JEFFERSON CITY - Ahead of his State of the State address later this month, Gov. Bob Holden unveiled three legislative proposals aimed at improving Missouri's homeland security Thursday.
Holden is calling for tougher laws on price gouging and anthrax hoaxes as well as a new public health lab. The proposals are based on recommendations from the Missouri Security Panel.
"You've got to keep in mind that by our location, by the assets that we have as a state, that we are vulnerable like many other states in this nation and I want us to be fully prepared," Holden said.
In October Attorney General Jay Nixon cited 48 gas stations across the state that violated Missouri regulations on price gouging following the Sept. 11 attacks. Nixon said price gouging law needs to be clarified, and that he welcomes efforts to create new legislation that clearly defines a "substantial" increase in prices.
"I'd like to have a very strong tool here, not have to put legal duct tape on three or four different statutes to make sure we can find our way to the court house," Nixon said.
Holden's proposal would fine those guilty of price gouging three times the amount consumers were charged for every inflated gas purchase.
The state's public health lab, responsible for testing materials to identify possible bioterrorism attacks, is small and has inadequate equipment, Holden said. Legislators had set aside $25 million in tobacco settlement funds to build a new lab, but in November Holden witheld that money citing budget shortfalls.
Since Sept. 11 the lab has investigated over 135 incidents of suspected anthrax exposure, said Health and Senior Services director Maureen Dempsey, though the volume has "substantially dropped off." Each threat is considered serious and requires a full-scale investigation, Dempsey said.
"The fact that they turned out to be hoaxes is irrelevant from the standpoint of response and impact on the public's comfort level, if you will, about the safety of their communities and their homes," she said.
Planning and design of the new facility are currently underway with construction scheduled to begin sometime in 2003, Dempsey said. Final costs will become clear as that process goes on, she said.
"Our current lab is 20 years out of date," Dempsey said. "A lot has changed in technology since that time and as we get into the actual design I think we can put a very tight dollar figure on the actual overall cost."
Deterring would-be pranksters is the aim of Holden's proposal to include unreported hoaxes among those that can be charged with a felony. Current law allows authorities to press felony charges only when a report of the hoax has been filed.
With long-term proposals yet to be announced, the cost of homeland security measures remains uncertain. Holden said approximately $874,000 has already been spent in this budget cycle on homeland security. Special adviser for homeland security Timothy Daniel told the Senate Appropriations committee Thursday that he believed an expenditure of about $3 million would be sufficient for fiscal year 2003.
"I think we've made a strong case for the expenditures that need to be made in 2003, they will accomplish specific needs," Daniel said.
Holden said he hopes the bipartisan support of homeland security so far will carry over to other issue areas as legislators settle in for a session likely to include some budgetary battles.
"For us to continue to manage this financial situation we have, we have to work together," he said.