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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of January 11, 2010

A bill to require drug screening for welfare applicants is getting fast-track treatment in Missouri's legislature.

The bill, which would require screening all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and then test those who Social Services reasonably suspects of drug use, is among one of the first to be heard, and a modified version was voted out of committee Wednesday.

Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, the sponsor of the bill, said taxpayers don't want to subsidize drug use.

"Why are you focusing on poor people?" asked former Sen. Patrick Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, representing Catholic Charities, which opposed the originally filed bill. He said if the goal was to prevent taxpayers from subsidizing drug use, everyone, or at least a larger segment of the population, should be screened.

Missouri businesses are given a 2 percent discount for doing the same thing many Missourians do each year: pay their taxes on time.

State Auditor Susan Montee said the legislature should consider repealing the discount, which cost the state $93 million potential revenue in 2008.

"We are allowing $93 million to be kept by the vendors when now we're looking at vendors like Walmart who are virtually instantaneous," Montee said.

Tracy King, director of tax policy and fiscal affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said repealing the discount would amount to a tax increase.

In a split decision, Missouri's Supreme Court held that the legislature could not retroactively apply restrictions to previously convicted sex offenders.

One of the laws requires a registered sex offender to stay at home on Halloween and post a sign indicating no treats are available.

The other law prohibits a registered sex offender from living within 1,000 feet of a school or child care facility.

The court held those restrictions could be applied only to a person convicted of a sex offense after the restrictions had been passed.

To impose the restrictions after a person's sex-offense conviction would violate the state Constitution's provision against retrospective laws, the court ruled.

Article I, Section 13 provides "That no ex post facto law, nor ,law impairing the obligation of contracts, or retrospective in its operation, or making any irrevocable grant of special privileges or immunities, can be enacted."

Two two cases got different votes by the court. Four of the seven judges agreed that the Halloween restriction could not be applied retrospectively. Six of the seven agreed that the residency restriction could not be applied retrospectively.

Judge Mary Russell was the only judge voting to allow both restrictions to be applied to previously convicted sex offenders.

Russell argued that the restrictions did not impact on sex offenders' "vested" or "fundamental" rights. Instead, she wrote, the two laws "are valid and constitutional exercises of the State's power to protect its youngest, most defenseless citizens."

Like many in the current economic climate, the state of Missouri is living paycheck-to-paycheck, according to state budget director Linda Luebbering.

The state of Missouri borrowed $350 million in funds from a budget reserve to help ease cash-flow problems, but Luebbering consistently monitors the state's account to ensure that it has sufficient funds to make required monthly payments, she told a house budget committee.

"We are looking at the cash balance every day," Luebbering said. "It's that tight."

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A senate subcommittee heard testimony Wednesday concerning the benefits of and the problems with eliminating Missouri's income and corporate taxes.

The nine states that currently have no income tax have seen higher levels of growth compared to those with the five highest levels of income tax, economist Aurthur Laffer said.

To offset the loss of income and corporate tax revenue, Missouri would increase its state sales tax rate - currently about 4.2 percent according to Joint Tax Policy Committee director Brian Schmidt - to between 5.1 to 7.6 percent.

A move away from an income tax would shift the burden of who pays taxes, but not actually increase revenue collections, former State Budget Director Jim Moody said.

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Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder spoke in a closed-door meeting to the Republican caucus Monday about the cost of federal health care legislation, Republican Senate leadership said.

Kinder sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon saying the legislation would bankrupt the state.

There would have to be cuts to education, Senate Floor Leader Kevin Engler said.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Victor Callahan said, however, it's too early to tell.

Last Week

Col. Jim Keathley announced his plans to retire in March after more than three years as leader of the state Highway Patrol.

Keathley began as a trooper 33 years ago.

Keathley made his announcement in the office of a clearly saddened Gov. Jay Nixon.

"It will be hard to see a good friend go," Nixon said.

The governor did not name a replacement.

Legislative leaders cited ethics reform and the state's budget as the top priorities for the 2010 session that began Wednesday at noon.

The session was marked by the progress of three former legislators through the criminal justice system -- one who learned his sentence on a federal bribery charge, another who was scheduled to appear in court on assault charges and a third who began his second day in federal prison on a justice obstruction charge.

The state's budget director reported Tuesday that state revenue collections for the month of December fell 21.7% below collections for December of 2008.

For the first half of the fiscal year, that began July 1, revenue collections are 10.6 behind the prior fiscal year.

The latest revenue figures were reported on the eve of the legislature's 2010 session -- a session in which legislative leaders have predicted that budget problems would be the top issue for state lawmakers.

In a five-hour hearing before a Senate environmental committee, witnesses provided testimony to the reasoning behind the Department of Natural Resources's decision to withhold information about elevated E. coli levels in the Lake of the Ozarks.

According to DNR lab staffer Scott Robinett, it isn't unusual to withhold test results before a press release is drafted. But Robinett did say the delay in this particular case was much longer than the usual two week period.

There was partisan debate from members of the committee. The committee Vice Chairman, Republican Senator Kurt Schaefer, said there was no reason the public shouldn't have been informed about the levels, even if the DNR was waiting to analyze the results.

But Democratic member Joan Bray pointed out the results could have been irrelevant because so many factors like rain and wind can alter the results on a daily, or even hourly basis - which is why analysis is often needed.

Former DNR Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel, who was dismissed after admitting to withholding information, also testified Tuesday. He admitted to withholding information about elevated E. coli levels, but defended his decision saying a plan of action needed to be in place before a public announcement could be made.

Legislative leaders and the governor have agreed upon a revenue estimate that projects an historic decline in state revenues for the current fiscal year.

On Monday, the legislative budget leaders and governor agreed upon a "consensus revenue estimate" that projects the state will collect $480 million less during the current fiscal year than last year.

According to the governor's office, it is the "only year in modern history where revenues have fallen at a faster pace."

For the next fiscal year, that begins July 1, they estimate just a 3.6 percent increase in state General Revenue collections.