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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of May 3, 2010

In a straight-line party vote, Republicans in the House approved a campaign finance bill that would impose campaign contribution limits on statewide elected officials and candidates for local government, but not the legislative candidates.

The measure was passed in a short House debate in which the Republican House speaker refused to recognize a single Democrat to speak on the proposal or offer amendments.

House Speaker Ron Richard said exclusion of legislators was unintentional and could be fixed later in the legislative process

The proposal also would prohibit someone from voting without presenting a photo ID and require secrecy in union votes. It also would impose a limit on how much any one lobbyist could give to a legislator, prohibit legislators for working as lobbyists until two years after leaving office.

The state administration reported that tax collections for April continued the several-month slide.

For month of April, the state collected 3.6 percent less than it had in April of last year.

A while back, the administration had hoped that by the spring the state would begin to see an upswing in revenue collections.

With the continued decline, total revenue collections for the ten months current fiscal year remain well below projections -- 11.7 percent compared to the prior fiscal year.

Missouri Senators passed a ban on synthetic marijuana Tuesday. The drug is also known as K-2.

Senators passed an amendment to the bill which would only classify possession of K-2 as a felony if someone has 35 grams or more.

That measure is different than the House version which made it a felony if someone carried any amount of the substance.

The amendment gives all representatives keys to the Capitol Dome.

Currently only the commissioner of the Office of Administration holds the key.

Similar amendments were vetoed by the last two Missouri governors.

Missouri's Senate has passed and sent the House a proposal to put on the August primary ballot a proposed law to give Missourians the right to refuse to purchase health insurance.

Senate Democrats reached a compromise with Republicans to not block a vote on the measure if it were placed on the primary ballot rather than the November general election ballot.

Supporters argued the federal health care law requirement violates personal freedom.

But opponents questioned whether the state could establish a legal right to ignore a federal requirement, even if approved by Missouri voters.

The requirements are that a woman receives an ultrasound, informational pamphlets, and must wait 24 hours before having the operation.

According the bill, the printed materials must prominently display the following statement: "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."

The Committee vote came down to 8 Republicans against 5 Democrats with 1 absentee.

Opposition emerged Tuesday in the House Higher Education Committee to a Senate-passed plan to merge the state's two education departments.

Democratic representatives on the committee expressed their concerns with the consolidation plan proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, which would combine the Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education departments.

"My concern is the loss of expertise," Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-St. Louis, said, referring to the elimination of the current board members for a smaller board. "I want to make sure when we do this combination that we don't lose valuable people."

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Engler said the Senate will take up this week a contentious political issue that has split the two parties in the past.

The measure would require a government issued photo ID to vote. When the issue came before the Senate a few years ago, Republicans had to vote cloture to shut off debate.

Engler also mentioned a bill eliminating income tax.

Kevin Engler acknowledged that the issue never will get to an actual vote on the Senate floor.

Engler predicted the measure ultimately would get on the ballot through a petition campaign. And, for that reason, he said it would be better for Senators to ask questions and discuss the bill.

The Missouri House narrowly approved an amendment that would prohibit embryonic stem-cell research from being funded by University of Missouri System grants, attached in a bill which would increase five-fold the amount of money UM curators can grant for research on spinal cord injuries.

Before the full House overwhelmingly voted to raise available grants to $250,000, up from $50,000, Rep. Therese Sander, R-Moberly, was narrowly able to add on an amendment that would prohibit any funding recipient from using money on embryonic stem-cell research, which she said "kills children."

The 77-73 vote split party lines, with a number of mostly rural Democrats supporting the amendment with many Republicans voting no, including bill sponsor Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, and Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin. One of the supportive Democrats was Rep. Rachel Bringer of Palmyra, who said it would clearly redefine acceptable norms for UM-funded research.

"Tremendous numbers of Missourians are very concerned about what medical research we do," Bringer said. "We have to make sure we set limits for the moral values of our state."

Hobbs said he feared the "superfluous" amendment would make the state less attractive to researchers and said it was puzzling that she would amend something that is already prohibited, or that could at least be stopped in the appropriations process.

A House committee passed a bill that would extend state universities' ability to sell parts of land without General Assembly approval.

The law that gives them this ability is set to expire in 2011 but would be pushed back to August 2017 under the bill.

This bill, approved by the House Public Institutions Committee, also deals with other land owned by the state.

Many times the state is gifted land to use for a particular purpose, such as to be used as a park or for high school athletics. However, when the land is sold, there is a question of whether these agreements need to be upheld.

Last Week

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."  Two of the organization's incorporators had been officers with state conservative think tanks.

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.