for not respecting confidentiality of private conversations overheard from a press table close to where senators talk with staff.

"When the press violating the trust of tweeting information of senators on the floor in discussion and negotiation and sent that out, I thought that was a breach of irresponsibility," Richardson said.

The press-table eviction follows Senate action last fall that ousted the news media from their traditional offices to a smaller complex of offices in what amounts to a Capitol attic. The new offices are not accessible to the physically disabled and do not provide room for space for visiting reporters.

In an address to the opening session of the Missouri House, House Speaker Todd Richardson promised fast action on bills to impose restrictions on special interest influence.

"Tomorrow on the first day that bills can be referred, I will refer every ethics bill that has been filed to the Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability," the Poplar Bluff Republican told his colleagues Wednesday, Jan. 6.

Later at a news conference, Richardson said hearings on the bills could be scheduled just days later.

The committee is chaired by one of the legislature's leading proponents of tougher restrictions on special interest money in government and politics -- Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City.

In his speech, Richardson made reference to the scandals with interns that drove two legislators out of office last year including the previous speaker, Rep. John Diehl, R-St. Louis County.

"This institution should not and will not be defined by the actions of a few. Together we will work to make this place where all of you are proud to do the people's work and are proud of our accomplishments when you go home on Thursdays. That task starts immediately," Richardson said.

A wide variety of "ethics" proposals have been filed or suggested including:

In past years, differences in what to include in an "ethics" package has gridlocked the legislature.

The Senate's Democratic leader -- Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis -- voiced concern about getting a comprehensive package passed.

"I am a little bit concerned that we are not going to pass everything that we should pass," Keaveny told reporters at a news conference following the House session.

Campaign contribution limits have caused the deepest division within the legislature in the past.

Democrats have made a top priority to reinstate limits on how much any one person or organization can contribute to a political candidate.

The Republican-controlled legislature repealed those limits more than a decade after Missouri voters approved the limits by 74 percent.

At a Republican leadership news conference after the session, Richardson suggested one approach to avoiding the gridlocks of past years would be to split each ethics proposal into a separate bill so that opposition to any one idea, such as contribution limits, would not sink an entire ethics package.

Legislative leaders also cited as top issues transportation, education funding and dealing with the aftermath of the recent floods.

Missouri legislative leaders cited the Transportation Department's funding crisis as a major priority for the General Assembly.

But some top leaders expressed skepticism that a total solution could win legislative approval.

"I doubt it," Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, responded when asked if he thought the legislature would approve a major gasoline tax increase or toll roads.

A similar prediction was voiced from the other side of the aisle.

"Quite frankly, I don't see a whole lot of relief. I haven't heard any relief of increasing any taxes in order to fund the infrastructure," said Senate Democratic Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis.

But Richard said the problems were serious enough that the legislature needed to continue its discussions on the highway funding problems.

"It's an asset and we'll have to decide how we're going to protect the asset," Richard said.

He suggested highways that were closed by the recent floods helped highlight the issue.

"Based on the flooding, it's even more important now. Everyone knows how important it is, especially in a flooded area. You can't get to work. You can't get home."

In last year's legislative session, a modest increase in the fuel tax died in House and Senate committees.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and House Speaker Tod Richardson at a joint opening-day news conference

Senate GOP Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, predicted an "historic" level of cooperation would emerge between the House and Senate in the 2017 legislative session.

"The speaker and the majority leader and I have talked many, many times over the last couple of months. I think the communication between the House and Senate is going to be historic, in a good way," Kehoe said.

One indication of the level of collaboration between the two chambers was that the Republican leadership of the House and Senate held a joint news conference after the opening day's session rather than separately.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, described the significance that House leaders went to the Senate side of the building for their joint meeting with reporters.

"It's symbolic that the House leadership group to be down here, but I think it's important symbolism and that is we intend to have a better working relationship with the House and Senate than we've ever had before," Richardson said.

One factor is the personal relationship between House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.

Richard said that would be an asset.

"A lot of times, the hallways chatter, the bureaucrats, the lobbyists try to pull the two sides apart to try to leverage their priorities or their issues and we're not going to let that happen. We know each other pretty well," Richard said.

House and Senate leaders already have worked out plans to fast-track "ethics" measures to reduce the influence of special interests.

Another indication of greater harmony was Richardson's promise not to block a House vote on any Senate-passed measure to prohibit bonds for a new NFL football stadium that had not gotten legislative or voter approval. Last year, the Senate-passed bill was blocked from even being debated in the House.

Traditionally, battles between the two chambers have been dominate factors in the legislative process -- even when the same party controls both the House and Senate.

Occasionally in past decades, the divisions were more heated than between the two political parties.

Missouri's state budget office reported Missouri finished the first-half of the year with tax collections falling slightly below the projections upon which the state's budget was based.

Acting State Budget Director Dan Haug announced Tuesday, Jan. 5, that total revenue collections had grown 2.6 percent for the six months ending December 31.

The revenue estimate of the governor's office and the legislature upon which the state's budget was based was for a 2.8 percent growth in General Revenue.

While there were increases in income and sale tax collections, corporate income and franchise tax collections fell 9.1 percent for the first six months of the fiscal year.

In total, the state has collected $100 million more than it did in the same period last year.

If the current revenue growth rate continues for the next six months, total collections would fall about $500 million short of the state spending plan.

However, the state does have reserve funds and other sources that could be used to cover the shortfall.

In addition, about $200 million in spending is curtailed until the administration determines the state will have sufficient revenues to cover the entire budget.

Gov. Jay Nixon again called on lawmakers to pass a package of measures to toughen restrictions on special interest money in politics and government.

"No more symbolic gestures or half-hearted attempts. These problems are real and they're undermining the confidence in the public in the very government it relies on," Nixon said at a news conference one day before the start of the 2017 legislative session.

Nixon called for reinstatement of voter-approved limits on campaign contributions, banning gifts by lobbyists to legislators, banning public officials from working as campaign consultants, a cooling off period after leaving office before an elected official could work as lobbyist and a shorter legislative session.

"The solutions are clear and I'm challenging the legislature to get meaningful ethics to my desk this session."

The governor, who is finishing his last year as governor, said he hoped his legacy could be capped with ethics reform.

In past years, however, Nixon's calls for restrictions special interest influence have died in the legislature from disagreement over details and opposition to some of the provisions.

Gov. Jay Nixon expressed support when asked his reaction to Republican legislative calls for dismissal of of a University of Missouri faculty member who called on students to physically block a person seeking to photograph protesters.

"I've got to tell you, anybody who saw the video of that professor Click...I can understand how why that's completely unacceptable behavior on part of a faculty member," Nixon said.

However the governor did not explicitly endorse the letter signed by a majority of the legislature's GOP lawmakers that called on the University of Missouri Board of Curators to fire Prof. Melissa Click.

But did not criticize the legislative effort.

"Somebody that's a professor of journalism and communications at a university saying go bring in the muscle, so we don't have to use the First Amendment...quite frankly, if people are upset, I'm OK with that."

Click resigned her faculty position with the School of Journalism at the Columbia campus just before a journalism faculty committee was about to vote to strip her of her relationship with the school.

However, Click remains an assistant professor at Communication Department. She had issued a statement of apology shortly after the incident with the protesters, but has refused further comment.

An overwhelming majority of House and Senate Republicans issued a statement Monday, Jan. 4, calling for the dismissal of the University of Missouri professor who sought to block coverage of the protests against the MU president last fall.

The letter to the University of Missouri Board of Curators called for the immediate dismissal of Communication Assistant Professor Melissa Click.

The letter was signed by 100 of the 116 House Republicans and by 18 of the Senate's 24 Republicans.

Click along with MU Greek Life Director Janna Basler sought to block two reporters from photographing protesters on the day that MU President Tim Wolfe met their demands to resign.

The Nov. 9 incident began when Basler told a student journalist working for ESPN that he could not take photographs of several dozen protesters who had occupied a public area on the university's Columbia campus.

Later, Click called on the protesters to physically block the another student who was video recording the incident.

"Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here," she said to a group of protesters while pointing at the video photographer.

In their letter demanding Click's removal, the Republican lawmakers charged "Professor Click's comments served to inflame an already caustic situation that was clearly out of line."

There was no immediate comment from the university on the legislators' demand for Click's dismissal.

Because she is not tenured, her contract with the university normally would expire in the summer unless extended.

Shortly after the incident, Click resigned a "courtesy" appointment with the School of Journalism. She tendered the resignation just before a faculty committee of the school was preparing to terminate her relationship with the school.

However, she retained her faculty appointment with the Communications Department of the Arts and Science School.