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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of April 26, 2010

A new Missouri information service connected with a national conservative organization has been denied membership in the state's association of statehouse news organizations by a unanimous vote.

The service, Missouri News Horizon, had refused repeated requests from statehouse reporters to disclose either its ownership or its funding source(s).

Although refusing to identify its funding, the organization acknowledged the money came through a conservative-connected organization called the Franklin Center. According to The Associated Press, statehouse news associations in three other states have denied credentials to information agencies connected with the Franklin Center.

In addition to the Franklin Center connection, Missouri News Horizon has used an employment agency that advertises it serves "conservative and libertarian think tanks...dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government."

The Missouri organization had sought membership in the Missouri Capitol News Association after the House had ejected its representative from the House press gallery.

The representative was allowed back in after the Capitol News Association asked the House to allow access to visiting press. A local radio station had written the House stating that the Missouri News Horizon employee also was providing stories for the station.

Missouri's Senate passed the last three appropriations bills today, a week before the deadline.

Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, says his committee was disappointed to have to cut $509 million.

The bills will go to Governor Nixon to either sign or veto.

Missouri's legislature sent the governor the state's education budgets Wednesday with members of the governor's own party taking different public posters in the House and Senate on the spending reductions the Democratic governor had recommended to his original budget plan.

In the Senate, Democrats remained largely silent as the Senate passed budgets that virtually freeze state funding for public schools and imposes a cut for state universities of about five percent.

In the House, however, Democrats were vocal in their attacks about the size of a budget that their own governor had recommended.

The budgets approved by the legislature virtually would freeze state funding to local public schools and impose a cut in state funding to public universities of about 5 percent.

Despite the lean budget, some lawmakers warned the governor still would have to make further reductions in spending after the budget takes effect in July.

By a near party-line vote, Missouri's House approved a final version of the education budget that would impose a slight cut in state funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Democratic critics charged the legislature should look at cutting back tax breaks for special interests as a way to avoid education cuts.

But supporters argued the budget was the best the legislature could do.

The House Education Committee chair said that nobody in the House was happy with the budget, but that the legislature had to deal with the reality of the state's financial problems.

During the phone conference Nixon repeated thoughts he addressed about tax credit reform a week ago.

Nixon thinks the state needs a tax credit reform to make sure taxpayer money is going where it is most useful.

Nixon says he wants the executive branch to have control of overseeing the tax credits.

But some members of the legislature will not let a tax credit reform pass unless they have control over appropriation.

The move by House Democrats comes after the House Rules committee did not pass an ethics bill placing greater restrictions on issues like campaign contributions.

Governor Jay Nixon sent out a letter reprimanding the House Rules committee and urging legislators to pass this legislation before this session ends.

However, House Republican leaders have vowed to never let debate on the ethics bill reach the floor.

Marion County Democratic Representative Rachel Bringer says the bill does not affect wealthier "hold harmless" school districts and it creates winners and losers.

Hold Harmless school districts have funding frozen at 1992 levels and are not affected by the school funding formula.

Springfield Republican Representative and former school superintendent Maynard Wallace said the bill doesn't create winners and losers and gives school administrators better information to make budget decisions.

Over one hundred World War Two veterans filled the Missouri House on Tuesday.

All of the Veterans are participants of seven Honor Flights to the World War Two memorial in the nation's capitol.

The veterans were escorted from the house to a reception by Missouri firemen, legislators, and family members.

The Senate finalized a bill that would lower the age that a child must enter kindergarten to 6 years old.

Currently, most children begin kindergarten as young 5 years old and have until they turn 7 to begin school.

The bill covers public, private, parochial, parish schools, or full time equivalent, which opens up the possibility of home schools as well.

The bill would also increase funding for investigating neglected children who have not begun school.

Senate approves joint resolution to combine education departments. 04/27/2010

After several weeks of debate, the Senate cast a final vote consolidating Missouri's two education departments into one all-inclusive department.

The move would eliminate the Coordinating Board for Higher Education and the Higher Education Department and create a single entity under the authority of a six-member education board.

Last week, the Senate voted to pass a joint resolution to dissolve the higher education board and combine the departments, but a second joint resolution, which details the number of board members and the power given to the new board, created some contentious debate among senators.

The House gave a 38-119 vote to shut down an amendment that would have cut $31 million in funds for an expansion of the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

The funding for the center is part of a re-appropriations bill that received first-round approval on Monday. The money for the program had been withheld from appropriations by Gov. Jay Nixon last year.

The Ellis Fischel funding came from a two-year $350 million construction bill created last year, according to House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County. The re-appropriation bill takes yet-to-be appropriated money from other bills and assigns it to different expenditures.

Ethics reform legislation was dealt a significant blow on Monday night, when the House Rules Committee voted to block the legislation from reaching the full House.

The committee voted along party lines, 7-4, to send the amended reform bill back to the House Ethics Reform Committee, which drafted the legislation with the support of all 12 of its members. At issue were the bill's $5,000 cap on individual campaign contributions, with some Republicans also complaining it does not restrict the executive branch enough.

Some of the Republicans who voted against it, including one who had championed reform all session, said the bill could still pass the full House before the May 14 deadline. Democrats disagreed.

"It's dead," Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, said of the legislation. He said Republicans who believed the legislation could make its way through two committees, the House floor and a conference committee with the Senate in the next three weeks were being dishonest.

"We got way too much to deal with in the next three weeks to expect that this will come back up again," he said.

The Senate-approved ban would prohibit any city or town from using an automated photo red light enforcement system.

The provision was added to a broad transportation bill that will require approval from Senate committee before a final vote in the Senate.

The amendment's sponsor argued that by imposing civil fines rather than driving license points, these systems violate state law.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, also said that sometimes that there is no proof that the auto owner getting the fine was the actual driver who ran the red light.

Only one senator, Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, spoke against the ban, arguing cars running red lights is a major traffic hazard. The amendment passed 23-8.

At a public conference committee meeting over the state's budget, lawmakers huddled or left the room to work out the session's most contentious issues.

Gov. Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, agreed she was in the dark about what the final decisions would be. The process "is less transparent," Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said. But Kelly said private talks are inevitable because public discussion is less frank.

Budget leaders from the House and Senate also disagreed over whether the budget was balanced. Senators and Gov. Nixon said $500 million needed to be cut, but House members fought to restore funding, saying more cuts would only save money for future years.

Some say the 2012 budget will be more than $500 million dollars short.

Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee called for more controls on tax credits Monday, leaving just three weeks in the legislative session for lawmakers to take action.

Montee cited inaccurate fiscal notes and a lack of government controls as major problems with the tax credit program. According to the audit, spending on tax credits exceeded government projections by $1.1 billion over the last five years.

The audit came just days after House Speaker Ron Richard said he would reject the governor's call to reform tax credits this year.

Last year, the state spent nearly $600 million to fund tax credits. Gov. Jay Nixon said last week that future funding should be reduced by half to around $314 million.

Last Week

Missouri's budget director announced another round of budget cuts because of continued declines in state tax collections.

Linda Luebbering announced that revenue collections for the first 20 days of April had falled 19 percent below the same period last year.

Luebbering said that while some decline was expected, the actual drop was below expectations.

As a result, the administration announced another $45 million in budget withholdings including $8 million in funding to local schools for transportation.

Voters would have a final say in November whether or not to combine the state's education departments into a single over-arching department under a plan approved by Missouri's Senate.

Following a sluggish session on Wednesday, senators unanimously approved resolutions Thursday to combine the two education departments into one responsible for overseeing kindergarten through the completion of undergraduate education. A single board would also oversee the state's entire public school system.

The bill gives students the same amount of money to attend four year colleges regardless of whether they go to private or public institutions.

Students will now receive a maximum of $2,850 per year.

Under previous law students at private colleges received $4,600 and those at public schools received $2,150.

The bill also lowered the GPA required to keep the scholarship from 2.5 to 2.0.

House Higher Education Committee Chair Gayle Kingery says he plans to up the amount of funding for higher education scholarships to $150 million by 2014.

He says appropriations from the general revenue will pay for this increase.

But House Democratic Leader Paul LeVota questions whether Kingery's plan can work even if the American economy turns around.

One day after Missouri's Senate endorsed the idea of consolidating the state's two education departments, they stalled on working out the details.

Tuesday, the Senate gave first-round approval to a constitutional amendment to merge the Education Department and the Higher Education Department.

On Wednesday, the Senate began debate on a separate constitutional amendment that would define the details for the new department.

It was on that issue the Senate was unable to reach agreement -- leaving the plan in limbo.

Missouri's only statewide elected Republican, Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder picked a Washington D.C. lawyer to represent him as he sues the federal government over the recently passed healthcare law.

Thor Hearne, who formerly worked for Missouri based firm Lathrop and Gage, will represent Kinder.

Kinder set up the fund, Healthcare in Action LLC, to collect donations from people who want to contribute to his case.

"Right now there are a number of people from across the country that are contributing to this effort" said Gary McElyea, spokesman for the lieutenant governor's office.

"The majority of those are from Missouri and want their voices heard."

The case will not be, "The People of Missouri v. US" McElyea pointed out.

It will be "Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder v. US."

With less than four weeks remaining in the legislative session both the House and the Senate took time out of their lawmaking schedule to play softball.

The annual legislative softball tournament is a charity event. This year's proceeds will benefit the American Red Cross.

The night off comes less than a month after the lawmaker's week-long legislative recess.

To this point in the session, three bills have reached the governor's desk with two other pending. All of them came from the House.

No bill that originated in Senate has reached the governor's desk.

The Missouri Speaker of the House said he's not letting any tax credit reform bill get passed his desk.

Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said making drastic changes in the last three weeks of the legislative session would send too many shock waves .

"We're going to have certainty (for businesses), and I'm going to make sure we have certainty," Richard said, saying "I know more about economic development than all of you guys in here put together and probably the governor, and I'm telling you that I will do economic development (and) what's best for Missouri."

The announcement came after a press conference where the governor and education leaders pushed for tax credit reform, saying tax credits have ballooned 86 percent over the last decade.

Gov. Jay Nixon specifically targeted the Historic Tax Credit Program and low income housing credits. He said Missouri has given out double in historic tax credits than Virginia and double what California gives in low income housing credits.

"Every dollar we spend on tax credits is a dollar that isn't available for education," Nixon said.

A bill that would allow private citizens to take legal action on cases of Medicaid fraud stalled in the Senate on Monday.

Under current statute, only the Attorney General is authorized to take up Medicaid fraud cases. But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said the system left many important cases ignored.

"Why isn't the Attorney General doing our bidding?" Schmitt said.

However, legislators opposed to the action said the bill was not necessary without a request from the Attorney General for additional resources in fighting Medicaid fraud.

Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, said she worried the legislation would, if passed, result in unrestricted false accusations against physicians.

"This is opening the door to abuse and frivolous lawsuits," Ridgeway said.

Ultimately, the legislation was laid over.

The resolution taxes Missourians anywhere from 25 cents to one dollar.

Missourians voted down two similar pieces of legislation.

The Commerce committee took no action.

The Missouri Senate passed a ban on synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 earlier in the session, and the House Public Safety Committee took up the bill Tuesday.

Representative Jeff Roorda, D- Jefferson, supports the ban.

"People say that accidents are not caused by people driving under the influence of marijuana or its chemical cousin and we all know that's not true." Roorda said.

"They don't get tested because it's so expensive to drag those guys out to a hospital and draw their blood. But they're dangerous nonetheless."

Several small business owners spoke up against the bill and claimed the fake marijuana was a a moneymaker.

Micah Riggs owns a Kansas City coffee shop and sells K2.

"In my observations, it's not something addictive like you would see in nicotine, or tobacco."

The committee took no action on the bill.

Missouri house members voted to overhaul the Access Missouri scholarship program.

Private colleges have been receiving much more in funding than public universities for years through these scholarships.

Under new changes, all students receiving this need based scholarship will get the same amount, regardless of whether they attend private of public universities.

The Senate perfected a joint resolution that eliminates the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Higher Education, and the Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

It would then create a department of Education to encompass all of the above departments.

Voters would then be given the choice whether or not to approve this amendment.

Future state employees could see fewer retirement benefits in a Senate bill passed Tuesday.

In the bill, state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, would have to contribute four percent of their pay to the retirement system. Currently, state employees do not have to contribute any percentage of their salary to their retirement plans.

The bill passed 27-5, with Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, dissenting because he thought the discrepancy between state workers and legislatures was unfair.

If passed, the bill would allow methane collected from animal waste and used to generate electricity to count toward 2008's proposition C renewable energy requirement.

The mandate requires 15 percent of Missouri's energy to be from renewable sources.

The Senate voted to pass the bill unanimously on April 1.

The Committee Chair Rep. Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown, said "I think it's a great idea, if it's a cheaper source it only gets passed down to our consumer. If we can get energy to our consumers cheaper, that's the ultimate goal for all of us."

A bill advanced in the Senate on Monday that would reduce in-home services for Missourians on Medicaid.

The legislation would, if passed, allow the state to hire a third party to assess who qualifies for the programs. Currently, nearly 43,000 Missouri residents on Medicaid receive some kind of in-home care.

The move came as lawmakers continue trying to balance the state's budget.

Those who spoke in favor of the bill see it as an issue of freedom.

The bill would prohibit Missouri government from enforcing federal laws concerning what committee chair Jackson Country Republican Senator Matt Bartle says is a survey of the conservative waterfront.

Committee Chair Jackson County Republican Senator Matt Bartle says the state budget issues have an effect on how the senate will handle provisions in a DWI bill.

Bartle says the committee will vote on the bill next week.