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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of February 1, 2010

A lawmaker has waltzed into the House with new legislation giving students the option to get class credit for ballroom dancing.

Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, has written a bill allowing students in public schools to take a ballroom dance class instead of a physical education or fine arts class.

"Maybe you're not good at volleyball, or running, or playing soccer," Flook said. "But you could take a ballroom dance course for P.E. class credit."

Citing popular dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Flook said he believes if the choice were offered, schools would likely offer the option for student demand.

Get the newspaper story.

A ballot initiative sponsored by Barbara Schmitz, the Missouri director of the Humane Society of the United States, is facing opposition by the agriculture community.

The initiative is being called the "Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act" and would propose further regulations on dog breeders in the state.

In an December interview with Brownfield Ag News, Jeff Windett, executive vice president for Missouri Cattlemen's Association, said that Missouri will not let a ballot initiative like this pass because it opens the door for futher legislation by the activist group. Such legislation could be focused in the production agriculture sector, according to Windett.

"As most people know, once they initiate something like this and get it into law, it's very easy to go back and change the wording to include livestock," Windett said.

Just days after testifying in front of a federal grand jury about the fate of a similar 2005 bill, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, received final approval for printing of a bill which regulates the Missouri adult entertainment industry.

The bill would require strip clubs and sex shops to close at 12 AM and would prevent them from opening within 1000 feet of churches and schools.

Bartle says the timing of the events was "not coordinated," and added that the bill is "a long way from being done."

The House gave first-round approval to a measure that would require the Social Services Department to set up a system for drug screening of applicants to the welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The measure is less drastic than some earlier versions of the idea.

An actual drug test would not be required unless the initial screening indicated the possibility of illegal drug use.

Eligibility for the welfare benefits would be suspended for one year, but only if the applicant failed to complete a drug treatment program for failed a subsequent test.

The measure faces one more House vote to get to the Senate.

A bill to add designer drug K2, or "Spice", to the list of illegal controlled substances has been written.

The substance is currently legal, but according to officials, it gives off chemical reactions in the brain similar to that of the drug THC.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, drafted the bill over the summer and plans to introduce it to the Senate floor. According to Schaefer, the substance has already been banned in some European countries.

Kansas is currently the first state to try to outlaw the substance. The Kansas Senate passed their version of the bill two weeks ago and the Kansas Senate heard the bill yesterday. Missouri is the second state to file a bill against this drug.

This is the first time legislators have come together to create a report on what can be done to reduce dropout rates in Missouri.

The task force discussed several different factors that contribute to dropout rates.

A majority of the hearing was spent discussing how early programs and intervention should begin to reduce the risk of dropping out in the future.

Even with support from representatives of Missouri's labor community and the attorney general, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said she doubts her bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation will pass through the Missouri legislature this year.

The Senate Progress and Development Committee heard testimony Tuesday on Justus' bill to add sexual orientation to Missouri's current civil rights law. While the majority of testimony was in favor of the bill, she said it is unlikely her bill will become law.

"I don't think that in an election year (the bill) could pass through the legislature," Justus said. "But we need to have the debate on the Senate floor."

One week after the state Gaming Commission voted to sink the gaming operations at the President riverboat casino in downtown St. Louis, the Senate Ways and Means heard a bill that could save the casino.

State Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis, sponsored the bill, which she says will have an emergency clause. That means it would take effect immediately if it's passed by the legislature and the governor signs it.

The casino's closure would mean the loss of 241 casino jobs and an estimated 40 more in the City of St. Louis because of lost tax revenues. The Gaming Commission cited declining performance, including lost jobs, smaller operations, and lower revenues, as the reason for the decision. Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns the President, has a little more than three weeks to appeal.

  Largest Nixon withholding won't hold back radios for public safety Largest Nixon withholding won't hold back radios for public safety 02/03/2010

Gov. Jay Nixon's latest cuts to a program that would improve communication among police, firefighters and rescue workers won't affect the project's progress, said a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.

"We're going ahead with everything as planned," department spokesman Mike O'Connell said.

The interoperability project would create a statewide radio network to connect emergency responders. Motorola has been contracted to build the network, and O'Connell said the cut in funding will not affect the contract.

Former Senate Appropriations Chair Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said the latest cut will only delay an inevitable need for millions of dollars in funds to complete the project.

Missouri legislators discussed a bill Wednesday that will change current drunk driving laws.

The bill would increase the punishment for repeat drunk drivers, especially for those that are very intoxicated.

It also would punish suspended drivers if they refuse to take a Breathalyzer test.

The bill requires local governments to keep detailed records of their drunk drivers.

Missouri's Senate passed for the second year in a row a bill that would require insurance companies to cover autism spectrum disorder.

The bill faced extensive debate, but the Senate leadership decided to push back committee hearings in order to bring the bill to a vote Wednesday.

The House's Crime Prevention Committee discussed raising penalties for repeat offense drunk drivers Thursday.

Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Joplin, proposed the bill, which would establish a statewide drunk driving tracking system to organize past offenders and increase the suspension period for those driving with a BAC greater than .15.

Missouri Chief Supreme Court Justice William Dixon recommended releasing nonviolent criminals from prison as a way to cut down the budget.

House Speaker Pro-Tem Republican Bryan Pratt disagreed and said that if a criminal is convicted and is assigned to serve a prison term, then that criminal should serve a prison term.

The Missouri National Guard is sending a cargo aircraft and an 11-person crew to North Carolina in support of Haiti relief operations, Gov. Jay Nixon said in a press release.

"These Airmen are helping meet the significant challenges of getting badly needed supplies to this devastated country, and we are very proud of them," Nixon said in the release.

The House Special Standing Committee on General Laws met Thursday to discuss a bill that would keep business owners from being held liable for criminal acts committed on their property.

The bill, which was proposed by Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, also specifies that a business cannot outlaw citizens from carrying guns in parking lots.

Several Representatives spoke out against the bill, including Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis City, who felt the present legislation did not need to be altered.

According to a bill proposed by Rep. Walter Bivins, R-St. Louis, a statewide smoking ban would make it illegal to smoke in enclosed public places like bars and restaurants, and certain outdoor venues, including in and within fifteen feet of playgrounds and bus stops. Citizens could still light up in private homes and tobacco retail outlets.

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, received support from the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

Wildwood Republican Allen Icet says Missouri will have to "batten down the hatches" in a budget sense to deal with revenue problems in the year ahead.

According to Icet the combination of sales tax and income tax collections being down and tax refunds being up led to very bad year for Missouri.

Republican senators urged the Senate Rules committee to stop recognizing the authority of many federal decisions.

Farmington Republican Senator Kevin Engler said Missouri has a legal right to refuse national legislation.

St. Louis County Republican Senator Jim Lembke agreed with Engler and said it's time for Missouri to look out more for its own interests and not the federal government's.

The Senate Commerce Committee met Thursday to hear a bill that would modify the Motor Vehicle Franchise Practices Act to provide more franchise protection for auto dealers.

Missouri car dealers came forward to share their stories of bad relations with manufacturers.

Senator Lembke advised them to associate and make demands instead of asking the government to place more restrictions on their industry.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, testified before a federal grand jury at the courthouse in Kansas City on Tuesday about what he called the "troubling circumstances" surrounding the defeat of his 2005 bill that would have imposed significant regulations on the adult entertainment industry.

In an interview in the courthouse, Bartle said he thought there was a link between a $35,000 donation to a campaign committee with ties to then-House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, and the death of the bill.

An amendment to include welfare recipients under a mandate for autism insurance coverage has delayed a vote in the Senate.

Sen. Joan Bray, St. Louis County, proposed an amendment Tuesday omitting the part of the bill that waives the Missouri Health Net program from the mandate.

However, other senators fear Bray's amendment would make an already expensive bill too costly.

A Bill that would drug test welfare recipients may be extended to elected officials.

Republican State Rep. Ryan Silvey offered an Amendment that would subject all elected officials to a random blood test before taking office and once every two years after.

Democrat Maria Chappelle-Nadal called an amendment to the amendment, suggesting that drug tests be taken on a volunteer basis.

The house rejected this idea, fearing it was watering down the process too much.

Talks will continue when the House meets tomorrow.

The Senate Appropriations Committee met Tuesday to discuss the economic constraints binding higher education and asked for transparency in the way universities sought money for funding.

Retiring Commissioner of Higher Education Robert Stein began the meeting with remarks on the status of the Missouri higher education system.

"As a system, we perform average," Stein said.

State Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, held a press conference Tuesday morning to introduce a resolution asking Congress to continue to support the federal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Stouffer says it is the wrong time to be addressing the issue after President Obama announced last Wednesday that he would ask that the policy be repealed.

Missouri Democratic Party Communications Director Ryan Hobart questioned in response, "why is he using tax-payer funded resources to hold a press conference related to something he has made a central issue of his congressional campaign?"

Lambert Airport in St. Louis would become an air cargo trade hub between China and the U.S. under a proposal that Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Zhao Wenzhong and Gov. Jay Nixon voiced support for Monday.

But Ambassador Zhao and Nixon offered no specifics of the plan to reporters at a press conference inside the state Capitol.

Missouri is uniquely positioned to compete worldwide, Nixon said.

Talk about the proposed trade hub then turned to the U.S. government's decision to sell weapons to Chinese foe Taiwan. In response to a reporter's question, Zhao denounced arms sale in front of Nixon.

The Senate Governmental Organizations Committee heard a bill Monday that would bar felons from seeking state office.

State Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, has sponsored the bill before. It passed the Senate but got stuck in the House in the 2009 legislative session, he said.

Nodler said the bill is not solely a reaction to former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, who pleaded guilty last fall to felony obstruction of justice and is now serving time in a Kentucky prison.

Missouri's top higher education official sent a letter two weeks ago to public college officials across the state laying out potential cuts to address the anticipated budget hole that will result in two years when nearly a billion dollars in federal stabilization funds expire.

The hole he's worried about is potentially even worse.

Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget for next year includes nearly $1.2 billion in stabilization funds, $300 million of which Nixon's office anticipates will come from an extension of federal stabilization funds that the state doesn't currently have.

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.

Get the print story

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