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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of January 18, 2010

An agricultural property tax hike proposed by the Missouri State Tax Commission took on statewide political ramifications when the GOP lieutenant governor used the issue to charge the Democratic governor's administration with trying to raise taxes in violation of a no-tax-increase pledge.

The measure had gotten only minor attention in the statehouse until Wednesday night when it was thrown on the front lines following Gov. Jay Nixon's State of the State speech.

"While Gov. Nixon made a promise tonight to not raise taxes, just weeks ago his tax commission voted to raise taxes on Missouri farmers by almost 29 percent," Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said. "This is a devastating blow to our agricultural producers after one of the worst farm income years since 1945. In the coming days, Missouri Republicans will move to stop this hike from Gov. Nixon."

A House Republican and physician wants to make Missouri the 15th state to permit medical marijuana.

Rep. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, who has been a family physician in northwest Missouri since 1985 , is one of 15 co-sponsors of a bill that would adjust laws pertaining to the classification of marijuana as a controlled substance in order to allow its use for medical purposes.

Missouri would follow New Jersey -- which passed similar legislation last week -- and thirteen other states and the District of Columbia in allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to ease patients' chronic pain and nausea.

Reps. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, and Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, filed a resolution for lawmakers in Congress to pass an amendment to the Constitution forcing the federal government to make a balanced budget.

Both Icet and Kelly said government spending in Washington is out of control and dangerous.

"Rep. Kelly and I both know there are implications to the state when the federal government spends like drunken sailors," Icet said.

Gov. Jay Nixon called job growth his top legislative priority in his State of the State address Wednesday, but his budget recommendation for next year calls for a reduction of 544 state jobs.

With more than 1,000 job cuts slated for the current fiscal year, the additional reduction would mean Nixon had cut almost 1,800 state positions in his first two years.

State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said the reductions do not mean Missouri's payroll is unnecessarily bloated.

"This is more about demanding more from people left behind," Luebbering said.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said the governor will raise taxes on some Missourians and has cut funding to some departments while increasing funding to his own.

Kinder, who gave the Republican response to Gov. Jay Nixon's State of the State address, said Nixon:

Following an address in which Nixon called for ethics reform,  Kinder said "lawmakers have credibly charged Gov. Nixon's staff with offering them jobs for their votes."

Following the speech, Kinder spokesman Gary McElyea said that the 80 percent of stimulus money spent was based on the amount the state has currently received. The number did not include federal money Missouri is expected to receive this year.

Nixon's office refused comment.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields expressed caution after Governor Nixon's State of the State address.

Shields says he would be extremely careful about handing out tax credits this year knowing of future budget problems down the road.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Kevin Engler was also weary after the Governor's speech. He said Nixon didn't address where his money was coming from for new programs.

But Senate Minority Floor Leader Victor Callahan remained optimistic. He said the Governor wasn't creating all new tax credits, but rather, re-arranging them.

A two minute blackout left the entire Capitol dark, including the House chambers where the State of the State address was going to take place in less than a hour.

Ameren UE spokesman Mike Cleary says the blackout was caused by a malfunction during Ameren maintenance work.

Also, Cleary says the power outage affected government buildings, the Governor's mansion and several Jefferson City businesses.

The men who control the balance of power in the Missouri House of Representatives say they will lead the charge of bipartisanship that Gov. Nixon spoke about during his Tuesday night speech.

Budget Chair Allen Icet, a Republican from Wildwood, even laughed at the notion of bipartisanship because he said it didn't see it happen at all during the last legislative session.

In regard to some of the governor's recommendations and goals, House Speaker Pro-Tem Bryan Pratt said, "With the governor, actions speak louder than words."

Pratt, Icet, as well as Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley all complained about not having seen any of the governor's budget recommendations before the speech.

The Missouri House voted Tuesday for a resolution against the proposed health care bills being debated in the Congress.

The resolution, which is only an expression of opinion and does not become Missouri law, passed about the same time the Republican candidate won the open Massachusetts Senate seat, removing the Democrats' ability to override Republican filibusters.

Rep. John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, said other states in the U.S. have been receiving tax exemptions throughout congressional debate. States including Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut would have better tax exceptions than Missouri under the proposed health care reform, Diehl said.

Gov. Jay Nixon will identify his administration's budget and policy goals for the upcoming legislative session at the State of the State address at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The speech will take place at a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chamber and will be streamed live at as well as by some local TV stations.

Nixon has emphasized his commitment on creating jobs and not raising taxes.

Health care providers ask for revision of the bill mandating autism health care coverage during a Senate Committee.

People in favor of mandating autism health care coverage spoke of both a tsunami and a trickle of costs during the committee hearings.

United Health Care spokesman William Shoehigh says he would like to see the bill revised to offer an opt-in option for small businesses in case of high costs.

Department of Insurance Director John Huff says Missouri's insurance market is stable and can support the autism insurance mandate.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission are questioning AmerenUE's Pure Power green pricing program.

The utility's program has nearly 6,000 of its customers voluntarily paying more on their monthly electric bills to support renewable energy development.

Pure Power gives $14 for every $15 to 3Degrees Inc., a San Francisco-based administrator. The Post-Dispatch reports, however, that less than half of the funds goes to buy renewable energy certificates. The rest is retained for marketing, administrative expenses, and profit for 3Degrees Inc., according to the report.

The PSC wants AmerenUE to break down the costs on its program's website. In 2008, AmerenUE and 3Degrees Inc. rectified similar issues after the PSC staff called for the ending of the program.

Last Week

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.