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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of January 25

The Senate voted to pass a resolution that would dismiss the Missouri Tax Commission's suggested adjustments to Missouri tax assessments on agricultural property.

Three Senators opposed the resolution.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, voiced her concerns that passing the resolution would put a greater burden on residential and commercial taxpayers.

"We are in a time of very high volatility in agriculture and its just not the appropriate time to do this," Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Saline said in regards to the proposed increase in agricultural property taxes.

Senior and charity advocates strongly oppose the creation of a new state sales tax which would take away their tax exemptions.

The new tax would eliminate the state income tax and replace it with an across the board sales tax with exemptions for higher education expenses and business-to-business transactions.

Former state budget director James Moody says that people with higher passive incomes, such as those who own stocks and bonds, would benefit greatly.

The regressive nature of sales taxes mean the tax burden would be shifted to those who can least afford it.

In order to counteract this, the bill includes a "prebate" which would be given to qualified low income families to help offset the cost of the new tax.

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President Obama is open to construction of alternative energy solutions, specifically naming nuclear power in his State of the Union speech last night.

Missouri is home to one nuclear power plant in Callaway County, and last April, AmerenUE ended talks about building a second nuclear plant in Missouri.

Many Missouri State Legislators are in favor of building another nuclear power plant in order to create jobs in-state and reduce dependence on coal and foreign oil.

Republican Senator Delbert Scott believes our future depends on whatever resources we have and our long-term future is reliant on nuclear energy.

The senate committee heard testimony on both sides of a bill that would prohibit federal law from requiring citizens to participate in government run health care on Thursday.

The bill allows more freedom and greater rights, according to Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis, the sponsor of the bill.

"You can continue to enjoy the services you have chosen now, or you can choose to go with the federal plan if they come down with one," said Cunningham. "This would not eliminate any option only increase options."

The governor's plan to provide incentives to state businesses met little opposition from witnesses at a House committee hearing Wednesday.

The House Job Creation and Economic Development Committee heard testimony of advocates for and against the legislation and the effective start of formal debate of the bill.

Proponents of the legislation, which would establish the Missouri Business First Act and provide tax credits, said the bill would create jobs and encourage loyalty among Missouri businesses.

Bruce Hillis, the director of an advocacy group called Missouri First Inc., testified against the bill and said it would compromise free-market principles. Missouri First Inc. shares the name of the governor's initiative only by coincidence.

Public school students who use text messaging, social networking sites and other electronics to harass and intimidate their peers could find themselves in trouble if a bill heard Wednesday is enacted.

Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, who sponsored the bill, told the Senate Education Committee that "cyber-bullying" has gained prevalence over the past few years as a growing number of teens have access to cell phones and broadband Internet.

According to a 2008 Pew Research study, 71 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 17 have a cell phone.

Wilson's bill would require every school system to enact a bullying policy and include electronic communication in it. She said, as bullying evolves, regulations need to keep up the pace. Her measure, however, does not define cyber-bullying.

St. Charles Senator Scott Rupp is sponsoring a bill to repeal legislation he supported in 2007.

The original bill extended the St. Louis commercial zone into St. Charles.

After seeing the damaging effects of the extension on city roadways, the senator is now saying the zone needs to leave St. Charles.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) spokesperson says there is not enough money to fund all school programs.

The Foundation Formula isn't facing any cuts, but school programs like Parents as Teachers faced major reductions.

The next stop for the Education Appropriations Committee is to figure out how fully fund the Foundation Formula with over a $100-million shortage.

Missouri picks up the tab on property taxes and other expenses for many insurance companies across the state.

A more than 60 year old tax credit allows insurance companies to deduct these taxes from the 2 percent insurance premium tax they pay the state each year.

In a meeting of the Joint Committee on Tax Policy, committee chairman Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said he's trying to figure out why the credit, which resulted in more than $8 million in deductions for insurance companies, is still on the books.

"The answer that we've done it for 60 years is not acceptable," said Lager.

The state Gaming Commission voted Wednesday to sink the gaming operations of the President riverboat casino in downtown St. Louis.

Citing declining revenues and job cuts, commission executive director Gene McNary said the President is operating at an "unacceptable level."

Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment owns the President, one of the state's oldest casinos.

The commission didn't allow the public to comment before the unanimous vote, leading a spokesman for Pinnacle to say the company was shut out of the process. The spokesman also said the commission won't let Pinnacle move or repair the riverboat to increase its revenue.

The company has 30 days to appeal the ruling. The spokesman also didn't rule out taking legal action.

Pinnacle also owns Lumiere Place, another downtown St. Louis casino. The President brings in the least money of any casino in the state.

    A measure that seeks to alter the current interpretation of the U.S. Constitution by some legal scholars passed through a House committee Wednesday.

Without opposition, the House Budget Committee approved a resolution that would call for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a balanced budget.

"The worst problem, of course, is the growth of federal power that arises from being able to appropriate without limitation," said Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, a sponsor of the resolution. "That is what scares me the most." 

Missouri had passed a resolution in 1983 that called for both a balanced budget and a constitutional convention.  So far, 20 states have passed similar balanced-budget resolutions-- leaving  the measure 14 short of the number required to trigger a Constitutional convention.

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During a Senate Ethics Committee discussion on lifting campaign contribution limits one Democratic Senator says this will hurt women and minority candidates.

In rebuttal, Republican Senator Gary Nodler,who is running for a U.S. Congress seat,said women live longer and therefore control more of the countries wealth.

Democratic Senator Joan Bray said there are few women that control all of that wealth.

Republican senators are beginning to attack Gov. Jay Nixon's budget proposals for education -- arguing it's not enough.

"I think the state of Missouri is going to get sued," warned Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, about the state's failure to fully fund the School Foundation Formula. "I am extremely concerned about that."

The governor has recommended $18 million increase in the $3 billion program that provides state funds to local public schools. But the legal formula requires a higher level of funding to work.

For the current fiscal year, state funding is $43 million short. And for next fiscal year, "if you wanted to fully fund the formula, there would need to be a $106 million increase," State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said.

Those differences are the basis for predictions from Schaefer and other Republican senators that school districts could file suit.

The state's insurance department wants to make buying Medicare safer for Missouri seniors.

Senate committee members heard a bill that would enforce existing guidelines for Medicare sales practices. It would also allow seniors to receive a refund for part of their long-term insurance policies and Medicare supplement policies premiums.

Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, is sponsoring the bill brought by the Missouri Department of Insurance.

Parents of children with autism are one step closer to being able to afford insurance for their children.

Senate committee members unanimously voted Tuesday to pass a bill that would mandate insurance coverage the diagnosis of treatment of autism.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, sponsored the bill that would allow individuals under certain conditions under the age of 21 for up to $72,000 in coverage per year.

The senate committee on health, mental health, seniors and families heard 4 bills concerning drug testing for TANF participants.

One bill, sponsored by Senator Jason Crowell, mandates that any recipient or applicant who fails a drug test to be ineligible for the program for a period of 3 years.

"I do not think it is unreasonable to request that you be drug free, and I think many taxpayers expect that," Crowell said.

Opponents of the bill, including Senator Jolie Justus say that the law will be too expensive to enforce.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol enforcing the new federal ban on texting while driving for charter bus drivers and truckers will be difficult.

"It will be difficult to see up inside the tractor trailers" says Capt. Tim Hull with the Missouri State Highway patrol.

Hull says it will be easier to tell if a commercial driver was texting while driving after and accident where an injury or death occurs because then they could access the driver's cell phone data records.

Requiring suspected drug users applying for welfare to be tested is continuing on the fast track.

The bill was one of the first to be heard in the House Healthcare Transformation Committee when the committee chairman said he planned on moving the bill on the same day it was heard and was moved out of the Rules Committee Monday with no debate with a 7-4 vote along party lines. It will be among the first bills to be heard on the House floor.

Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, the sponsor of the bill, said in the healthcare committee hearing on Jan. 13 that taxpayers don't want to subsidize drug use.

One Democrat who voted against the bill, Rep. Jake Zimmerman of St. Louis County, said the intent was good but too many nonstandard rules attached to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families can lead to a loss in federal funds.

A bill that would put Valentine's Day on the same level as Super Bowl Sunday for liquor laws is one of the first bills headed for debate by the Missouri House this legislative session.

Valentine's Day this year falls on a Sunday, which would mean, if the bill isn't passed, bars and restaurants without a Sunday permit but with a regular liquor permit could not sell liquor.

"Honestly, if Super Bowl Sunday is good enough to be given special treatment in Missouri law, then I think Valentine's Day probably belongs there too," Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-St. Louis County, said. "And I think my girlfriend might be displeased with me if I suggested otherwise."

President Casino, a St. Louis riverboat gambling center, could shut down this summer after the Missouri Gaming Commission said it would recommend revoking the casino's license, the Associated Press reports.

The casino is operating at an unacceptable level, commission executive director Gene McNary wrote in a letter to Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns the President.

Las Vegas-based Pinnacle also owns Lumiere Place, the largest casino in the St. Louis area. Lumiere had 625,597 admissions and $17.5 million in revenue in December, compared with 86,773 admissions and $1.8 million in revenue at the President, according to AP data.

The President Casino's license is one of only 13 allowed in the state, and the AP reports several other companies would like to open casinos in Missouri but can't because there are no more licenses available.

Missouri's budget situation isn't rosy, but it's better than other states because the state's economy wasn't hit 'as bad' and the state made early cutbacks this year, state Budget Director Linda Luebbering told the Senate Appropriations committee.

Still, the more than $8 billion in general revenue Gov. Jay Nixon has budgeted for fiscal year 2011 includes two major question marks.

Nixon's budget is aided by $300 million still tied up in Congress. The fiscal year 2011 budget also includes $960 million in federal funds that likely won't be available next year.

Republicans on the committee said Nixon's budget relies too heavily on an economic turnaround and increased tax revenues to make up for the lost federal funds in fiscal year 2012. Additional cuts will be necessary to make up the difference, Luebbering said.

Last Week

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.