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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of February 8, 2016

Missouri's House voted to require ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to insure their drivers while searching for riders on their company's cell-phone app.

The House approved the bill 153-1 after a 10 minute discussion on the floor.

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar currently insure their drivers and passengers for up to one-million dollars of liability while ride-sharing. However, those drivers are not covered while searching for riders. Their personal insurance covers driving for private matters, but most plans do not cover any commercial use of their vehicle, such as driving for Uber.

"By the end of 2015, a total of 29 states had enacted laws to protect not only the drivers, but their passengers and the public by closing the insurance gaps that left drivers and the public vulnerable in an accident," said Rep. Noel Shull, R-Kansas City,

Uber was not immediately available for comment.

Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis County, also spoke in favor of the bill.

"This talks about the insurance issues to make sure the public is protected in case of an accident."

No representative spoke against the bill, and the lone voter against was not immediately available for comment.

Other bills have been filed that would impose restrictions on the ride-sharing companies including prohibiting cash payments or picking up drivers who hailed for a ride rather than through an Internet-based application.

Medicaid recipients could be charged co-pays and fined for repeatedly missing medical appointments under a measure given first-round approval by Missouri's Senate.

The bill comes after Gov. Jay Nixon called for more funding to medicaid this year.

A health-care provider could charge a Medicaid recipient an escalating fee for repeatedly missing doctor appointments starting at up to $5 for missing the a second appointment within three years.  The maximum fee that could be charged would rise $10 dollars for missing the third and up to $20 for every missed appointment after that within a three-year period.

In addition, there would be a mandatory $8 fee if a Medicaid recipient sought emergency-room care for a condition that was not an emergency.

Supporters argued that missed appointments was one of the significant reasons that some medical-care providers decide not to take Medicaid patients.

But Democrats argued against the bill.

"I understand that eight dollars or five dollars might be minor to somebody, but to many of my constituents, they don't have the five dollars to go out and buy groceries," said Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County.

Joining Walsh in opposition was Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County.

"You can either pay for an appointment that you weren't able to make it to, and deny your family a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk and two sticks of butter, or you can try to reschedule if you need to get to the doctor and not have to pay that amount so that you can take care of your family," Schupp said.

During the debate, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, urged critics to come up a compromise.

"What I'm asking you to do is, if you don't like the language, come up with a compromise," Schaaf said. "How about instead of $5, make it $3."

Both Walsh and Schupp then introduced amendments to the bill that would allow patients to miss their first appointment without charge, and any missed appointments afterward would illicit a fee.

Also added onto the bill was a measure requiring greater financial disclosure by health-care providers.

The measure would require hospitals to report to the Health Department the costs of the 140 most common procedures.

In addition, a health care provider would have to provide a patient with an estimated cost of treatment within five days of a cost-estimate request.

Texting while driving would be banned and seat belts would be required under measures heard by the Missouri State Senate Transportation Committee.

Missouri law current prohibits texting only for those under 21 years of age.

The bills presented to the committee on Wednesday, Feb. 10 would extend the texting prohibition to all drivers.

Doug Horn, an Independence lawyer, said the bill would help protect passengers from becoming the victim of collisions caused by distracted drivers.

"Because of the volume of traffic, there's just more distracted drivers on the road," said Horn, who identified himself as a "crash" lawyer. "You can't trust the other driver to do the right thing anymore."

But one committee member said he was concerned about the ability to enforce the bill.

"I think it's something we'd all agree is appropriate, but how do we enforce it?" asked Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Franklin County. "The fact is I'm not looking for another reason for police or highway patrolmen to pull people over."

The seat-belt requirement bill would give police the right to stop and issue a ticket for a driver not wearing a seat belt. Currently, a ticket can be issued only if the driver had been stopped for some other driving violation.

In addition, the measure before the Senate committee would extend the seat-belt requirement to passengers in the vehicle.

Maureen Cunningham, the executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Missouri, said enforcement of seat-belt laws could prevent brain injuries and reduce collision fatalities.

"It's about safety," Cunningham said. "It's about safety for everyone on the road. If somebody chooses not to wear a seat belt let them get pulled over and get the fine that is already enacted."

But Schatz, said he was uncertain that the bill would encourage citizens to change their behavior.

"It comes down to personal responsibility," Schatz said. "You can't legislate common sense."

Tony Shepherd, legislative officer of Abate for Missouri, said he opposes the bill because it inconveniences truck drivers and gives the government power to regulate measures that do not necessarily guarantee driver safety.

"We keep hearing that seat belts will save your life," Shepherd said. "Seat belts will not save your life, they will help save your life."

In past years, giving police the power to stop a driver for suspicion of not wearing a seat belt has met opposition from some black legislators who voiced concerns it could be used as an excuse by police to stop black drivers.

The Missouri Supreme Court has held that a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014 does not change state law that bans all convicted felons from possessing firearms.

The 2014 amendment defines the right to bear arms as an "unalienable" right.

But the amendment also provides that the firearms right does not prohibit the legislature from the power to restrict gun rights for "convicted violent felons."

Before the court was whether the constitutional language giving the legislature power to restrict the rights of violent felons meant the legislature could not restrict the firearms rights of other felons -- like financial cheats.

In two separate 5-2 decisions, the court held Tuesday, Feb. 9, that the constitutional amendment does not prohibit the legislature from banning non-dangerous felons from firearm possession.

The court's decision in the first case noted that the new provision in Missouri's Constitution does not explicitly preclude the legislature from restricting the rights of more than just violent felons.

"It would have been simple for the people to include language in Amendment 5 prohibiting the legislature from regulating possession of firearms by nonviolent felons," Judge Laura Stith wrote in the majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Richard Teitelman drew a distinction between violent felons like rapists and murderers from non-violent criminals.

"I fail to see how restricting the constitutional rights of those who bet on horse races or divulge the names and addresses of donors to a state-established trust fund is narrowly tailored to the prevention of gun violence," he wrote.

The court's decision was a victory for the amendment's legislative sponsor who now is running for the GOP nomination for attorney general -- Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. He had been attacked that his 2014 legislative proposal that went on the ballot would open the door to make it easier for criminals to get guns.

Consistently, Schaefer had argued that was not the intention of his proposal -- a position now upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court.

In a related case, the court also upheld a state law that bans a convicted felon from obtaining a concealed weapons permit.

The House Children and Families Committee heard two bills to increase adoptees access to their biological parents' information Tuesday, Feb. 9.

The increased access is crucial for adopted children to find their birth parents. Laura Long, an intermediary in efforts to reconnect the original parents with adoptees, argued that the bill still does not do enough to open up records for adoptees.

"They'll give you the redacted social history, but once the information is released they don't send out the information without the white-out. Adoptees could really use that, it's interesting."

The committee was told that the information some adoptees look for is difficult to attain due to the secretive nature of the adoption process. Anne Silea, with Lutheran Family and Children's services, said the nature of reconnection after adoption is complicated.

"A lot of women that we talk to now, when we're doing searches, are really taken-aback by the fact that [their name] might not be confidential anymore."

However, many biological parents look forward to meeting with their children. Annette Driver is one of those mothers.

"There's actually people here trying to tell you to keep a birth child away from their natural connection and it's not as bad as it seems. Most of these women do at least want to know that their child is OK."

Another bill gives birth parents the option to register a contact preference along with the child's original birth certificate.

Legislation to expand access to adoption records have been filed for many years, but have made little headway. Critics argue that if the original mother did not consent, disclosure of her name would be an invasion of privacy.

"The power to determine their own lives should be the right of adopted person, and they should be granted easy access to their original birth certificates without mandated consent," one birth parent, Judy Bock, told the committee in 2015 during testimony on an identical bill.

Critics also have warned that knowledge that it could cause parents to be more reluctant to put a child up for adoption if there was a possibility that years later a child could get information about the original parent.

A St. Louis Democrat urged Maryland Heights to deny a business partner of Stan Kroenke access to taxpayer dollars.

One of the business partners to the Rams football team has proposed a large development in the region.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D - St. Louis, introduced the resolution Monday after the Maryland Heights City Council had already begun the process for allowing tax credit to help aid in the redevelopment.

Nasheed said by moving the St. Louis Rams football team to California, Kroenke did direct economic harm to St. Louis, and neither he nor his business partner should be rewarded for that.

"If we're not good enough to have a football stadium here, he's not good enough to have tax credits on taxpayer dollars," Nasheed said.

However, Nasheed said she would not push legislation to prevent the town from awarding developer tax breaks to Kroenke or his partner.

"I'm a firm believer in home rules. I think Maryland Heights should decide on their own," Nasheed said. "I just wanted to be able to deliver a message and let them know that the state is outraged due to the fact that Stan Kroenke just disrespected the whole state of Missouri."

The chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R - St. Louis County, said anytime taxpayer dollars are involved they have to be very conscious of how that money is spent.

Schmitt said he is more concerned with the overall economic picture than specific situations like the once facing Kroenke's partner.

"I think that our job as legislators is to look at the actual issue of TIF, and are there improvements that can be made, and we'll have that discussion I'm sure," Schmitt said.

A bill to extinguish the death penalty in Missouri brought on two hours of debate in the Senate, most of which happened after the bill was set aside by the sponsor.

The bill's sponsor -- Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Jefferson County -- began the Senate debate citing his religion as among the reasons for his measure. .

"The first reason is I'm a devout Catholic and I believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception until natural death," Wieland said. "And I find it inconsistent of me to be pro life on one end of the spectrum and then to allow the death penalty to go without saying anything about it."

For one hour, Wieland held the Senate floor questioning colleagues who supported repeal of the death penalty.

Wieland called upon his co-sponsors to speak on the bill. This included Senators Gina Walsh (D-St. Louis County), Rob Schaaf (R-St.Joseph) and Jill Schupp (D-St. Louis County).

"Sometime people are wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted and wrongly sent to jail," said Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County. "The other thing I don't think it's equitable across the board."

“I truly believe that, at the end of the day, it (the death penalty) doesn't deter crime," said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. "This is not a mechanism that will cause individuals to say 'I don't ever want to commit a murder again because I just saw Tony get the death penalty.' We still see murders occur each and every day while individuals are on death row."

Senator Jason Holsman (D-Kansas City) said he does not believe an authoritative state should be in control of life and death, but that there is not enough support for this bill in the Missouri legislature.

But after an hour of one-sided discussion, Wieland acknowledged that his bill would not pass in the Republican-controlled legislature and he promptly put the bill aside.

After allowing for the supporters of his bill to speak, Wieland set the bill aside knowing it would not gain enough support to pass.

"As Dirty Harry says, 'a man has got to know his limitations," Wieland said.

But that did not stop opponents. Even with the bill put aside, death-penalty supporters spent nearly a second hour voicing their side.

"The reality of it is, bad things happen and people have to be held accountable for it," said Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar and a former county sheriff.  "If there's anything we do need to do in our society today is make people accountable when things happen that are wrong."

Joining Parson against the bill was Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

Schaefer attacked the bill supporters regarding their perspective on who the victim is in death penalty cases.

“So this idea that somehow the victim in this whole thing is the defendant. Who after this whole process was found guilty, and a jury determined that they warranted the death penalty. That that's the victim in this scenario, is outrageous," Schaefer said.

Last Week

Missouri's Conservation Commission membership would be expanded from four to six members under a constitutional amendment approved by the Senate Thursday.

Some rural legislators including the measure's sponsor -- Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown -- have complained for several years that their areas had not been represented on the commission.

But during the Senate debate, the issue got support from a Kansas City area legislator -- Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City -- who argued his area also had not been adequately represented.

Critics, however, questioned the wisdom of tampering with a commission that has successfully managed a department responsible for the state's wildlife and conservation programs.

The constitutional amendment would require voter approval to take effect.

In addition to adding two more members to the Conversation Commission, the measure also would prohibit a member from serving two consecutive terms.

After completing a six year term, a commission member would not be allowed to return to the commission until after six years off the commission.

Governor Nixon speaking from Lima, Peru to journalists in the governor's mansion.

Missouri's governor and legislative leaders battled over transportation funding on the same day a gasoline tax increase was reported to the full Senate for debate.

On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair offered a plan to fund a Transportation Department with 641 critical-condition bridges through savings from welfare programs.

His plan would divert what Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia predicted would be savings from legislation passed last year that imposed various restrictions on welfare programs.

"Our state's transportation infrastructure is deteriorating and has become an impediment to our economic growth potential, our regional competitiveness, and our citizens' safety. We need to invest in improving our infrastructure while making sure our tax dollars are spent responsibly."

Schaefer's plan came under immediate attack from Gov. Jay Nixon.

"Trying to come up with some budget gimmick to take General Revenue and to slide some of that over to transportation is not a long-term transportation plan. They're clearly searching for excuses," Nixon in a video hookup from Peru to reporters attending a session of the Missouri Press Association and The Associated Press Day at the governor's mansion.

The new welfare-cut bill Schaefer cited as a source of extra funding for transportation imposes a shorter life-time limit on one welfare program -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- and toughen the work requirements for the food-assistance program for lower income.

On the same day as the governor's news conference, a 1.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax was reported to the full Senate for debate.

A similar measure died in the legislature last year.

Missouri farmers would enjoy lawsuit protection under two bills heard by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food Production, and Outdoor Resources on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

Senator Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, presented a bill that he is sponsoring that exempts those in compliance with state and federal permits from nuisance suits.

"Its a permit protection bill," Munzlinger said. "When you actually spend your money and take your time to get these permits you should be exempt from a nuisance suit."

Sharon Jones of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys said the bill could prevent neighbors from bringing damages to their property to court.

"A nuisance claim is a longstanding way for neighbors to resolve disputes about property usage," Jones said. "So one land owner whose use of their property is being impeded by a neighbor can go to the courts and have that dispute mediated by the court system and come to a resolution."

Senators urged their colleagues to vote for a bill that would change the way hospitals and health care facilities are obligated to report infections.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-Buchanan, would require more detailed reporting of infections that occur in hospitals.

Schaaf said infections acquired in hospitals are a leading cause of death in the United States.

"It's estimated that 100,000 people a year die of nosocomial infections or you know, health care acquired infections," he said.

Sen. Bob Onder voiced his support for Schaaf's bill.

He said he is very familiar with the issue of hospital acquired infections because his son nearly died from one.

"It's kind of, you know, it's funny. He had a severe congenital heart defect and despite all the good work of the surgeons and the nurses and the anesthesiologists taking care of him, one infection almost did him in," Onder said.

Schaaf said collecting more data will help find out the scope of the problem in Missouri, so hospitals could work to solve it.

The bill would require hospitals and health care centers to make their in-hospital infection data publicly available so that people could make educated decisions when choosing a health care facility.

Women would not have to get a doctor's prescription to obtain birth control pills under a bill presented to the House Emerging Issues Committee Wednesday, Feb. 3.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Jackson County, who described the bill as a pro-life advocate bill.

Solon said that women would benefit from the bill.

The measure would allow a pharmacist to dispense contraceptives without a medical doctors prescription.

Rep. Jack Bondon, R-Belton, had questions about the health of women if they are not seeing their doctor annually. He inquired about if a pharmacist is able to prescribe medications that alter specifically from woman to woman.

Conservative Sen. Will Kraus, R- Jackson County, drafted a bill that includes regulations on the use of simulator devices.

Currently, Missouri has no law restricting the devices. The American Civil Liberties Union reports police in 23 states, including Missouri have used cell site simulators in those states.

The bill would require warrants of probable cause to believe that criminal activity will be or has been committed, or if new evidence can be provided in an investigation.

Kraus said his bill will protect residents' U.S. constitutional Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Rep. Kurt Bahr, R- St. Charles, sponsors a bill requiring a property owners' association to cease mandating what signs can and cannot be displayed in a homeowners yard.

Bahr feels this is unconstitutional as it violates freedom of political speech. The Supreme Court ruled that cities may not dictate yard signs, but has no regulations regarding homeowners' associations ability to mandate yard signs.

Rep. Joshua Peters (D-St. Louis City) called university officials spending nights in expensive hotels using taxpayer money a "serious situation" at the House Higher Education Appropriations committee.

Peters said he could count of at least nine nights of university official stays in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel over the past few years.

He also said the university system has paid upward of $9,000 for a UM System curator's stay at the Four Seasons Hotel.

"This is serious dollars; these are serious funds," Peters said. "There are universities that are trying to do good deeds and can utilize these dollars instead of being spent at the Ritz-Carlton hotel."

University officials at the hearing said they would look into taxpayer funds being allocated for things such as this.

"I've never stayed at a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons, nor do I intend to, particularly on the state's dime," interim system president Mike Middleton said.

System officials also spoke about a potential enrollment drop at MU for the next academic year, which could result in a $20 million loss for the university.

They said they still do not know how severe the enrollment drop will be.

A Republican state representative called for the dismissal of a top Missouri health official for her responses to a legislative investigation into Planned Parenthood last year.

The call came under immediate attack from a senior House Democrat who charged "a witch hunt."

The call for the dismissal of Mental Health Department Counsel Gail Vasterling came from Rep. Mike Moon, R-Lawerence County.

His letter referred to Vasterling's responses to a legislative committee investigating Planned Parenthood when Vasterling was director of the state Health Department in which she deferred answers to others in the department including, Moon charged, the department's legal staff.

In response to Moon's letter, Rep Stacey Newman, D- St. Louis Country, issued a statement attacking Moon.

"I find this harassment and bullying of legislators at it's very best. Because the former director of the Dept. of Health and Senior Services could not legally answer questions posed to her by the House committee on their 'witch hunt' of Planned Parenthood, Rep. Moon wants her salary eliminated. Rep. Moon is continuing the agenda of Sen. Kurt Schaefer by insisting the budget process be held hostage because of an anti-abortion campaign agenda."

The committee heard three proposals that would require a threat of force by a suspect for a police officer to use lethal force.

The bills follow the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, that led to the riots in Ferguson.

There was no opposition to the bills. However, a similar bill did not pass last year.

Rural Missouri sheriffs are having trouble enforcing animal trespassing laws due to wandering dogs and cats.

Paul Lewis from the 16th region of the U.S. Canine Association brought to attention of the committee the laundry list of when animal killing is "okay" and requested clarification of the exact definitions of terms, such as "guard dog" and "law enforcement dogs."

A two-hour Senate filibuster blocked a vote on a measure to stop Missouri from backing stadium bonds without legislative or voter approval.

The bill comes after Missouri's governor said he could float bonds for a new NFL stadium in St. Louis without approval.

Bill sponsor Senator Rob Schaaf (R-Buchanan) said the legislature or voters ought to have a say whether the state will go into debt from these type of bonds.

Senator Joe Keaveny (D-St. Louis) has 14 amendments lined up to stop Schaaf's bill. He accused Schaaf of targeting the St. Louis area.

"My point is St. Louis is taking a hit for the last couple of years now, and we're still under attack with the earnings tax," Keaveny said. "You've done a very good job of discouraging the NFL to stay in St. Louis, I commend you for that."

Senator Scott Sifton (D-St. Louis County) was on the other side of this issue. Sifton said he believes his constituents would agree with the bill.

"The notion that a unilateral bond refinancing can be used to build a, I mean the better part of a billion dollar project without a vote of the people I think is something my constituents strongly disagree with, and I don't think they're alone," Sifton said.

Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) said she agrees with Schaaf, but that the bill is too narrow.

"I do believe that this specific piece of legislation is flawed and the reason that I say that is because you are, according to your bill it only applies to the St. Louis area and to one particular entity," Nasheed said.

No action was taken on the bill. The Senate will likely continue debate on the issue in session.

The House Emerging Issues committee heard favorable testimony from witnesses of all ages at the Monday hearing on HB 2058.

The bill, nicknamed the Cronkite New Voices Act, would restrict public school authorities from exercising prior restraint over school-sponsored student media that is not libelous, illegal or inciting a clear and present danger.

University of Missouri student journalist Tim Tai testified before the committee in support of the bill.

Tai appeared in a controversial video trying to photograph campus activists during protests on Carnahan Quad last year.

He said the bill is crucial to protecting the rights of student journalists in a day and age where they are often treated as "second-hand journalists."

"What better way for a student journalist to learn than when they are responsible for exercising their own editorial judgment, confronting ethical conflicts and taking responsibility for these decisions," Tai said. "I think you can't teach a student journalist to do journalism well if you dont allow them to practice it to its full extent."

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, questioned taking away high school administrations ability to approve which stories get printed.

He said printing controversial topics is more complicated when dealing with student journalists who still answer to their parents.

"If you support the first amendment, if you support the freedom of students to discuss those issues, but yet you want to be respectful to parents who are sensitive about those issues, how do you answer that question," Colona said.

Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte, who testified on behalf of the bill, said parents should not be concerned with allowing their children to discuss hard issues in school publications.

"We know that censorship doesn't stop the discussion about that transgender student from taking place, it just relocates that discussion. It relocates it from the accountable, adult-supervised pages of student media to the unaccountable anthing-goes pages of Twitter," LoMonte said. "So where would you prefer that discussion take place? Would you prefer that it take place in an environment where students have to sign their real names, check their facts, correct their mistakes and answer to an adult educator, or would you prefer that it take place on Twitter, where none of those things happen."

LoMonte said giving local residents the option to accept or reject certain controversial issues does not work, especially in the case of free speech.

"We tried local option civil rights for the first two centuries of our country and that didn't work so good. Civil rights aren't to be given out by local option. There are just some things that are too important for that," he said.

Sponsor of the bill Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said he had heard from many people who have experienced instances where censorship has occurred among student journalists in high schools.

"Primarily, in context of Hazelwood, its been so accepted as the law of the land that just nothing and no one has really challenged it. So I think this [bill] kind of sets a new a day in Missouri, a new tone for student journalists in my opinion," Haahr said.

Haahr said he expects the bill to come to a vote on Wednesday.