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NewsBook: Missouri Government News for the Week of February 15, 2010

A House committee voted against a bill stripping funds from prisons, part of a budget cut plan to help the governor keep his in-state tuition freeze promise.

Last week, House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, asked the six House appropriation committees to make five percent cuts to their budgets. Gov. Jay Nixon's tuition plan requires Missouri's colleges to freeze in-state tuition in order to receive 95% of their budget from government appropriations. To execute the promise, Icet has asked the six committees to spread the brunt of the cuts.

The House Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee voted for Icet's $1.5 million cuts for public safety, but voted against a bill cutting $19 million from the Corrections Department.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday he will decide whether or not to fire St. Louis commissioner Vincent Bommarito.

Nixon said he intends to make a decision quickly.

In a letter to Nixon, State Rep. Jamilah Nasheed accused Bommarito of an "egregious use of power."

Nasheed urged the Governor to remove him from office.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article said Bommarito used his influence to get his cousin out of jail.

The Missouri house passed a bill which will require health insurance companies to cover autism disorders.

Rep. Jeff Grisamore R-Jackson County said the bill is historic and a model piece of legislation in the country.

Grisamore said autism had reached pandemic proportions and that the legislation would save the state "billions of dollars" longitudinally.

The House Administration and Accounts Committee unanimously voted to freeze per diem increases for Missouri legislators as an attempt to aid the state's ailing budget.

The committee heard testimony on two similar bills that would freeze legislators' daily expense reimbursements at Sept. 2009 rates - $87.20 per day. Currently, legislators are reimbursed $103.20 for each day spent at the capitol, 80 percent of the federal per diem established by the Internal Revenue Service for Jefferson City.

"I think we're going to show the people of the state of Missouri that we're cutting back," Rep. Kenny Jones, R-Clarksburg, said during the hearing.

After two days of presentations by Missouri's colleges and universities, the House Education Appropriation's Committee Chair said he is likely to recommend upholding the tuition plan reached by Gov. Jay Nixon and higher education officials in November.

Under the plan, Missouri's colleges agreed to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition in exchange for a 5.2 percent reduction to the higher education appropriation, pending approval by the legislature.

The committee's recommendation to uphold the plan would be the first step in its approval.

Representatives continued their debate over a bill that increases punishments for DWI offenders.

The bill introduces harsher punishments for repeat offenders, especially those that are highly intoxicated.

It also extends how long offenders have to wait to clear the DWI from their record.

A late Tuesday evening session ended with a voice vote on a measure which would require insurance companies to cover people with autism.

One of the key amendments passed included a cap on treatment costs, as well as an age limit on who could receive coverage.

Coverage is limited to anyone with autism 18 years old and under and cannot exceed $36,000. The amendment changed the original bill text which extended coverage to those 21 years of age.

The House rejected an amendment that would have extended the requirement to cover Medicaid that provides health care coverage for the lower income.

Small businesses would receive a tax credit for hiring high achieving students during the summer.

Rep. Michael Brown, D-Kansas City, said the legislation would help keep urban teens out of trouble.

The bill was criticized, however, for taking away from needy families in a poor economy.

The senate small business, industry and insurance committee heard comment on two bills that would regulate Missouri's minimum wage.

The bills would decrease the minimum wage for those under age 20 and would cap the minimum wage for all workers at the federally determined amount.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, sponsors the bill and said it will allow county prosecutors to link more past crimes to current arrests.

Currently, the DNA profiling system allows for DNA collection for those arrested on suspicion of murder, burglary, and sex crimes.

Bartle said county prosecutors average 3 DNA hits per week and that expanding the pool would lead to more cold cases being solved.

Sen. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, sponsored the bill that says each animal owner must restrain their pet or animals effectively before it causes physical injury to another person.

The House special committee on Emerging Issues in Animal Agriculture heard discussion Tuesday on the that would make it a class C misdemeanor if you were found guilty of the crime.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, would add nuclear energy to a list of renewable resources the public voted on in 2008.

Proposition C would require utilities to increase the percentage of renewable energy sources incrementally.

The Proposition specifically defines renewable energy as solar, wind, biomass, hydroelectric, and other sources.

The committee refused to replace a proposition that the public voted on so recently.

Nolte says he is willing to compromise if the utilities committee considers legislation that favors nuclear energy in Missouri.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Sharnhorst would ensure insurance companies cover applied behavior analysis for autistic children under the age of 21.

Representatives Emery and Grill have both proposed amendments that would only cover children up to the age of 15 or 18.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl both testified in support of a bill that would give the city of St. Louis control of their police department.

Slay says he supports the bill because the taxpayers should control the services they pay for.

Several current and retired St. Louis Police Officers testified in opposition of the bill.

St. Louis Police Veterans Association spokesmen John Cullen says he is concerned this could cause political corruption of the police department.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed a bill that would give women at least 24 hours to think through having an abortion after they look at an ultrasound and listen to the fetus' heartbeat.

Abortions rights activists say time won't change anything.

Columbia's state senator has introduced a bill that would ban synthetic cannabinoids, more commonly known in the area as "K-2." It is a spice that, when smoked, is supposed to effect the user in a similar way as marijuana.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a first-term Republican, said that K-2 has rapidly grown in popularity in mid-Missouri and has "a more potent effect than marijuana." He said it was troubling that a substance that can vary widely in effect and impairment has no regulation on it.

His bill would classify cannabinoids as a Schedule I controlled substance, which would put it in the same category as marijuana, heroin, Ecstasy and other drugs that have been classified by the federal government as having "no currently accepted medical use."

Schaefer told the Senate Judiciary Committee that, in the past month or two, hospitals in mid-Missouri have reported multiple instances of adolescents entering emergency rooms complaining of negative effects from the drug.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, would require Missouri driver's license tests to be administered in English, and without the use of interpreters.

Oklahoma state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, testified in favor of the bill to a House committee via phone Wednesday. Terrill authored a similar bill, which Oklahoma passed into law in spring 2009.

Terrill said making tests available only in English would "avoid all the costs, the conflicts and the burdens associated with bilingualism and multilingualism."

Social welfare, immigration rights and several religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Missouri Immigrant and Refuge Advocates and Jewish Vocational Service, wrote in opposition to the bill.

Responding to constituent concerns, Sen. Rob Mayer saw his bill protecting the Southeast Missouri Water District completely through the Senate.

Mayer said landowners in his area are concerned about the ownership of the water beneath their land.

This new law will protect water from the district from being diverted and used for non-agricultural purposes. It stems from concerns that businesses from western states may buy land in the area to tap into the precious water supply.

"We want to guarantee farmers with an adequate water supply to grow food and fiber," Mayer said.

He also said the Southeast region is unique compared to other Missouri areas because of their emphasis on cotton and rice production, which requires a larger water source.

"In time, it would be wise to consider a statewide policy on water ownership," Mayer said.

Republican lawmakers in the House will decide next week whether or not to kill a proposed $800 million bond bill for higher education.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and co-sponsored by House Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, is a bi-partisan effort to provide funds for higher education construction projects that includes $81 million for the University of Missouri. The bill has more than 50 co-sponsors.

Kelly said the political climate presents a challenge for his bill in the Republican-dominated House.

The bill now stands at an estimated $28 million, a figure larger than previously thought.

Committee members agreed to discuss it further next week.

Dissenters of the bill worry that this bill could raise insurance costs for small businesses.

The House of Representatives killed a similar bill last year, even after it gained Senate approval.

If the legislation passes through the Fiscal Oversight committee, it will move on to a formal vote in the Senate.

Rep. Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown, proposed a constitutional amendment to the Agricultural Policy Committee this week. If passed, the amendment would protect animal owners in Missouri from any legislation forcing them to take on a large economic burden in caring for their animals.

Many groups would like to see the vague language tightened and defined before it leaves committee.

Both the House and Senate heard similar bills on drug testing for welfare recipients. Both bills require preliminary screening and random drug tests based on probable cause. Testing positive will make the individual ineligible for TANF welfare benefits for one year.

The Senate stalled its version of the bill just minutes after the House passed its version. The bill is slated to cost about $12 million, according to the fiscal note attached. This caused a point of contention for Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, who asked where the money will come from. The debate pushed the bill onto the informal calendar for future debate.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, asked the Senate on Thursday whether a bike trail or a cancer hospital would be a better use of state's money.

Schaefer criticized the use of federal grant money to allow the City of Boonville to integrate a historic 78-year-old bridge bridge over the Missouri River into the Katy Trail.

The state Transportation Department will give $23 million in federal stimulus funds to Union Pacific for construction of a second rail bridge over the Osage River. As part of this deal, Union Pacific will sell the historic Missouri River bridge to Boonville for $1.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., criticized state legislators that slammed federal stimulus money while, at the same time, using it to fill state budget gaps.

State Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said Missouri only took the money so it wouldn't go to another state.

Icet also said the stimulus money hasn't fixed the state's budget, but just delayed the state's hard times for another year.

Mental health workers urged the committee to support a bill that would allow caregivers to defend themselves without penalty.

Former Fulton State Mental Hospital worker Jered Crawford gives an emotional testimony on behalf of the bill with his personal experiences.

Crawford said the lost his job after he defended himself from a patient.

Committee took no immediate action on the bill but plans to continue the hearing next week.

A bill heard Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee would allow students to enroll in district of their choice in the upcoming school year.

The bill excludes schools within the Kansas City and St. Louis public school districts, but could provide students trapped in an unaccredited school another option. Bill opponents were concerned about the impact of open-enrollment on struggling schools, and stated the bill did not address the real issue of needed improvements for Missouri public schools.

Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, argued that the focus should be on improving kids' lives, not propping up bad schools. "It was my understanding that the Education Committee was about the kids," he said. 

Former drug users would receive food stamps though a pair of bills that would allow Missouri to opt out a federal law barring all former drug felons' eligibility.

The ban was created under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which says that any individual convicted of a drug felony after Aug. 22, 1996, isn't eligible for cash welfare benefits or food stamps.

"The bottom line is that everybody should be able to eat," said Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Jackson County, who sponsored the bill. "I feel we're sending them back on a path that does not benefit society."

Sen. Jason Crowell said he opposes legislation that gives federal help to drug offenders. Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, is on the Senate Progress and Development Committee that heard the bill Wednesday. Wilson filed similar bills last year, which Crowell opposed.

The House Budget chairman has a career change recommendation for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

"If your aim is to be a participant in the Missouri budgeting process, I encourage you to come back and run for state representative once again," Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, wrote Wednesday in a letter to McCaskill.

In a conference call with reporters earlier Wednesday, McCaskill accused Republicans in the legislature of political posturing.

"They're saying the stimulus is evil, and then they're shutting the door as they do their budgets and saying thank God we have a stimulus," she said.

The House Crime Prevention Committee heard Rep. Bryan Stevenson's, R-Webb City, DWI bill for the second time Wednesday and again, there were no witnesses to testify against it.

The committee mainly tossed ideas around about different forms of record keeping. Members did express some concern that some municipalities don't even keep electronic records of DWI and other offenses. Committee Chair Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, joked that it's possible these paper records end up in a box in a basement making it impossible to keep track of repeat offenders.

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said he agrees there needs to be some kind of DWI reform, but the issue of how to keep DWI records shouldn't be a big issue. He said an offender's driving record should suffice as a good indication of their prior offenses.

The Department of Health and Senior Services reports Missouri has the 14th highest gonorrhea rate and the sixteenth highest chlamydia rate.

The House Health Care Committee heard the bill Wednesday that would allow doctors to treat both patients even if only one is present. If a partner is too embarrassed to come to the doctor, both could still be treated.

STDs are highly contagious and if one partner has it, it is likely the other does as well.

The opportunity Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had to shop a U.S. Senate seat would be banned in Missouri under a bill the House gave first-round approval to Wednesday.

House Republicans said Missourians should get to vote on vacancies for U.S. Senate, secretary of state, and the state's attorney general, auditor and treasurer.

In a heated debate on the House floor that ended in a party line vote, Democrats said people should have faith in their elected governor to make appointments. Filling vacancies is one of the governor's duties.

Don Calloway, D-St. Louis, proposes keeping out Missouri high school student athletes from playing if they suffer a concussion.

He presented the bill Tuesday to the House Healthcare Committee.

Committee members weren't exactly sure how long an athlete should be banned from playing if he or she suffers a concussion, but agreed that for students' safety they should be kept out for at least a while.

MSHSAA Executive Director Kerwin Urhahn said regardless of whether or not this legislation becomes law, the state's governing body for high school activities will implement some sort of concussion guidelines for the next school year.

The Senate Rules Committee heard both sides of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy Tuesday.

Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Carroll County, presented his resolution urging Congress to maintain its support of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Openly gay Senator Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat, sponsors a contradicting measure and says she hopes Stouffer's doesn't pass through the Missouri Legislature.

Former Air Force Academy graduate Beth Schissel testified in support of replacing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" with a policy that did not discriminate, and told the committee a gay soldier is no different than any another soldier.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, sponsored a bill protecting people with higher credit scores if their identity is stolen.

Rupp says the bill would force credit agencies to block some information about identity theft victims.

Calling the bill "common sense," Rupp believes it will pass through legislation without much hassle. The committee did not take any immediate action, however.

The House's Public Safety Committee heard a bill Tuesday that would ban texting while driving amongst all ages in Missouri. Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles,~