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

The House announced new budget bills before they left for a week-long recess.

The bills were filed by House Budget Chairman Allen Icet after a week of discussion between Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate.

"We have a plan and we'll meet the governor halfway," said Speaker of the House Ron Richard. "Everything is on the table as far as I'm concerned."

The Missouri House met today to discuss a bill proposed that would prohibit state residents from being compelled to obtain health care coverage or participate in a health care system.

The discussion ranged from the bill itself to an overall debate on the current health care system and federal reform efforts.

The House voted 113 to 40 in favor of the bill.

A federal investigation into radioactive gas has been confirmed by the Natural Resources Department .

An official with Missouri's Natural Resources Department confirmed Friday that there was an active investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office involving radioactive material but declined further comment.

The department cannot "comment on the situation due to an active investigation into the matter by the United States Attorney's Office," said Mark Conner, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources Waste Management program.

Conner referred all questions to Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office Western District.

Ledford said as a matter of procedure the U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment until charges are filed. Ledford refused to confirm if an investigation was even going on in the matter, referring all questions back to the Natural Resources Department.

A state environmental official said last week that the department found radioactive gas being illegally stored in the Columbia area within the last month. The official asked to remain unnamed.

The University of Missouri System president's October call to the state to provide matching funds for science, technology, engineering and math programs was heard Wednesday, but something was lost in the translation.

UM System President Gary Forsee testified before the Senate Education Committee in support of a bill that would establish the Missouri Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Initiative and create a fund to process donations supporting the program. But under the terms of the proposed bill, the state would not be obligated to provide matching funds for these donations.

If the Missouri General Assembly passes a bill that was debated Wednesday, simple possession of any amount of K-2 could become a Class C felony, on par with involuntary manslaughter and grand theft.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, would ban substances that mimic the effects of marijuana and that, he said, youths in southern Missouri are accessing with ease.

"I've heard story after story of children being able to purchase this stuff," Franz said. "It's time we deal with this before it becomes a bigger problem."

Franz said he had hoped the bill would come up for a vote, but House Floor Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said the debate ran on too long. Tilley said he would re-introduce the bill after next week's break, but he wasn't sure he had the votes to pass the bill the way it was written.

The Missouri Senate Agriculture Committee discussed adding methane to the list of renewable energy sources.

The bill would add methane to Proposition C, which aims to increase renewable energy use across the state during the next decade.

Bill sponsor Frank Barnitz, a Lake Springs Republican, says the bill will make it easier for Missouri to reach its Prop C goals.

In the name of cutting spending to deal with Missouri's worst budget crisis in years, the Senate has given first-round approval to a bill reversing the requirement that Missourians have front license plates on their automobiles.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, proposed the amendment on the Senate floor, as lawmakers were debating the overall bill. It would save the state $3 million, Bartle said.

Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Jackson County, said police would have a harder time identifying criminals without the front plate.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol doesn't support or oppose the bill, but a spokesman confirmed it would be more difficult to identify an oncoming vehicle without the license plate.

Missouri will need to restructure the very nature of Missouri government, the House Budget Chairman predicted Tuesday after a series of private meetings between the governor and legislative leaders.

House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, and the committee's senior Democrat -- Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia -- emerged from separate meetings with the governor saying that between $400 million to $500 million would have to be cut from the governor's spending plans for the 2011 fiscal year that will begin July 1.

A cut of that magnitude would be of generational historic proportions. It would be bigger than the entire state appropriations for the University of Missouri System.

Students of higher education feuded over who should receive more money at a legislative committee meeting Tuesday.

Officials and students from both public and private institutions testified before the House Higher Education Committee on a bill moving money that can be allocated to private college students to those that attend public universities.

"Our goal is to make this even and equitable across the board," said the bill's sponsor Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff. "We do not begrudge our private institutions. However, especially in the economy today, we'd like to equalize these amounts."

Proposed legislation in Missouri could dim the future of some Missouri tanning salons.

Robert Cooper, R-Camdenton, a medical doctor, is sponsoring a bill requiring tanning salons to obtain licenses from the state's Health Department.

In addition to requiring facilities to obtain and post licenses, the bill also prohibits individuals younger than 16 from tanning and requires those under the age of 18 to obtain written parental permission. Under the bill, facilities would be required to get customer signatures before using tanning equipment and prior to every contract renewal for long-term tanning services.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay testified to a Senate committee for the first time saying why the St. Louis City Police Department.

Slay says the department went under state control during the Civil War because state lawmakers were afraid the department could be used as a militia.

Joe Steiger with the St. Louis Police Officers Association says politics should be kept out of what is a professional police department.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, called them business as usual.

Rep. Chris Pratt, R-Blue Springs, said they stopped progress.

Gov. Jay Nixon's secretive negotiations on budget cuts with Republicans and Democrats today stirred the emotions of legislators trying to solve Missouri's massive deficit.

More than $200 million worth of cuts face the state currently and the debate over what survives continues.

It is a conversation, Kelly said, "that will be interesting and heartbreaking."

The house committee on utilities heard bill 2038 on Tuesday and debated its need for a limited liability test.

The 2- to 3-year test will inject soda grade carbonation 2000 feet below the ground.

Supporters said the liability protection would cover emergencies even though they don't expect any.

A week after a member of the state-run St. Louis police commission resigned following a scandal, a House committee approved a bill which would eliminate that same board and give the city autonomous control over its police department for the first time since the Civil War.

Currently, the police forces of St. Louis and Kansas City are each overseen by a board of commissioners, comprised of Mayor Francis Slay and five members appointed by the governor; this bill, which has divided both parties, would only apply to St. Louis. The bill, which was passed with five votes in favor and three against, would eliminate the board and give control to a commissioner appointed by the mayor.

The estranged wife of a state representative is prepared to use legislative action to ensure a speedy divorce.

The wife of Rep. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, issued a letter Monday alleging infidelity on the part of her husband and criticizing a state statute she said is delaying her divorce.

Current statute allows active lawmakers to delay certain court cases during the legislative session. Neena Cunningham hopes to change the statute through a House bill.

Representatives from the University of Missouri System opposed legislation Monday that would consolidate all of the state government employee health care plans.

Betsy Rodriquez, vice president of human resources for the UM System, said one of the system's main reasons for opposing the bill was the legislation's "involuntary nature." The UM System, along with the Transportation Department and Conservation Department, would be required to merge into the health care plan known as the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan.

"We don't want to be forced into a plan that would immediately raise premiums," she said.

St. Louis Senator Joan Bray expressed her concerns on Friday when her and two other Democratic Senators released a Minority Report regarding the Commerce Committee's Majority Report about E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks.

The Minority Report addressed factual errors in the committee's Majority Report and offered recommendations.

Bray says the she is disappointed that this serious issue has been dealt with in such a partisan way.

Maryville Republican Senator Lager says the Majority Report was not politically driven and all members of the Committee had an opportunity to consult with him. \

Last Week

With Bikers, Tea Party supporters and an influx of youth contributing to a near record turnout, Missouri Republicans are searching for more.

The Missouri Republican Party held their annual Lincoln Days event in St. Charles Friday and Saturday. With attendance estimated around 800 - double the previous year - according to Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Party, the message of the weekend was one of inclusion.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, attributed the rise in attendance to work he and Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, did mobilizing younger voters. After a low turnout at the event last year in Kansas City, Tilley said he and Engler spent the last year attempting to drum up "young energy and exuberance."

With a scoop in one hand and a cup in the other, Sen. Kurt Schaefer doled out ice cream during an event hosted by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder at the annual Republican Party Lincoln Days convention. After retiring his scoop, Schaefer, R-Columbia, took a few minutes to spoon out his thoughts on state issues and the state of the Republican Party.

State Budget

Gov. Jay Nixon held a meeting last week with Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Mayer and Majority Leader Kevin Engler.

Schaefer said he assumed the meeting centered around $300 million in federal dollars Nixon had included in his budget proposal that the U.S. Senate decided not to include in its jobs bill last week. House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, - who said he spoke to Mayer - confirmed Schaefer's assumption and said no decisions were made about what to do if the money does not appear.

"I think what the General Assembly would like to know from the governor, Schaefer said, is what his proposal is now that we're tasked with dealing with a budget he gave us that is clearly not in balance."

While U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt may not be the official senatorial candidate of Missouri Republicans, party leaders are giving the indication they expect him to be.

Speaking at a town hall meeting on the second Lincoln Day, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., said "Roy Blunt's race this year is a must win."

Before Blunt can face presumed Democratic general election opponent Robin Carnahan, however, he must win the Republican primary. One of his primary opponents, state Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, was seated in the crowd to hear Akin's remark.

Purgason was not on the panel that featured party leaders Blunt, Akin, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields and House Speaker Ron Richards.

In his opening remarks, Kinder said Gov. Jay Nixon had squandered a budget surplus left for him by former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and had cost the state thousands of jobs.

"We've got an executive branch now that's asleep at the wheel," Kinder said.

In response to a question on the "fair tax," Shields said the state Senate to begin debate next week on a proposal to end Missouri's income tax and instead increase the state's sales tax rate. Shields added, however, that he doubts the proposal will pass the Senate.

Richard, whose House passed a similar measure last year, said he worries that increasing the sales tax rate could drive business across state lines in cities that border other states.

Two questions from the audience focused on growing the Republican party through diversity. According to Blunt, one minority group should mesh perfectly with the party.

"Hispanics are very pro-family, their socially conservative, they work hard. They should be Republicans."

In response to a similar question, Shields also said Hispanics should be natural Republicans.

They "value faith, family, and hard work," Shields said.

Tea Party activists and U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., were the focus of the first day of an annual Missouri Republican party gathering.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, in a speech introducing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the future of the Republican party lies in the hands of non-traditional party loyalists.

"We rise or fall on the voting behavior of swing voters," Kinder said. "These are the Tea Party movement folks."

Tea Party activists were also mentioned twice by Pawlenty, who said conservatives of all types needed to focus on inclusion.

"I hope we realize we are first constitutional conservatives," Pawlenty said.

In his 30-minute speech, Pawlenty also offered his support for U.S. Rep Roy Blunt, who is running for the soon to be vacant U.S. Senate seat currently held by Christopher "Kit" Bond.

State Sen. Chuck Purgason said his campaign is focused on meeting with people, not highly visible campaign material.

Purgason, a Republican from Caulfield, said that he is focusing on support from "people my type," the kind of people he meets at campaign events.

"I talk to the frustrated guy who realizes he's going to pass onto his kids as massive debt," Purgason said during the Missouri Republican Party's Lincoln Days event.

Purgason said the number one issue in his U.S. Senate race should be balancing the federal budget, something he said his Republican opponent U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt has failed to do in his time in Washington.

"The Republican party had an opportunity (to reign in federal spending) when they were the majority from 2000 to 2006," he said. "Blunt was part of the leadership that added debt... He enjoys earmarks and failed to balance the budget."

Even though the Lincoln Days entrance and convention floor was covered with Blunt balloons, Purgason said he was undeterred.

"In my first race for state rep, the party worked against me," Purgason said. "I've been there before."

In reference to a bill mandating autism insurance coverage in Missouri, Purgason also cited fiscal responsibility.

"Right now we're looking at dollars with every bill," he said. "We need to figure out how we're going to pay for it... We're broke."

U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said his election to the U.S. Senate would change the future of the country.

"I've never run for office before where I thought weather I got elected or not actually had the likely hood of truly affecting the absolute future of America," Blunt said.

The St. Charles Convention Center was awash in blue and white Blunt balloons as state Republicans began their annual Lincoln Days event. Blunt's campaign rally, however, was not part of the official Lincoln Days schedule, according to Missouri Republican Party spokesman Jonathon Prouty.

Blunt is facing opposition in the Republican primary from State Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, among others.

In a speech that lasted over 10 minutes, Blunt did not mention Purgason or other Republican challengers, instead focusing on expected Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and national Democratic leaders.

The third floor indoor balcony of the Embassy Suites, attached to the convention center, was adorned with a large "Roy" banner. Other candidates with balcony signs included current House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, who is running for state Senate; current house budget chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, who is running for state auditor; Icet's opponent, former Bush administration official Thomas Schweich; and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

None of Blunt's Republican U.S. Senate challengers had banners hanging, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Purgason did have a booth.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will give a speech to the convention during a banquet dinner this evening.

The Associated Press reported that two Missouri Senators, Brad Lager and Kurt Schaefer, have filed bills to move water testing responsibilities to the Health and Human Services and away from the Natural Resources Department.

The bills come the same day Lager's office released to the Associated Press a draft report from a Senate committee affirming that people did get sick from swimming in bacteria-damaged water at the Lake of the Ozarks last summer.

Lager, a Republican from Savannah, said the report says that the Natural Resources Department cannot be trusted and violated public safety and health.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, however, reports that Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said there are some things in the report she does not agree with. Bray also serves on the committee that produced the report.

Lager's office has delayed public release of the report until next week to give some members of the committee time to comment on it and suggest changes, The Associated Press reports.

A spokesman for the Natural Resources Department, Judd Silvka, said the department would not comment before receiving the report.

Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law the first bill of the 2010 legislative session on Thursday.

House Bill 1540 requires motorists to obey directions made by law enforcement officials while enforcing infractions and requires judicial procedures for an infraction to be the same as a misdemeanor, according to the House's Web site.

"This new law will mean that when Missouri law enforcement issues tickets for infractions, prosecutors and judges can handle these matters in the same way as criminal matters," Nixon said in a statement. "This will ensure that infractions are enforced and prosecuted effectively, thus keeping Missouri's roads safer."

The bill, passed by the House on Feb. 11 and the Senate on Feb. 25, was sponsored by Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson.