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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of November 8, 2010

Columbia Democratic Representative Stephen Webber says Missouri doesn't put their money where their mouth is as far as veterans' benefits are concerned.

Webber says he's attempted to get several measures through the legislature, supporting veterans, but none of them gained much traction.

He served two tours of duty in Iraq and is currently in his second term in the Missouri House.

Both labor and business organizations are beginning to react to the possibility raised by Missouri Republican leaders that "right to work" legislation would be a high priority for 2011.

A right-to-work law would abolish the union shop, where employees at a unionized business must either join the union or pay fees in place of union dues within two months of being hired.

Supporters of such a move say right to work improves the business climate and encourages investment. Opponents say it does nothing to create jobs and leads to lower wages and a less secure working environment for the state's employees.

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The Missouri Labor Commission talked about how to get the state's Unemployment Insurance Fund out of debt.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce Taxation Director Tracy King says bonding is a better option than high business taxes.

Labor Commission members agreed to ask Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster whether bonding is legal solution.

Koster is one of five members of the only group in the state that can approve such a bond.

"Interest rates right now for the bonding is lower than the federal interest rate that would be required to pay back form these loans. So it is an interest savings that can help minimize the cost of the employers," said the taxation director for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce Taxation, Tracy King.

High unemployment figures for Missouri have placed the fund into a debt exceeding several hundred million dollars.

The fund provides benefits for workers who lose their jobs. It is financed by a tax on employers.

Missouri ranks near the top of the amount of participation in land conservation programs.

Resource Conservationist of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Marilin Gann says out of the 25 million acres that have been enrolled in the conservation program 976 thousand acres come from Missouri.

There are more than twenty different programs in the state of Missouri; such as Conservation Technical Programs, Community Assistance Programs and Environmental Improvement Programs, however, the program that is being awarded the money is the Conservation Stewardship Program. 

Gann says that the number of contracts that are given is how the money is divided from state to state, and she says Missouri has a high number of contracts.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday from a woman who went to prison for being an illegal worker and who now wants her son back.

In a 2007 immigration raid, the Guatemalan woman was picked up and sent to prison. Her son was then taken to the church, by her family, then passed on to the adoptive family.

The boy is currently four years old and in the adoptive family's custody.

The Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S. was in Missouri Supreme Court to show his support for the mother's fight to get her son back.

Republicans picked up a handful of seats in Missouri's House and Senate, which means the business community has a better chance at pushing through "right to work" legislation.

It would allow Missourians to work any job without being part of a labor union.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce says the state is at a disadvantage without the legislation. But labor unions say workers in "right to work" states earn lower wages and fewer benefits.

Missouri's Conservation Department reported the second lowest number of turkeys have been killed in this fall since Missouri's October turkey season began 33 years ago.

The department reported 13,736 birds were killed this year, compared to a high of about 28,000 more than two decades ago.

A department official cited a decline in turkey-hunting permits as part of the reason. The peak of permit sales were 50,000 in the late 80s and now they are around 13,000 from this year.

A Missouri Department of Conservation scientist says the decline in turkey hunting permits is a result of more people wanting to hunt other animals.

According to the department, another factor has been a series of poor seasons for development of wild turkeys.

Missouri employers are on the hook for $722 million in unemployment insurance fund debt, and the state may eventually fall $2 billion in the hole.

The state's Labor Commission on Tuesday looked into getting Missourians to buy state bonds. That would help make up the difference until employers pay back the balance through taxes.

The state is borrowing money from the federal government to keep making unemployment payments.

Outside groups pumped nearly $12 million into Missouri's U.S. Senate election this year between Roy Blunt and Robin Carnahan. Much of the spending was negative and it was made possible by a January Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited spending by corporations and unions on political campaigns.

The single largest spender was American Crossroads. The group, co-founded by Karl Rove, former President Bush's chief political operative, and Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, spent more than $21 million on ads attacking Democratic candidates across the nation this election season.

The group spent nearly $2.7 million into the race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Kit Bond. That's in addition to the $1.1 million spent by a sister group, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies. Crossroads GPS is noteworthy in that it operates under a section of the tax code that allows the group to keep the names of its donors secret --an option the organization has exercised.

The two groups' combined $3.8 million in independent expenditures in the Missouri race stands as the largest pro-Republican investment in the race, which Blunt won handily.

The numbers come courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that tracks money in politics. 

The group, founded in 2005 by Washington attorney Michael R. Klein,  has received major donations from the Rockefeller Family Fund and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Last Week

Several Senate Republican sources say the equivalent of drawing lots was used to select their choice for Senate president pro tem next year.

The caucus, meeting behind closed doors, resorted to a drawing after several votes produced a tie between the current Senate Republican leader -- Sen. Kevin Engler from Farmington -- and the Senate Appropriations Committee chair who won the drawing -- Sen. Rob Mayer from Dexter.

Engler told reporters after the caucus that part of the reason for his defeat was a desire by a more conservative caucus to take a more aggressive stance with Democrats on getting a conservative agenda pass.

Elected majority leader for Senate Republicans is Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, who held the GOP leadership job when he served in the House.

Senate Democrats re-elected their conservative floor leader to another two-year term, despite the defeat of two of their more conservative members in Tuesday's election.

Re-elected is Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, who openly describes himself as a conservative on some issues including abortion and gun rights.

In Tuesday's election, two rural moderate-to-conservative Democrats were defeated -- Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, and Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring.

House Democrats elected Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County, to serve as their floor leader. Talboy said Missouri can expect a much more professional caucus this legislative session. Talboy also said that jobs are his main priority.

In Tuesday's election, Democrats lost the seats held by their retiring floor leader (Rep. Paul LeVota, D-Independence) and by their retiring assistant floor leader (Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence). The party's House whip -- Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart -- was defeated Tuesday for re-election.

Kevin Keith will be MoDOT's new director, the state Transportation Department announced Thursday.

Keith has been the department's interim director since April, when former director Pete Rahn left to work for an engineering company in New Mexico. Keith has been MoDOT's chief engineer for nine years.

"We have full confidence in his ability to tackle the significant transportation challenges Missouri faces in the coming years," Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission Chairman Rudy Farber said.

MoDOT's budget for new construction will shrink to $500 million from $1.3 billion over the next five years, the department has said previously.

For a third month in a row, Missouri's budget office reports that state tax collections are on the upswing.

For the the first four months of the fiscal year (July through October), the budget office reports tax collections are running 3.6 percent ahead of the same four month period last year.

That is substantially above the 2.3 percent revenue growth the administration had projected in the summer when it trimmed the spending plan approved by the legislature.

Even with the positive news about tax collections, State Budget Director Linda Luebbering and the incoming House Budget Committee Chair Ryan Silvey warned that hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending will have to be cut next year because of the end of federal economic recovery funds for states.

House Republicans chose their floor leader -- Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville -- to be the new speaker of the Missouri House.

After a closed-door caucus, Tilley told reporters that bills that create jobs and economic development would be the top priority -- ahead of social conservative issue like abortion.

"We're not running away from those issues," the Perryville Republican said. "But the average voter is worried about economic development. They're worried about jobs. And I think you have to prioritize everything."

The caucus met the day after Missouri voters handed Republicans their largest number in the House since formation of the Republican Party.

The Republicans picked up House 17 seats, knocking off a ten Democratic incumbents and winning seven open seats previously held by Democrats.

A Republican tidal wave swept through Missouri Tuesday, giving Republican Roy Blunt a U.S. Senate seat, throwing out a Democratic incumbent state auditor, unseating a senior Democratic congressman and expanding GOP control of the state legislature by as many as 20 seats.

While published polls had indicated the GOP would retain Kit Bond's U.S. Senate seat, the magnitude of other Democrat defeats exceeded even their most optimistic predictions.

Republican Vicky Hartzler was leading in the race for the U.S. House seat held by the House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skeleton. Incumbent Democratic State Auditor Susan Montee was trailing. And Republicans are on the verge of increasing their majority in the state General Assembly by more than a dozen seats.

Incumbent state auditor Susan Montee made no public appearance or concession at her watch party held at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City.

Instead, she finished watching the election results from her home on the TV.

Montee plans to call Schweich after all the results are in.

The Democratic candidate lost the race as a wave of Republican candidates were elected to office on Tuesday.

A little after 11 p.m., Schweich announced that he had done the math and it was "mathematically impossible" for him to lose.

"I have not yet heard from Ms. Montee, but it does appear impossible for me not to win this race," Schweich said.

Montee had not conceded when he gave his speech.

"There's a lot of history made across Missouri today," Schweich said. "I got to play my little part in it."

Schweich is a fresh face in the world of elected politics but with a background in auditing and investigations for the federal government.

Republicans have made major gains in Missouri's House and Senate.

By late Tuesday night, the have gained more than a dozen seats in the House and defeated at least two Democrats in the state Senate.

Among the Democrats defeated were two of the party's rural, more moderate members -- Sen. Wes Shoemeyer, D-Clarence, and Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring.

Both had identified themselves as rural alternatives to the party's more liberal, urban wing.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Robin Carnahan officially conceded her campaign to Republican Roy Blunt on Tuesday night.

In front of fewer than 100 supporters at a posh downtown St. Louis hotel, Carnahan said, "We didn't win this election tonight."

Carnahan was introduced by both State Treasurer Clint Zwiefel and current U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. McCaskill complemented Carnahan's political prowess, calling her "one tough cookie."

Carnahan told her supporters to stay involved in the political process.

"Never, ever let the fire go out," she said.

Meanwhile, in downtown Springfield, Blunt claimed victory in front of about 500 cheering supporters. He blasted Washington, D.C., and President Obama, and called for getting Americans back to work.

Blunt voted Tuesday morning in Springfield, his hometown, and spent the day calling and thanking campaign volunteers. His family joined him on the stage for his victory speech.

In the wake of a neck and neck race, democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton fell to Republican opponent Vicky Hartzler. In a press conference at his hometown watch party, Skelton called his 34 year service to Mid-Missouri, the "political highlight of my life."

Hartzler spent most of Election Day in Jefferson City.

She voted at 5 p.m. in Cass County for every Republican candidate.

Hartzler's treasurer Delbert Scott is giving the crowd updates on the polls.

Vicky Hartzler campaign party held in Garden City, Missouri at a venue called "The Farm."

Early poll results show that Hartzler has the lead over Ike Skelton.

More than a hundred supporters gathered.