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NewsBook:  Missouri Government News for the Week of December 15, 2014

Missouri budget leaders and the governor have agreed that state tax collections will be $367 million below the original estimate upon which Gov. Jay Nixon had based his budget proposals back in January.

Even before the start of the legislative session, legislative budget leaders had argued the governor's projections of tax collections were too high.

But the revised estimate is even lower than what the legislature had projected.

The revised estimate is part of what is termed a "consensus revenue estimate" that is used for preparing the budget plan the governor will present to lawmakers in the 2015 legislative session.

For the budget year that will begin July 1, 2015, the governor and the incoming budget chairs for the House and Senate estimate there will be a 3.6 percent revenue growth.

Last year, disagreement over tax collection predictions prevented adoption of a consensus revenue estimate.

Margaret Vandeven will replace Chris Nicastro as the state's education commissioner beginning Jan. 1.

Vandeven currently serves as the deputy commissioner for the Division of Learning Services in the Education Department.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced the new commissioner Wednesday, Dec. 17, after the State Board of Education interviewed five finalists the previous week.

In a telephone conference call Wednesday, Vandeven said she would focus on improving districts throughout the state in addition to working with unaccredited districts in St. Louis and Kansas City. 

However, she said there must be a "tuition fix" in order to fund intervention plans for unaccredited districts.

"While all children deserve access to a high quality education, there are ways to make that happen without bankrupting the whole school district," Vandeven said.

Vandeven will also focus on the Top 10 by 20 initiative, which aims for Missouri to be ranked among the top 10 states for student achievement by 2020.

State Board President Peter Herschend said Vandeven was chosen for her passion and her commitment to Top 10 by 20.

"She is probably the best expert in the state on the administration of those goals, formulation of them and then seeing to it that they're gonna happen," he said.

The search for a new education commissioner began in September after Nicastro announced her resignation. Nicastro had been criticized for her handling of unaccredited schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.

In the last two elections, 74 Missouri House seats and 9 Senate seats went uncontested by either Republicans or Democrats.

Those numbers continue a disturbing trend of noncompetitive state legislative elections over the years dating back to 1996.

One factor that could explain the number of uncompetitive elections is the 1994 voter-approved term limits initiative.

"I think [term limits] make a difference in part because you don't get as many people deciding they're going to make a career at the state legislative level," MU political science professor Marvin Overby said.

Overby also says the high number of noncompetitive elections doesn't surprise him because Americans have other options besides elected office.

"They also have other venues in which they can exercise that ambition, particularly the marketplace," Overby said.

Another factor that could explain noncompetitive legislative elections is the way redistricting is done in Missouri.

Unlike most states, Missouri uses a specially appointed commission to draw the state's legislative lines while the General Assembly draws the congressional lines.

Incoming Speaker of the House John Diehl, a major figure in the 2011 congressional redistricting effort, says his experience tells him there is no good solution.

"One thing going through the process you find is that there isn't any perfect system because there's people involved," Diehl said.

42 percent of Missouri candidates ran unopposed in 2014 and 2012, compared with only 28 percent in 2004.

The next round of redistricting will occur in 2021.

It was just 3 weeks ago that a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

Just hours after the grand jury's decision, many peaceful protesters took to the streets decrying the grand jury's decision, but there were others burning cars, looting businesses and shouting "No justice, no peace."

After a few nights of unrest, the conversation has shifted on how to help the region rebound through education, economic development, and reforms to how police do their jobs.

Ferguson-area Rep. Sharon Pace introduced a bill to require police to wear body cameras.

She says this would greatly enhance the criminal justice process.

"I just believe that [body cameras] will dispel some of the rumors as well as have more accuracy if you have that type of equipment," Pace said.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, agrees.

"When you have a video record of what the facts actually were, it certainly makes that a lot easier and a lot more efficient," Schaefer said.

Another area multiple lawmakers identified is changes to the state's education system.

Rep. Bill Lant, R-Joplin, advocated certain jobs that are much-needed in under-privileged areas.

"There's a tremendous need for electricians, for plumbers, for carpenters, for brick layers, all of those vocations," Lant said.

Incoming Speaker of the House John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, agreed with Lant.

"I think vocational training is valuable," Diehl said. "Hands on work, I think, is very important and is a way out of poverty for a lot of people."

Lawmakers will begin to take up these and many other Ferguson-related issues when the 2015 legislative session begins on Wednesday, January 7.

Photo by Katie Hynes

It isn't every day the sitting governor of Missouri pulls a stalactite off the wall in the Capitol basement, but Gov. Jay Nixon did just that during a tour of the aging building Monday.

He and legislative leaders toured the basement, including areas under the parking garage.

Nixon said he was surprised by what he saw.

"It shows us why we've got to get to work on this," Nixon said. "It's going to get worse."

During one portion of the tour, Nixon viewed a wall filled with stalactites, pulled one off, and gave it to a reporter.

"It's a token of my esteem for your hard work," Nixon said.

Nixon later held a press conference with legislative leaders and pressed the need for the money for repairs.

"Each day we wait to address these issues, we add to the ultimate cost of fixing them," Nixon said.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said this has been a priority of his going back to his years as Speaker of the House.

"Something better happen or we'll all be walking on mud," Richard said. "[The basement] is just not a good place to work and do business."

Nixon said the estimated cost of Capitol repairs is between $40-75 million, but that could change.

"As we get down and look at the various projects and the scope of the projects, we'll get a hard pencil to that in the coming weeks," Nixon said.

The Missouri State High School Athletic Association, an association of high school athletic departments, says the trend is not unexpected.

More than 600 high school athletes nationwide suffered a concussion during the 2011 to the 2012 school year.

MSHSAA has studied the number of brain injuries high school athletes receive and has policies on concussion management and provides classes for coaches about concussions.

"We do have a return to play policy for athletes," says Jason West, Communications Director for MSHSAA. "Or even students in some of the other activities that are recommended that the schools follow."

West says the increase in concussions is due to the publics' greater knowledge of the symptoms and effects of concussions.

Missouri law requires all high school athletes to read and sign a form about concussions prior to the athletic season, and anyone who has sustained a jolt to the head must wait 24 hours before returning to play.

Chris Kelly, a House Democrat from Columbia, was against the law because he does not believe public schools should be regulated by the government.

"Virtually every time the legislature seeks to impose more regulations onto the schools they do so for political, not educational reasons," says Kelly.

Athletes who play football are the most susceptible to concussions, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Last Week

Retired financier Rex Sinquefield paid $1 million to the chairwoman of an organization he funds to consider running as the republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2016.

Beverly Randles is the chairwoman of Club for Growth and has not formally announced her candidacy for the office yet.

Todd Abrajano, a Sinquefield associate now serving as a spokesperson to the Randles exploratory committee, said the donation will be used to help her come to a decision.

"She will travel across the state, we'll probably do some polling, all of that stuff costs money and so the donations the campaign, or exploratory committee receives between now and whenever she decides whether or not she will run will concern those purposes," Abrajano said.

If Randles chooses to run, she would be challenging republican incumbent Peter Kinder. Kinder has made no announcement regarding re-election, but if he chooses to run, he would be seeking a historic fourth term as lieutenant governor.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, slammed Sinquefield's efforts to "purchase the loyalty of Missouri's elected officials."

"The question Missourians really need to ask is this - do they really want a government completely owned by one St. Louis billionaire?" McCaskill said in a statement.

Abrajano said McCaskill's comments strike him as "the height of hypocrisy."

"Over the course of the last few years, Senator McCaskill has contributed, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, over $800,000 to Democrats here in the state of Missouri," Abrajano said. "And so for her to make the claim that people who are contributing large dollars to candidates, it's just hypocritical. And she has continued over and over again to make large donations and so if Claire McCaskill wants to limit donations in the state of Missouri, she should start by eliminating her own."

Gov. Jay Nixon sent a letter to the highway and transportation commission Tuesday, Dec. 9, asking for a report on the feasibility of using tolls on I-70.

The tolls would be used to improve and expand the highway and to "free up resources for road and bridge projects," according to a statement released by the governor's office.

"Spanning ten states from Maryland to Utah, I-70 is a vital east-west link for our country and for our State," Nixon was quoted as saying in the letter. "Yet, it's youngest sections in Missouri are nearly 50 years old and are designed to meet road standards and traffic volumes of an earlier day."

Nixon also cited a lack of transportation funding in the letter.

Missourians voted against a sales tax increase in August that would have helped fund Missouri's roads.

The Transportation Department will issue the report, which Nixon requested to have completed by the end of the year.

A legislative committee vowed to launch an aggressive investigation into why Missouri's governor did not use National Guard troops to protect businesses in the aftermath of the grand jury decision not to indict a Ferguson police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Gov. Jay Nixon faces the threat of subpoena if he does not show up to a Joint Committee on Governmental Accountability hearing to explain his decisions about deploying the Missouri National Guard and the role they would play in Ferguson.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said he just wants the truth.

"I want to understand how we got there," Schmitt said.

At the first meeting on Dec. 11 the committee chair, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, talked about broad record demands from state agencies and subpoenas to force testimony by agency officials.

"By statute, this committee does have the authority to issue subpoenas, issue necessary writs, and to take depositions," Schaefer said. "So, to the extent that we need to find the truth, I think all of those tools at our disposal and available to all of us to get the information that we need to get."

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, said she would support a subpoena if the governor did not come before the committee.

"The question is: Who made the decision to not bring in the National Guard?" Nasheed said. "Who was talking to who? Was the National Guard talking to the governor's office? The governor's office talking to the Public Safety Department?"

In response, Scott Holste, the governor's spokesperson, issued a statement promising help to rebuild the destroyed businesses, but gave no indication if Nixon would be willing to appear before the legislative committee.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced five finalists for education commissioner Monday, Dec. 8.

Finalists, which include Terry Adams, Douglas Hayter, Charles Huff, Norman Ridder and Margaret Vandeven, were chosen from a pool of more than 40 names, according to a statement released by DESE.

All of the finalists except Vandeven are current or past school superintendents. Vandeven is the current deputy commissioner of education for the Division of Learning Services.

Interviews will take place next week.

The new commissioner will replace current Commissioner Chris Nicastro, who was criticized for her handling of unaccredited school districts in the St. Louis area.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, said she plans to bring up the government's response to unrest in Ferguson at a government accountability joint committee meeting Thursday, Dec. 11.

However, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said the meeting will focus on organizational matters.

Nasheed said there was not enough protection for businesses along West Florissant Avenue, where protests occurred and some buildings caught fire.

"You know if you have a state of emergency in place, the last thing that we should have saw was businesses going up in flames," Nasheed said.

Nasheed said Gov. Jay Nixon needs to be held accountable.

"The buck is gonna stop with the governor," she said.

This will be the joint committee's first meeting.

The Jefferson City Salvation Army shelter was already at capacity in October, according to shelter Director Tyreka Brandon.

Brandon said that this is partly due to recent cold weather.

"We're at capacity now so, you know, it's already starting to climb a little bit and I think that like the colder mornings and colder nights are starting to impact that as well," Brandon said.

Missouri Housing Development Commission Spokesperson Sarah Parsons said this is a statewide problem.

"Of course people are going to try to seek shelter in the winter," Parsons said. "You know there are people who do live in tents in the winter. We conduct our counts, our point in time counts, homeless counts, in January and we do find families living in tents and campers but generally our shelters are at max capacity throughout the winter."

There has also been an increase in the number of homeless people in Missouri in general over the past few years. According to data from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, Missouri saw its homeless population increase by more than a third between 2007 and 2013.

Both Parsons and Brandon said this increase is due in part to the recession.

"I think right now just employment as a whole is really hard, it's hard to obtain and so right now it's even more difficult with someone who's lost everything and so I think that's kind of a big thing right now," Brandon said.

For now, Brandon said the Jefferson City shelter is trying to help as many people as possible in the winter months, but will still have to turn people away.

"It's really, it's a heartbreaking thing because when you have to tell someone that we're at capacity and when they say well where am I supposed to go," Brandon said.

Attorney General Chris Koster at an investigative hearing on Monday, Dec. 8.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster testified and took questions from a special legislative investigative committee the morning of Monday, Dec. 8.

This marks Koster's first public appearance in front of lawmakers since allegations of wrongdoing surfaced in an October New York Times article.

Among other things, the article alleged Koster's decision to drop a lawsuit against the energy supplement company Five Hour Energy was done in exchange for political contributions.

"Let me be clear: they are not," Koster said.

Koster said the case was not worth the time and money that would be spent on it.

"I believe I made the right decision," Koster said. "And the right decision does not become the wrong decision simply because a lobbyist was part of a discussion."

Koster also attacked House Speaker Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, for forming the committee, calling it "political theater."

Koster, however, admitted his office made a mistake in their case against Pfizer for the marketing of the drug Lyrica.

He told the committee his office missed the deadline to join the multi-state lawsuit against Pfizer, but he accused the Times of falsely stating an action his office didn't do.

"The Times falsely implied that Missouri intentionally pursued a separate legal strategy with the purpose of financially benefiting Pfizer," Koster said. "The implication is ludicrous."

Only a few committee members asked questions of Koster and committee chairman Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said he would be in contact with members to determine the next meeting.