Missouri House votes to give judges more freedom from mandatory minimum sentences

The Missouri House has voted to give judges more flexibility in sentencing by easing Missouri’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bill 1739 would allow judges to issue sentences below those minimums except in crimes that involved the use, attempted use, or threat of physical force, or certain non-consensual sex crimes against a minor.  A case would have to have a “substantial and compelling” reason the minimum sentence would be unjust to the defendant or would not be needed to protect the public.  The House voted Tuesday to send that legislation to the state Senate.

Carthage Representative Cody Smith (R) sponsors the bill.  He said Missouri is on course to need two new prisons that would cost the state more than $485-million over the next five years.

“We don’t have the money to build those prisons and there’s no end in sight to this trend.  If we don’t change the way we treat folks – better distinguish those that we’re mad as opposed to those we’re afraid of, as they say, we’re just going to continue on this trajectory and our incarceration rate is going to continue to climb,” said Smith.

Meanwhile, Smith said, other states where mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been eased have seen crime rates decline rather than increase.

He said nothing about HB 1739, which he calls the “Justice Safety Valve Act,” prevents a judge from handing down a sentence that follows those minimum sentencing laws.

“If it’s a bad guy in front of the court and the judge wants to throw the book at him, he can absolutely do that,” said Smith.

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Support for Smith’s bill came from both sides of the aisle, with several lawmakers including Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (D-St. Louis) saying it is a reversal on what they called a “failed” war on drugs.

“We are finally getting to a space where we can have this bipartisan effort and this bipartisan push towards criminal justice reform; towards keeping folks out of the system that can be rehabilitated and need the help,” said Franks.

Pacific Republican Paul Curtman argued there should be no minimum sentences for any nonviolent crime.

“I think that we need to make sure that we let judges be judges, and that involves us respecting the separation of powers and letting judges look at each case-by-case scenario.  Somebody carrying a block of heroin down the street might be entirely different from the next person who comes along and the reasons they were carrying a block of heroin down the street,” said Curtman.

Legislative projections are that HB 1739 would save the state more than $3-million a year by the time it is fully implemented in Fiscal Year 2023, by decreasing the number of people incarcerated in state prisons.  That does not account for what the state would save if it does not have to build and maintain those two new prisons.

The House voted 148-0 to send the proposal to the state Senate.

Missouri House votes to block public contracts with companies that boycott Israel

The Missouri House has voted to bar the state and its local governments from entering into contracts with companies that are participating in a movement to boycott Israel.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bill 2179 would prevent any public entity in Missouri from doing business with any such company except those owned by a single individual.  The bill is sponsored by House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) and was carried on the House Floor by Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

“There’s a movement across the last couple of decades called the BDS movement – Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel – in response to that movement 26 states in this country have passed legislation to reiterate their ties to work with the Nation of Israel, Missouri being one of those states that should adopt this,” said Haahr.

Haahr said the legislature should pass HB 2179 because of Missouri’s economic ties to Israel.

Representative Peter Merideth (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“We do millions of dollars in economic development.  We’ve created hundreds of jobs in Missouri as a result of our trade partnership with them.  We have a trade location in Israel.  We’ve had at least six Israeli companies move to St. Louis, Missouri, as startups because of our trade relationships,” said Haahr.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior, said many Missourians won’t like that the bill would discourage companies from boycotting Israel even if those companies’ leaders hold strong or personal beliefs about that country’s policies.

“There are a lot of people that … a lot of people in Missouri … that feel as if the Palestinians are being persecuted – being treated terribly – by Israel,” said Franks.

Some Democrats argue HB 2179 would be unconstitutional, saying it would infringe on free speech.  St. Louis representative Peter Merideth (D) said the ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court regarding a similar law in that state proves that point.

“It’s without a doubt a restriction on speech in our state.  The [Supreme] Court has established that.  The Kansas court said it emphatically – this is a violation of the First Amendment.  They made no distinction between a sole proprietor and a business, and our Supreme Court has actually said the First Amendment applies equally to corporations as it does to individuals,” said Merideth.

House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Speaker Richardson said the bill does not infringe on anyone’s right to free speech or on a corporation’s ability to boycott Israel, and said the Kansas ruling has no bearing on HB 2179 because what it proposes would not extend to individually-owned operations.  Kansas’ law did extend to sole proprietorships and was challenged by one such entity.

“Can we stop using the Kansas decision as some sort of definitive precedent that this is unconstitutional?” asked Richardson.  “I refer to it as the Kansas boogeyman:  ‘This is like Kansas!  This is like Kansas!  This is like Kansas!’  We’re not Kansas, and I don’t want to have a law that’s overly broad here just like I don’t want to have tax policy in Missouri that’s exactly like Kansas, but using the straw man of saying everything we do out here is Kansas, therefore we can’t do it, is disingenuous on this bill because it’s not the same.”

The House voted 111-35 to send HB 2179 to the Senate.

House endorses new abortion provider regulations; sends bill to the Missouri Senate

The Missouri House has passed a Senate bill that proposes new restrictions on abortion.  The House made several changes to the bill, so it goes back to the Senate for consideration.

Representative Diane Franklin carried Senate Bill 5 in the House during the legislature’s second extraordinary session of 2017. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill would allow the attorney general to prosecute abortion law violations without first involving local prosecutors; repeal a St. Louis ordinance that bars discrimination in housing and employment against women who have had an abortion, use birth control, or are pregnant; and require annual, unannounced state inspections of abortion facilities, among other provisions.

“The bill that we received from the Senate, we thought, was a good framework but it did not really specifically meet the governor’s call, so we re-put in provisions that helped to provide for the health and safety of women,” said Representative Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton), who carried Senate Bill 5 in the House.

Democrats argue the legislation is not about women’s health and safety, saying it is about making it more difficult for women to get abortions in Missouri.

“For the entire last week the only word I’ve heard was, ‘abortion,’” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood)“It’s actually a scam that we think – we’re saying – that we’re protecting women when actually all we’re doing is putting additional hurdles in their way for them to access healthcare.”

Franklin said a key provision for her is language that would require that all tissue removed after an abortion is sent to a pathologist, rather than a sample as is required now.  A pathologist would have to account for all tissue and note any issues.  The Department of Health would follow up any inconsistencies with an investigation.  It would also report annually to the legislature all information it gathers regarding fetal tissue handling.

Franklin has carried various forms of such language going back several sessions, after a series of videos emerged alleging that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue after abortions.

“I think that especially important that I worked on have been the fetal tissue portion of that – the tracking of that – so that we have the assurance that it is indeed going where it should be going and that our department is able to keep track of that,” said Franklin.

The bill also aims to bar laws that would interfere with the operations or speech of alternatives to abortion agencies.  Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove) says those agencies do a lot to help pregnant women.

“They offer pregnancy testing; ultrasounds – I’ve heard many, many, many stories directly from young mothers who … were in a place where they didn’t have any other options.  They needed alternatives and they needed help, and coming back to me, in particular, and saying, ‘I saw my baby.  I saw my baby move,” said Kelly.

Democrats are critical of information given out at alternatives to abortion agencies, saying it is medically inaccurate and skewed toward discouraging a woman from having an abortion.  Republicans say the agencies give women information with which they can form their own decisions.

Representative Cora Faith Walker offered an amendment that would have required quarterly reporting from alternatives to abortion agencies, but it was voted down. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ferguson Democrat Cora Faith Walker also questioned the effectiveness of those agencies.

“In total there are about 70-plus alternatives to abortion agencies that exist here in the state of Missouri and yet we still have issues with infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates that surpass national averages,” said Walker.  “In specific areas of Missouri where there seem to exist several alternative to abortion agencies that are supposed to be providing healthcare and other services to women as an alternative to abortion, we still have these very, very high infant mortality rates.”

The legislature returned to Jefferson City in a special session to consider abortion legislation at the call of Governor Eric Greitens (R).  Democrats used debate of SB 5 to criticize the governor for what they said was a stunt meant to help him politically.

“Make sure we’re not letting a governor bring us back to special session for political gain,” said St. Louis City Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior“I know how passionate you (Republicans) all are about this issue.  I would never take that away from you.  I know how passionate we (Democrats) are.  But we’re not paying attention to how we’re being played … Now just because this is one of our particular issues that we feel so strongly about doesn’t mean it’s right that we’re here.”

Republicans called the session an important opportunity for the state to reaffirm a commitment to protecting unborn children and making sure women receive proper care from abortion providers.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff), when asked about lawmakers’ attitudes toward the governor, said, “I think we’ve been focused here in the House on issues, and I think the issues that we’ve worked on back in regular session and through these two special sessions are issues that are of particular importance to the House, and they’re of particular importance to members of the Senate as well, so the fact that we’ve got a governor that’s willing to engage on these issues has been positive and helpful.”

Representative Jay Barnes (left) talks with House Speaker Todd Richardson. Barnes offered several amendments that contributed to the final form of Senate Bill 5. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Democrats note courts have ruled against laws that placed similar restrictions on facilities that provide abortions, and say this legislation will likely be thrown out as well.

“You already know this is going to straight to litigation once it goes into effect, and you also know the [financial cost to the state of defending it],” said St. Louis Democrat Stacey Newman.

Richardson believes if the bill the House passed is challenged in court, it will be upheld.

“This is obviously a very highly litigated area of the law.  It will continue to be a highly litigated area of the law in every state, but I’m very confident that the state of Missouri, if this law is challenged, will prevail,” said Richardson.

The state Senate is expected to debate the House’s changes to SB 5 in the coming days.

Missouri Legislature proposes tougher standard for employment discrimination

The legislature has sent Governor Eric Greitens (R) a bill that would make it harder to prove discrimination in the workplace.

Representative Joe Don McGaugh (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Joe Don McGaugh (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Senate Bill 43 would require a former employee to prove that his or her age, race, gender, disability or ethnicity was the main reason he or she was fired rather than one among other reasons.  Republicans said the bill is needed because the courts have allowed too many cases of alleged workplace discrimination to proceed.

The House’s handler of SB 43, Representative Joe Don McGaugh (R-Carrollton), said the legislation responds to Supreme Court decisions that lowered the standard in employment discrimination cases.

“Senate Bill 43, in my opinion, isn’t even tort reform.  It’s undoing judicial activism,” said McGaugh.  “So what’s the effect of the court playing legislature?  Even the most meritless cases have to be decided by a jury.  Employers are required to spend thousands of dollars defending completely baseless claims brought by lawyers arguing anything that can contribute.”

The bill also places limits on the damages that can be awarded to successful plaintiffs, exempts from liability supervisors and managers who are not employers, and limits protections for whistleblowers.

The legislation cleared the House on a Republican-led 98-30 vote, but it had Republican opposition.

Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City) spoke against the measure’s whistleblower section.

“The proponents have not identified a problem with whistleblower law in the State of Missouri.  There is not a spate of whistleblower cases in this state,” said Barnes.  “The whistleblower portion eliminates protections for the employees most likely to know about illegal activity in their employer.”

Democrats said the legislation would make it easier for workplace discrimination to occur and go unpunished, and argue it represents a conflict of interest because its senate sponsor, Senator Gary Romine (R-Farmington), is the owner of a business that is the subject of a pending discrimination lawsuit.

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (left), talks about SB 43 with Republican colleague Nate Tate (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (left), talks about SB 43 with Republican colleague Nate Tate (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Louis Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, read a series of racial slurs cited in that case and called the bill unacceptable.

“We’ve heard time and time again how this sets us back.  All of the forward movement we’ve done, this sets us back,” said Franks.

McGaugh said the legislation has been filed for years, long before there was a case against Romine’s company.

“If you’ve been in this body more than one year you’ve voted on this multiple times,” said McGaugh.  “Everything that we’re going to talk about today this body has seen before and we’ve talked about before.”

The House debated the bill for more than five hours Monday, rejecting five amendments, before voting to pass the bill the Senate had proposed.  It’s now up to Governor Grietens whether it will become law.

House budget plan would save program to get low-income youths into workforce

The single biggest change the House made during floor debate of its budget proposal this week would continue a program that aims to help low-income youth enter into the workforce.

Representative Bruce Franks (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Bruce Franks (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Louis City Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior, saw that Governor Eric Greitens (R) had proposed cutting all funding to the Summer Jobs League within the Department of Economic Development.  Franks proposed taking $6-million from unused funds in two programs within Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to restore it, and the House voted to accept Franks’ proposal.

The Summer Jobs League gives 16- to 24-year-olds from low-income homes in the St. Louis or Kansas City areas the chance to work in a business in a field they’re interested in.

“It’s really a comprehensive approach to youth violence prevention,” said Franks.  “We serve the underserved:  the highest crime rate areas, highest poverty within the city.”

The largest portion of the state’s appropriation to the Summer Jobs League will pay the salaries of the youth participants – up to $8.50 an hour for up to 240 hours.  Franks said that is part of the incentive for businesses to participate.

“The jobs and the small businesses really benefit from having extra employees that they don’t have to pay that payroll, or that salary, so it really helps the small businesses when they can get three or four youth, teach them a great program, how to work, how to own their own business,” said Franks.

Participating businesses often hire the Summer Jobs League youths after their League term has expired.

Franks said Summer Jobs works in conjunction with other programs such as Prison to Prosperity, which helps youth in the St. Louis region transition out of prison.

“Now we’ve got youth that are getting out going straight to a job, straight to financial literacy, financial empowerment.  Summer Jobs doesn’t just offer summer jobs.  It offers 24-hour mentoring, behavior modification, job readiness training; all these different things to get you not only ready for the workforce but to continue on within the workforce,” said Franks.

Franks’ proposal earned praise from Republicans including Versailles Representative David Wood, who called it a better use of TANF dollars, “to catch the youth, get them into summer job programs, and teach them how to work early on.”

House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Justin Alferman (R-Hermann) said Franks, “worked extremely hard to find the funding for this program.”

House Democrat leader Gail McCann Beatty (Kansas City) said her law firm participated in Summer Jobs, and she worked with several young people through it.

“It is a great opportunity to work with these students, and sometimes you are the most positive influence that they have,” said McCann Beatty.

Franks thanked Alferman as well as House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R), Budget Committee member Representative Crystal Quade (D-Springfield), and others, for helping him find money for the League.

Many of Franks’ fellow lawmakers commended him on being a freshman member of a superminority who secured a large change in the state’s budget, but Franks said that’s not what he felt good about.

“It feels great because I was able to help the underserved.  It feels great because I was able to work across party lines and we were able to come together to serve my community,” said Franks.  “All too often the community that I serve has felt like they’ve been left out, and to have representatives on both sides truly care, truly vote in the interest of the people, that matters more than anything.”

The House’s budget proposal has been sent to the State Senate, which will propose its own changes.  Once the two chambers agree on a spending plan, it will be sent to Governor Greitens.

House budget plan proposes nearly $3-million for education on new voter photo ID law

One of the things House Democrats wanted in the chamber’s proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year, they got.

The House voted to move $1.5-million from an election administration improvements fund in the Secretary of State’s office to go to the implementation of the voter photo ID law approved by voters in November.  Specifically that money is for educating voters about the new law so that they can comply with it when they go to the polls.

St. Louis City Democrat Peter Merideth wants that education process to include direct mail; something the Secretary of State told the House Budget Committee he wasn’t planning to use.

“When we run campaigns, when we try and reach out to voters about elections, there is no better way to reach voters than direct mail, especially in rural parts of the state where people may not even have internet, may not even have cable,” said Merideth.  “Direct mail reaches these people.  That is the best way to let them know about their new rights and responsibilities.”

St. Louis City Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior, said the needs of educating people about the new law can vary from community to community.

“If we’re going to present something new, something that we haven’t had, we have to have adequate education on informing every single community, every single district that we have,” said Franks.

The change would bump the funding available for voter photo ID education to nearly $3-million.  The House’s earlier proposal for funding it with about $1.4-million was based on what the Secretary of State had asked for.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) supported Merideth’s amendment.

“I’m not saying that they can or will spend this money, but they have a plan.  If for some reason their plan doesn’t work, having another tool in the toolbox is reasonable,” said Fitzpatrick.

The measure initially failed but after a motion to reconsider the vote, many Republicans sided with Merideth and Fitzpatrick and approved it.

It becomes part of House Bill 12.  The House is expected to vote Thursday on whether to send that and the rest of the budget bills to the Senate for its consideration.

(VIDEO) Rep. Bruce Franks discusses chairmanship of new panel on police/community relations

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (D), has been chosen by House Speaker Todd Richardson (R) and Representative Don Phillips (R), the chairman of the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety, to chair the newly formed Subcommittee on Police/Community Relations.

Franks discusses why the House Republican supermajority’s leadership considers him an “ideal choice” to head this committee, even though he is a member of the Democratic minority.  He also talks about the work the committee will do and  how he plans to approach that task.

Franks sits down to discuss the new subcommittee with House Communications’ Mike Lear.

Bill named for sponsor’s brother, shot to death at 9, seeks better education of youth about violence

Missourians would be asked to remember children killed by violence in the state, and to work to prevent more such deaths, under a bill passed out of the state House.

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, asks fellow legislators to support a bill filed in the name of his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, asks fellow legislators to support a bill filed in the name of his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill filed by Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (R-St. Louis City), would ask Missourians to do those things on June 7 – the anniversary of his brother’s death.

“His name was Christopher Harris and he was nine years old.  I was six,” Franks said while emotionally presenting House Bill 183 to the full House.

Franks told his fellow legislators about how his brother was killed on that day in 1991, while the two were playing baseball on the street they grew up on.

“Two men came out the house arguing.  In our community that’s what we’re used to.  We didn’t pay any attention to it.  We kept going, kept playing baseball, as most kids do.  As my brother rounded second one of the men pulled out a gun.  The other man picked my brother up simultaneously, and as the other man shot, the other one used my brother as a human shield.”

Franks said the bill would make June 7, “Youth Violence Prevention Day,” in Missouri.  He said it would be more than, “having another day where we name a day after somebody, but we spark a day of advocacy, a day of action, and a day against youth violence.”

Franks, as he has done with many other issues, urged his fellows not to think of gun violence as an issue limited to any one part or few parts of the state.

“I saw this as an opportunity to bring light to a situation that has plagued my family and many other families throughout our nation.  This has been my normal.  This shouldn’t be anybody’s normal,” said Franks.  “The issues that affect us when it comes to youth violence, when it comes to gun violence, is not just an issue in the City of St. Louis, but it’s an issue for each and every person here that represents Missourians.”

Missouri House members listen quietly as Representative Bruce Franks (yellow shirt near center) asks them to support increased education about youth violence, in a bill named for his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Missouri House members listen quietly as Representative Bruce Franks (yellow shirt near center) asks them to support increased education about youth violence, in a bill named for his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Franks asked that the legislators remember what happened to his brother and work to educate others statewide about youth violence prevention.

He recalled that when he and other freshmen members of the legislature toured the state, they saw the statue of his brother that stands outside of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

“No matter what side we’re on, no matter how we feel about our Second Amendment rights; stand your ground, open carry, assault bans, bans on weapons – none of that would have kept my brother alive,”  Franks told House members.  “What would have kept my brother alive is those same two men, who were actually family friends who grew up in the same disenfranchised community as me and my father, who felt like they need to live the life that they live, the lack of resources, the lack of education, the lack of opportunity – that’s what would’ve saved my brother.”

Franks’ bill was passed out of the House 156-1.  He received a standing ovation from the rest of the chamber’s members after presenting it on the floor.

The bill would encourage Missourians to observe June 7 through education related to safety and violence prevention.  It now goes to the state Senate.

Number 2 Corrections official faces committee investigating sexual harassment, retaliation in department

A top Department of Corrections official has told a House subcommittee poor training, bureaucracy, and the Department’s growth have contributed to problems with harassment and retaliation among Missouri prison employees.

Dave Dormire is the Director of Adult Institutions in the Missouri Department of Corrections.  After more than 40 years with the Department, he will retire April 1, amid allegations his department's culture was rife with sexual harassment and retaliation against those who complained.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Dave Dormire is the Director of Adult Institutions in the Missouri Department of Corrections. After more than 40 years with the Department, he will retire April 1, amid allegations his department’s culture was rife with sexual harassment and retaliation against those who complained. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Dave Dormire is the Department’s Director of Adult Institutions and has been in the Department more than 40 years.  He has announced he will retire April 1.

He talked to the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct after it had heard testimony from several other department officials, employees, and former employees.

The subcommittee was formed after news articles shed light on cases in which Department employees alleged they’d been harassed and, in some cases, retaliated against.  Several of those cases have gone to court, and several of those resulted in settlements costing the state millions of dollars.

Since September, 2011, Dormire has been responsible for some staff appointments, overseeing the safety of staff and inmates, and for disciplinary decisions.

Dormire was asked why some of the people who had been involved in those incidents still work for the Department.  He told lawmakers some allegations go unsustained, and some efforts are made to correct employees rather than fire them after a first incident.

“I’ll blame the culture a little bit.  As you know, correction officer is a tough job,” Dormire said.  “We train them specifically to continue to watch and address behaviors.  Then they become supervisors, and that’s the behavior they’ve learned – to address behaviors.  They’re not well trained – I acknowledge that – not well trained on being a good supervisor.”

Representatives Bruce Franks, Junior (left), and John McCaherty (right) (photo, Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representatives Bruce Franks, Junior (left), and John McCaherty (right) (photo, Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Dormire told subcommittee member John McCaherty (R-High Ridge) the Department has not tolerated its employees committing harassment or unprofessional behavior repeatedly.

“I know that’s your feeling, but we do tolerate it,” McCaherty responded.  “It’s going on in the Department, it’s going on now, and that’s why we have a committee because we’ve been tolerating it, so I know your hope is that we don’t tolerate it but as a department we do tolerate it.”

“I understand your opinion, sir.  Obviously when I have my records to show what we’ve done and how we’ve addressed things,” Dormire said.

“And we have court cases to show the other side of it,” said McCaherty.

Dormire said the Corrections Department has grown to eight times the size it was when he started there, to more than 32-thousand inmates and roughly 8,000 staff throughout the prison system.

“That’s created all kinds of bureaucracy and things like that, and management issues.  I’m not here to make excuses but other departments have not faced that type of growth,” said Dormire.

Subcommittee members told Dormire it has been reviewing reports of harassment and retaliation that date back as much as 20 years.

“It looked like our employees would’ve been better off behind bars,” said Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Frankford)“They would’ve been safer there than they would from some of their supervisors, and it’s disturbing.”

Committee members also asked Dormire about reports they’ve heard of nepotism in the Department’s hiring and promotion practices.  At an earlier hearing, they heard from a former employee that wardens often ignore the recommendations of panels assigned to recommend employees for promotion.  The system was described as one of “good ol’boys” hiring and promoting friends and relatives.

Dormire told lawmakers the Department used the state’s Merit system, created in state law to prevent favoritism, political influence, or arbitrary decisions in hiring and other employment decisions.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles), who said she has heard of, “so much nepotism,” in the department, challenged Dormire on that claim.

“We have to use the Merit system,” said Dormire.

“You have to not sexually harass people, too, but that didn’t seem to be the case,” said Conway.

Committee members asked Dormire about allegations raised by recent articles by Pitch.com suggesting that he had been involved in retaliation against employees, and had been deceptive in his answers in some investigations.  Dormire denied those allegations.

Asked specifically whether he testified that disciplining two guards accused of harassing two nurses would have been “moot” because the nurses had quit, Dormire said, “I don’t remember making that statement in particular.  I don’t normally use that word.  It’s possible.  I don’t remember that.”

Committee members again indicated they are looking to those at or near the top of the Corrections Department’s hierarchy – wardens and administrative officials – as being largely at fault.

Hansen said of the cases of harassment he’s read about wardens seemed to be involved in some, and “totally incompetent,” in others.

“I think you’ve got good wardens,” Dormire told Hansen.  “Some of them need some help.”

“They need help?  We don’t have time.  This is costing the state taxpayers millions of dollars,” Hansen responded.  “We got people who are supposed to be head of the parade that are playing out of tune and out of step with the marching band.”

Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis City) said he feels the committee still isn’t being told who it must talk to, to get to the nucleus of issues in the Department.

“We talked about the culture, we passed the buck today two or three times, we said we can blame the culture, we can blame the growth, we can blame all of these different things, except for blaming ourselves – the people who are actually in charge,” said Franks.  “We have a lot of people up top who aren’t held accountable and who aren’t holding those right up under them accountable, who make 90-thousand, 50-thousand, 100-thousand, 85-thousand, so maybe we need to take about seven or eight of these particular jobs out and distribute their salaries to those who are making nothing to do most of the work.”

Missouri House again endorses less time for unemployment benefits

The Missouri House has again voted to reduce the length of time people can claim unemployment benefits.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick again carried unemployment fund reform legislation as he did in 2015. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick again carried unemployment fund reform legislation as he did in 2015. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 288, sent to the Senate Thursday, would cut that time period from 20 to 13 weeks if the state’s unemployment rate is less than 6-percent.  It could increase if the jobless rate increases, reaching a maximum of 20 weeks if that rate exceeds 9-percent.

Republicans said the measure is meant to keep the state’s unemployment fund solvent when the economy takes a downturn.  Missouri has had to borrow money from the federal government to cover benefits in past economic slowdowns, and business owners have had to pay millions of dollars in interest on those loans.

“Missouri’s the only state that’s had to borrow in the last five recessions, so we’re trying to fix that,” said bill sponsor Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob).

Democrats including Gladstone representative Jon Carpenter called the bill unnecessary.  He pointed to other states with Republican leadership that offer 26-weeks of benefits and pay more each month.

“Don’t vote yes on this bill because we’ve got to keep the fund solvent.  Don’t let that be the argument unless somebody proves to you why that is – why that’s necessary when all these other states can do it,” said Carpenter.

Fitzpatrick said many of those states likely make getting benefits more difficult than does Missouri, allowing them to do more with fewer funds.

Representative Jon Carpenter urged his colleagues to vote against changes to Missouri unemployment benefits.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Jon Carpenter urged his colleagues to vote against changes to Missouri unemployment benefits. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville) and other Republicans said 20 weeks is plenty of time for a person to find another job.

“Everyone here can do their due diligence and walk, and go through your districts and you will find ‘help wanted’ signs everywhere,” said Brattin.  “We don’t have a ‘jobs’ problem.  We have a ‘people willing to work problem’ within our districts.”

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (D-St. Louis City) said that isn’t true in his district, and said it can often take more than three months for a person to learn the skills or earn the certification needed to take on a new job.

“When we’re talking about bills – especially unemployment compensation, that affects every single Missourian – only thing I ask is the thing that I’ll continue to ask every time I stand up here and talk about any bill, is that we take all communities into consideration,” said Franks.

The measure mirrors one the legislature endorsed over the veto of former Governor Jay Nixon in 2015 that the state Supreme Court threw out on a procedural issue.