Twelve year push gets increased penalties for ‘celebratory gunfire’ to governor’s desk for first time

      Nearly 12 years after the tragic death of an 11 year-old Independence girl, the Missouri legislature has voted for a bill bearing her name.  “Blair’s Law” would increase the penalty for recklessly firing guns into the air and, backers hope, raise awareness about how dangerous that practice is.

Blair Shanahan Lane (Photo courtesy: Michelle Shanahan DeMoss)

      The House had voted in two previous years to pass Blair’s law and this year the Senate concurred, sending it for the first time to the governor’s desk.  The proposal was added to Senate Bill 189, which was passed out of the House 109-11 and now awaits the action of Governor Mike Parson (R).

      It was news Michele Shanahan DeMoss, the mother of Blair Shanahan Lane, had been working toward and awaiting for more than a decade.

      “It started as overwhelming,” DeMoss told House Communications.  “Just really quietly thinking like, ‘wow, we’re not going to have to do this again.’”

      What DeMoss was realizing she might not have to do again is come to Jefferson City and testify before legislators as she has done multiple times each year since her daughter’s death, each time recounting and reliving the events of July 4, 2011.  That was when, while outside celebrating the holiday, Blair was truck in the neck by a bullet fired by someone more than half a mile away who had fired their gun into the air.  She died the next day.

      “[Testifying on Blair’s Law legislation] has become a pattern of living, and nothing, by any means, that I’m not going to be happy not having to do anymore,” said DeMoss, who quickly adds that a lot of good has come and continues to come out of that effort.  “I was reminded by somebody [in the Capitol] when I went to tell them goodbye and they said, ‘No, no, no, you can come back and visit us.  You don’t have to come back just because of that.  With that being said, just because it’s done doesn’t mean the good things that have happened because of what we’ve been doing for the past 12 years can’t remain.”

      Some of that good has come in the form of increased awareness. 

      “There’s no doubt our conversation and consistent work has definitely made a difference,” said DeMoss.

      Police believe firearms are still being discharged into the air, however, especially around holidays like New Year’s Eve.  The SoundSpotter system, sound capturing technology that the Kansas City Police Department uses to identify potential gunshots, identified more than 2,300 rounds fired between 6 p.m. December 31, 2022, and 6 a.m. the following morning.  That was more than double the total from the previous year.

      Representative Mark Sharp (D-Kansas City) said a desire to increase awareness that firing guns into the air is not safe was one of his biggest motivations for carrying Blair’s Law.

      “The governor signing it, different legislators in their respective districts and cities creating an awareness about it will help, the media will play a real big role in this,” said Sharp. 

      Sharp is optimistic that the governor will sign Blair’s Law into law, partly based on conversations he’s had with Parson’s staff. 

Michele Shanahan DeMoss (Photo: Michael Lear, Missouri House Communications)

      This was Sharp’s fourth year sponsoring the legislation, joining several other current and former legislators who have carried that proposal since 2011.  This year’s version would specify that a person is guilty of unlawful discharge of a firearm if they, with criminal negligence, discharge a firearm in or into the limits of a municipality.  A first offense would be a class “A” misdemeanor which carries up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000; a second time would be a class “E” felony carrying up to four years in prison; and third and any subsequent offense would be a class “D” felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

      No state law directly addresses “celebratory gunfire.”  In Kansas City it is a violation of city ordinance.  The man who fired the bullet that killed Blair pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served 18 months in prison.  Had Blair’s Law been in effect, the above penalties could have been applied in addition to that sentence.

      Penalties are one thing, but as Sharp and DeMoss said, as much as anything, Blair’s Law has been about awareness.

      “Obviously we’ve done press conferences in the past and that’s on the local news too, but I think if it’s talked about on a more regular basis and not just once or twice a year we’ll start to see some more awareness with it,” said Sharp. 

      Blair’s Law has consistently had broad, bipartisan support, yet it still took 11 legislative sessions before it passed.  In spite of that, DeMoss didn’t get frustrated and didn’t give up.  She said in many of the past years when the bill didn’t pass, she wondered whether it was because of some oversight on her part, “[before] realizing it was a course of time and, as in a lot of things, it wasn’t for me to have control over.  As the years turned, the education and the understanding and the relationships are what were supposed to happen, and it continues happening.”

      Sharp said it is because DeMoss persevered that this legislation finally made it to the governor. 

      “She’s a joy.  She is a real joy,” said Sharp, who notes that he knows what it’s like to be around a parent who has lost a daughter, as his own sister died in a domestic violence incident when he was eight.

Representative Mark Sharp (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

       “The grace that Blair’s mom carries herself with is just first class, top notch, and she could easily be coming to Jefferson City angry that it hasn’t been passed yet.  She could easily have been that kind of person but she wasn’t.  I think that speaks to her character.”

      While waiting to see what Governor Parson will do, DeMoss is taking this latest, farthest progress as a victory. 

“The list is very long of thanking people for their support and thanking everybody for continually raising awareness.  I think people finally realize it is a tragedy that continues to happen,” she said.

The passage of a law bearing Blair’s name isn’t the only way she is being remembered.  Blair has also been honored for being an organ donor, with six of her organs having gone to five people, and DeMoss still runs a charity in her daughter’s name:  Blair’s Foster Socks gives socks and other items to children in need.

      “We continue to grow and restructure but definitely socks are still coming in and good things are still happening.  We just hosted a small group of boy scouts and look forward to distributing some socks.  Earlier in the year we had a group that we got together with and made sock puppets … and deliver them to some nursing homes.  The socks are just something simple that help us to empower, to uplift, and to give back.”

      DeMoss has found it difficult when asked to sum up how she feels with this bill passage, but she recalls a message someone else sent to her, “‘I really wanna say congratulations but the gravity of the reason this law is needed keeps me from celebrating, but we can now be thankful that Missouri now is a safer place to be for future celebrations.’”

      Governor Parson has until July 14 to either sign SB 189 into law, veto it, or allow it to become law without his signature.  If it becomes law, Blair’s Law would become effective August 28.

Physical therapists to no longer require referrals after Governor signs new law

      The first legislation signed into law out of this session will get Missourians in front of the caregivers they need more quickly and with less cost.

Governor Mike Parson signs into law Senate Bill 51, as its sponsor, Senator Karla Eslinger, and its House handler, Representative Brenda Shields, look on. (Photo: the Office of Governor Mike Parson)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) on Thursday signed Senate Bill 51, sponsored by Senator Karla Eslinger (R-Wasola), which will allow people to go to physical therapists without having to first visit another doctor and get a referral. 

“Currently, patients must visit a physician before they can make an appointment with a physical therapist.  This costs the patient additional money and delays in returning to their life before the injury,” said Representative Brenda Shields (R-St. Joseph), who handled the bill in the House.  “It is time for Missourians to choose their own healthcare path and get their lives back.”

Shields has spoken passionately about this proposal largely because of the role physical therapists have played in her own life.

      “I’m excited to be able to carry, I’m honored to be able to carry this bill this year.  If it wasn’t for physical therapists I would not be before this body this year.  When I had my brain bleed stroke almost seven years ago, it took them to give me back my life and I cannot thank them enough.”

      Shields said no matter what she does from here on, she expects the passage of this language will stand as a highlight of her political career.

      “You almost bring me to tears when I think about that … with my experience that I’ve had a physical therapist when I had my stroke seven years ago and the work that they did and the continued support that they gave me through my recovery.  Even when I became depressed or sad, or questioned if I was ever going to return to normal, their continued work and their support … I just really wanted to [get this passed] to thank them for the care that they provided me.”

Shields announced to her colleagues in the chamber on Thursday morning that the bill would be signed, and her physical therapist Dr. Ben Perkins was her guest in the chamber then and at the bill signing.

      Representative Deb Lavender (D-Manchester) is a physical therapist.  She said it’s frustrating to have to turn away people who come to her, knowing she could ease their pain.

“I have actually lost business in my small, private practice physical therapy because when somebody would call me and say, ‘I want to see you,’ I’d say, ‘You have to see the physician first.’”

      The proposal has been around for years in the legislature, with Governor Parson saying he handled it early in his legislative career which began in 2005.

Representative Brenda Shields carried the House version of Senate Bill 51 for multiple years. She said its passage into law will likely always be one of the highlights of her legislative career. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I couldn’t be more pleased signing this, being the first bill that we’re really going to sign,” said Parson.  “I think one thing we learned is how important healthcare is no matter where you live in the State of Missouri, and how many opportunities people have to get it.  By doing this bill we’re going to expand that to many more people and cut a lot of bureaucracy out of the way simply to care for people, and I think that’s what we all wanted to do.”

      Under the bill, a physical therapist can refer a patient to another health care provider if they exhibit certain conditions which the physical therapist is unable to treat, or if the patient’s condition doesn’t improve within 30 days or ten visits. 

      The House voted on April 12 to pass SB 51, 146-2.  With its signing, Missouri joins 47 other states who already allowed people to go to physical therapists without first getting a referral.  The bill’s provisions take effect August 28.

Bipartisan set of bills would extend post-pregnancy healthcare

      A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is sponsoring legislation that they hope will save the lives of women and infants in Missouri, and in doing so, move the state farther from the bottom in the nation in infant and maternal mortality.

Majority Floor Leader Jon Patterson (R) (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Their proposals would extend MO HealthNet or Show-Me Healthy Babies coverage for low-income pregnant women to a full year after the end of their pregnancy.  Currently that coverage stops after 60 days. 

      Six representatives have filed that proposal, including Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Patterson (R-Lees Summit).     

      “The wellbeing of the child is based upon the wellbeing of the mother, so that’s why we’re really worried about, and we really want to focus on, healthcare for the mother, because it affects the child,” said Patterson. 

      He says there are about 5,000 women in Missouri who don’t have insurance coverage either through the state, personal coverage, or an employer.

“The data are very clear that it’s critically important.  You’re talking about the physical development of the child, development of the brain, that they have support, and one of those things is having a mother that can be there.  For example if your mother is in the hospital for a mental crisis or high blood pressure they can’t be there for the child so that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Representative LaKeySha Bosley (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) in his State of the State Address earlier this month said, “we are heartbroken to be failing,” in the area of infant mortality, with Missouri ranking 44th in the nation for its “abnormally high” rate.

      Kansas City Democrat Patty Lewis calls the situation, “abysmal.”  She said in a Department of Health and Senior Services report covering 2017 to 2019, “Something that was pretty astounding to me based on their findings is 75-percent of the deaths are preventable.  As [someone with a] background in nursing, if we can prevent something that’s what I want to do,” said Lewis.

      She said in the years covered by the report an average of 61 women died while pregnant or within one year of pregnancy, with 68 in 2018. 

      “If we can just save one that would be great, but saving 60 women I think would be very important to me.”

      Freshman representative Melanie Stinnett (R-Springfield) said maternal healthcare was an issue that voters talked to her about leading up to her election in November.

Representative Patty Lewis (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I work in the realm of healthcare and I work with a lot of families with children with disabilities, specifically, but also work really closely with organizations like The Doula Foundation and midwife groups in Springfield so it’s certainly something that’s come up in Springfield and a topic that has been something that I’ve talked about in our community,” said Stinnett.

      Representative Brad Pollitt (R-Sedalia) said the data about how many of those deaths could have been prevented weighs heavily on him. 

He said the proposal, “is just giving a little extra healthcare to get them off on the right foot and to help the mother who may be having issues and I just think it’s the right thing to do.”

      “It’s not the state’s job, it’s not the taxpayer’s job to financially take care of every individual from birth to death.  That’s not what this is doing.  This is giving someone an opportunity to start off on a better life and if we can do that then I just think it’s the right thing to do and I think it shows that we do care as a party about life after the baby’s born, and about the mother’s life.”

The Republican sponsors of the bill acknowledge that it also relates to their party’s identity regarding its pro-life stance.  Bishop Davidson (R-Republic) said his party is often criticized as only supporting life before birth, but this bill is one thing that demonstrates otherwise. 

Representative Melanie Stinnett (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“We carried it before that Dobbs case.  We’re going to carry it after that Dobbs case.  We’re interested in lives, and lives being fulfilled from conception to death, and so I see this piece of legislation as a part of a holistic agenda that is pro-life.” 

      Representative LaKeySha Bosley (D-St. Louis), who is for the fourth time sponsoring this proposal, says that it is “imperative” after Dobbs, “as we did pass the abortion ban, and [even] before we passed House Bill 126, the heartbeat bill, women who were in rural or underserved communities were dying [in] childbirth.”

      Patterson agrees with his fellow Republicans, “We’re a pro-life state.  I’m very proud to be pro-life, but that also means taking care of these children that are born.  This is a measure that would ensure that the mother has healthcare for a year after they’re born, which is critically important to the wellbeing of the newborn baby.”

Representative Brad Pollitt (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Bosley notes that while maternal mortality rates are an issue statewide, they hit some in Missouri harder than others. 

“As an African American woman, as a minority in the State of Missouri … women who look like me are dying at a higher number and at a higher rate than our white counterparts.”

      Bosley is glad that this proposal has gained more sponsors and a lot of media attention and she hopes it will lead to more. 

“I’m happy that it’s a hot topic.  Let’s go further than just the 12th months.  Let’s talk about doulas.  Let’s go into the holistic conversation about how we can provide some assistance to doulas and have them be reimbursed,” adding, “Extending the coverage from the three months to the twelve months is just one of the small things that we can do, and it may seem small but it’s going to mean so much to a lot more people across the state.”

Representative Bishop Davidson (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Patterson observes that the broad appeal of this plan isn’t limited to the House but extends to the Senate, where two versions have been filed and have already received a hearing.  He and the other sponsors share great optimism that this will pass this year.

      “It’s just a common sense measure that we can do to ensure the health of the babies.”

      None of the House versions of this bill have been referred to a committee.

The bills that have been filed are: House Bill 91 (Patterson), House Bill 254 (Pollitt), House Bill 286 (Lewis), House Bill 328 (Bosley), House Bill 354 (Davidson), and House Bill 965 (Stinnett).

Income tax cut, reform likely topics in expected special session

      A tax break for most Missourians and a restructuring of the state’s income tax brackets will likely be considered by legislators in a special session that Governor Mike Parson (R) is expected to soon call.

Representatives Peter Merideth (left) and Cody Smith (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      That’s according to House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith (R-Carthage), who says he’s looking forward to seeing what the Governor outlines in a plan to be aimed at helping Missourians facing high prices and high inflation.  The top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis), says he wants a plan that goes beyond changing income taxes, so that all Missourians would be helped; not only those who pay that.

      Governor Parson earlier this month vetoed a proposed $500-million tax rebate plan sent to him by legislators in May, saying he prefers a permanent tax cut.  He has said he will call for a special session of the legislature to consider that cut. 

      Smith, who spearheaded that tax rebate plan as the best proposal thought possible at the time, said he would also prefer a permanent cut.  He spoke to Parson on Tuesday to get a better idea of what the governor might propose.

      “We are busy now collaborating with the senate and the governor himself to try to find a starting point and then from that point the legislature will take over and will hopefully put forth a good product, at the end of the day, for the governor to sign,” said Smith.  “It’s important that we try to keep this simple and try to make it as impactful to as many Missourians as possible.  I think the income tax is the best way to do that, and trying to simplify the tax code in the process I think is also a worthy goal.”

      Merideth said he and fellow Democrats were glad that the rebate plan was vetoed, but he’s concerned that a cut to the income tax won’t help the Missourians who need help the most. 

      “A third of Missourians don’t make enough money to pay [the income tax], and those are, of course, the third of Missourians that are having the hardest time right now, so if all we’re focused on is a tax cut on income, that’s not really a big help for people,” said Merideth. 

“That said, our income tax brackets are completely out of date.  We haven’t had updated brackets in like 100 years.  Democrats have actually long advocated for updating those to a more progressive tax rate structure.  Now, we have yet to see what that proposal’s going to look like but there’s a path that we could get on board with,” he added.  “Democrats are generally supportive of relief for those that make the least and generally resistant to relief for those that are doing just fine, at the expense of our long-term budget.”

      Smith agrees that the state’s brackets are outdated and should be revised, if not eliminated, and doing so would help all income earners.

      “Our highest tax bracket in Missouri is for anyone that makes over $9,000 annually.  At one time that was a considerable amount of money … but now most folks who work at all generally make more than $9,000 per year … so we [would be] helping lower income folks by addressing that top line number.  Additionally I think we can take a look at some of the tax brackets on the lower end and see if we can reconfigure those or eliminate those entirely so that folks on the lower end of the income spectrum won’t pay taxes up to a certain amount.  That would provide relief on those lower income folks.”

Merideth thinks permanently cutting the income tax right now is not a good idea.  He said the state is in a great position with revenue right now, but the next time there’s a downturn, cuts made now could put the state in a bad position. 

The governor has expressed confidence that Missouri’s good fortune will continue, and Smith agrees. 

      “I would guess that we may have a general revenue surplus in excess of $2-billion by the time we come back to the next legislative session and that is just unprecedented … we’ve got federal money set aside for Medicaid, we’ve got general revenue dollars sitting in the state’s treasury for all purposes, and I think there’s never been a better time to cut taxes and still be able to protect the priorities that we have in the budget,” said Smith.  “I think we’re probably looking at 3 to 5 years where we are very well situated even after a tax cut.”

      Smith said while the state is enjoying increased revenues and never-before-seen surpluses, Missourians are dealing with high inflation, high gas prices, and other factors that are causing many to struggle.  He said this is the right time for the legislature to do something to help.

      “Rather than issue stimulus checks, which is talked about in Washington from time-to-time, certainly we’ve seen that … I believe the best way to combat things like inflation is let [Missourians] keep more of their own money,” said Smith. 

      Merideth said he and other Democrats would also like to see the legislature talk about things besides the income tax, such as eliminating taxes on groceries and other essentials.   

      The governor has said he is also planning to have the legislature consider six-year extensions to tax credits under the Missouri Agriculture and Small Business Development Authority.  He vetoed a bill that would have extended them by two years.

      Dates for a special session have not been set. 

Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

House Budget Committee weighs proposed pay hike for state employees

      The Parson Administration has made its case to the House Budget Committee for a proposed 5.5-percent pay increase for state employees. 

Missouri Budget Director Dan Haug testifies before the House Budget Committee (Photo: Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

      The committee heard from the administration’s budget director, Dan Haug, who outlined the motivation for the plan that would cost about $72-million including $41-million in general revenue.  It would set state employee pay at a minimum of $15 an hour and kick in February 1, if it can get through the legislature by then.

      Haug said Missouri must do something to respond to recent and rapid changes in the labor market. 

      “We’re getting to the point where if we have more vacancies and more turnovers we’re not going to be able to operate our state facilities,” said Haug.  He said some facilities with minimum staffing requirements, such as prisons and mental health facilities, have resorted to forced overtime to fill shifts. 

      “That’s not the way we want to run the state,” said Haug. 

      Haug said one reason for proposing a February 1 start date is that a stipend being paid out of federal money to state employees in some institutions came to an end at the end of December.   

“We feel like if we wait until July 1, which is typically when we would do a pay increase, when the new fiscal year starts, then we’re just going to keep bleeding employees and we’re going to get to those critical numbers where we don’t have enough employees to safely operate our correctional institutions and our mental health institutions and provide the quality of services that the citizens of this state deserve,” Haug said. 

“We’re just responding to the wage market that is out there.  We are trying to figure out what a market wage is that’s going to let us be competitive.  We’re not trying to set the market.  Honestly we’re not even trying to get to the middle of the market.  We’re just trying to get somewhere where we can be competitive and get people in and keep our good people,” said Haug. 

Most lawmakers seemed to agree with the desire to increase state employee pay.

“Let’s face it:  we’re in competition with McDonald’s right now, so obviously something has to break there, without a doubt,” said Representative Don Mayhew (R-Crocker).   

      Excelsior Springs Republican Doug Richey agrees, but he has an issue with setting a new minimum baseline of $15 per hour for state employees’ pay.  He said given existing pay structures that could set the income of some new state hires too close to the level of pay of long-term employees.

      “Creating an arbitrary baseline prevents us from being able to be responsive to the market, as well as sends an unintended message that would be somewhat negative to those … who have been working for two decades,” said Richey.  “You can work for 20 years in your job, have tremendous institutional memory and ability, but you’re really no different than a part-time custodial worker at 17 years of age with no experience.”     

      “I wanna get away from the $15 an hour because to me that’s just a number.  That’s not what it’s going to take to get people in.  I’m an employer … in unskilled jobs and I can’t get people for $17 an hour, so that $15 an hour is just a number we’re throwing out there and I believe that is for political reasons,” said Representative Richard West (R-Wentzville)“Let’s do realistic and what’s it going to take to hire?  For one department it may require 15, for another department it may require 18, for another department it may require 22.”

The Missouri House Budget Committee takes testimony from Missouri Budget Director Dan Haug (Photo: Mike Lear, Missouri House Communications)

      Many legislative budget makers resist using federal funds to support ongoing expenses, like state employee pay.  They refer to it as, “one time money.”  Haug said this proposed pay hike relies only on state funds.

      “Missouri’s revenues are doing very well.  Right now the state’s economy is doing well.  We have more people coming back to work.  Our revenues are coming in very strongly.  They came in very strongly last fiscal year.  The consensus revenue estimate shows strong growth through fiscal year 23,” said Haug.  “Even at a very conservative growth rate of 1.5-percent growth in general revenue we can easily afford this ongoing pay increase.”

      Haug, who has worked with the state’s budget for more than 25 years, said, “I feel very confident that we can afford what we’re doing now and what we’re going to need to do in the future.”

      Other legislators asked whether studies should be done to make sure the state needs the employees it has, or that pay increases would be going to the employees who are most needed or deserving.  Haug said the state has reduced its workforce significantly in the past ten years, and said such an employee pay review could take months, and changes to the labor market necessitate a quick response.  He said state employee turnover in some positions and pay levels has been as high as 55-percent. 

      The committee has not voted on the bill which includes the proposed pay plan, House Bill 3014

Houses passes vehicle tax credit bill, answering call of special legislative session

The Missouri House has passed legislation aiming to allow people to keep getting multiple tax breaks when trading in more than one vehicle on a new one.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr and Representative Becky Ruth discuss the passage of a vehicle tax credit bill, in response to the special session’s call.  (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The chamber’s Republicans say the language of House Bill 1 will allow Missourians to keep doing what they’ve been doing and say it will help all consumers.  Many House Democrats voted for the bill, though some in that caucus decried it as “corporate welfare” and said it was a topic unworthy of a special session.

The House voted today, 126-21, to send the bill to the Senate.

Governor Mike Parson (R) called a special session to coincide with today’s annual veto session to deal with the issue in response to a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in June.  The Court said state law allows a tax break to be awarded only on one vehicle, when multiple vehicles are traded in toward a new one.

Sponsor Becky Ruth (R-Festus) said her bill will give much-needed tax relief to Missourians from all walks of life.

“A young mother who is trying … maybe she’s got two cars that don’t run well and she’s trying to upgrade to a good, dependable car to take her child to school; to get to work herself.  This impacts someone that may have lost their spouse and they need to trade in those two cars to be able to get a good, reliable car.  This impacts senior citizens who are trying to downsize.  This impacts just normal, everyday working people,” said Ruth.

Shrewsbury Democrat Sarah Unsicker agreed the bill will affect some individuals, but said it will also let corporations keep from paying their “fair share.”

“There are approximately 14-thousand vehicle sales estimated to be impacted by this bill.  The Department of Revenue cannot estimate how much this tax credit costs the state or how many vehicles are commercial sales,” said Unsicker.  “If we make this just about individuals like those the sponsor referenced I would support this bill.  However, I believe this bill is, to a substantial extent, corporate welfare, and therefore I will be voting against it.”

An amendment that would have made the tax credit available only to individuals and businesses of 12 or fewer employees was voted down.

Democrats argued that the tax credit issue was not pressing and did not merit the calling of a special session.

“This Supreme Court Decision didn’t just help us figure out, this summer, that this was an issue.  Since 2008 there have been 17 administrative hearings to ask this question of whether folks are allowed to trade in multiple cars to offset the car they buy.  In all 17 administrative hearings they found they couldn’t,” said St. Louis representative Peter Merideth (D)“Regular people, regular folks were being told they couldn’t claim this credit, but we didn’t consider it an emergency.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (at podium) and other House Democrats were critical of the legislature’s special session not including discussion of Medicaid eligibility and gun laws. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ruth argued that the law needed to be clarified, and addressing it in a special session makes sure no eligible vehicle trades will happen without the award of tax credits, thanks to a window of 180 days before or after a new vehicle purchase in which to offset the owed sales tax.

“If you’re one of those people since the Supreme Court decision on June 25, 2019, that’s trying to figure this out … if we do this now, those folks are still going to be able to take advantage of that credit.  If we wait and we do this next session they’re not going to be able to take advantage of that credit,” said Ruth.  “The people that come before them, the people that come after them, will, and this could possibly set our state up for lawsuits.”

Ruth calls the legislation is a way to keep Missouri law consistent.

“We simply went in and made this clear and direct … so that the citizens of Missouri can continue to do business the way they are accustomed,” said Ruth.

“The problem that I have with that is the ‘business as usual’ that we’ve been doing has been established by the Supreme Court to be against the law,” said Kansas City representative Ingrid Burnett (D)“Rather than take to task the [Department of Revenue], who has been breaking the law, we have decided to call a special session to come here to change the law.”

House Democrats said lawmakers’ time would have been better spent debating changes to gun laws, and several among them filed proposals to that end.

They also wanted to see attention given to Medicaid enrollment.  House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) said Missourians with life-threatening medical conditions are losing coverage.

“There were several important issues that the legislature could have taken up in special session that could have made a positive impact on all Missourians.  This was not one of them,” said Quade.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield) said any time a special session is called people will point to other issues it could have dealt with.

“That’s not really my decision.  If the governor thinks it’s important … we were coming up here anyway for the veto session.  It’s an issue that we could work on.  It’s an issue that, as you saw, had pretty broad support,” said Haahr.

Haahr said he has asked members of his caucus to research what some other cities in the nation have done to reduce violent crime, with the aim of preparing a legislative proposal for the regular session that begins in January.

As for Medicaid enrollment, Haahr said decreases in enrollment are due to factors including an improved economy and changes in 2016 to the Affordable Care Act (ACA); and a review of Medicaid eligibility that has seen ineligible recipients being taken off the program’s rolls.  He said if a need for hearings on the issue is presented to him, he will call for them.

House bill to end modern ‘debtors’ prisons’ in Missouri signed into law

A House bill that became law Tuesday aims to keep Missourians from being jailed for failing to pay the costs of being jailed.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (center, standing) watches as Governor Mike Parson signs a bill he sponsored, House Bill 192, into law. (photo; Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192, targeting so-called “debtors prisons” in Missouri, was signed into law by Governor Mike Parson (R).  It will do away with “show cause” hearings, in which defendants must provide a reason for failing to pay “board bills” for time they spent in a county jail.  Failure to show cause often resulted in additional jail time and additional board bills that could add up to thousands of dollars.

HB 192 will let counties use civil means to collect jail debts, but they can no longer threaten additional jail time for failure to pay.

“[Courts] can still charge people for the time they spend in jail.  [They] can’t have show cause hearings anymore.  [Courts] can’t put people back in jail for not paying their jail bill,” said bill sponsor Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield).  “[Counties] can still sue that person civilly and reduce that debt to a judgment and garnish wages just like you would in a civil court with a credit card debt or a medical bill.”

DeGroot worked closely with Kansas City representative Mark Ellebracht (D) on the legislation.

“I think it means a lot in terms of just fairness and justice and how the system works,” said Ellebracht, “because once a person gets put in jail, once they get sent down for 30 days, their time is their punishment.  That’s the deal that we’ve made with people:  we’re going to sentence you to 30 days … now with regard to what you owe the sheriff for their bill … you can’t pay that bill off if you’re in jail on a warrant for not paying that bill, so it just makes sense that the sheriff should have to collect that money through the normal debt collection processes like any other creditor would have to.”

DeGroot and Ellebracht both credit St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger for spurring the legislation with a series of articles he wrote about the current system.  Those articles also earned Messenger a Pulitzer Prize.

In one case Messenger wrote about, a woman incurred more than $10,000 in “board bills” after stealing an $8 tube of mascara.

DeGroot said situations like that go against the principle of people who have paid their debt to society returning to being productive members of society, providing for themselves and their families, and getting back on the tax rolls.

“A bill like this, in my opinion, is win-win.  Yes, it helps the people that would otherwise be burdened with these jail bills, but it also helps our entire society as a whole,” said DeGroot.

Representative Mark Ellebracht worked across the political aisle with Rep. DeGroot to end what many called modern ‘debtors prisons’ in Missouri. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

In presenting HB 192 DeGroot was the most visibly animated and joyful he has been in his three years in the legislature.  He admits he was very enthused about the legislation.

“The reason I went to law school was I loved the book To Kill A Mockingbird … and I wanted to be Atticus Finch.  I wanted to change the world, and after you graduate from law school you’ve got student debt, you have houses, and kids, and cars, and who knows what, trips to Disneyworld, and you forget about being Atticus Finch.  Well now my kids are grown, and you don’t have quite the pressures you used to, and I view [House Bill 192] as probably the best thing I ever did with my law degree.”

Following their success with HB 192, Ellebracht said he and DeGroot are talking regularly about other topics they hope to team up on.

Ellebracht says any differences he and DeGroot have in party or other issues don’t really have any bearing on criminal justice reform, “When we’re looking at something and we’re saying to ourselves, ‘[Missouri law is] really handicapping a lot of folks in the economy by preventing them from getting good jobs, and [Missouri law is] really handicapping a lot of businesses by putting them in a position where they can’t afford to be hiring folks who have had that little minor scrape in their background, for fear of some kind of public retribution, or maybe a lawsuit here or there or something like that, so we need to figure out a way that we can adjust the way we do things so that it’s more fair for everybody involved.”

HB 192 also included language that would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria.

Both provisions become effective August 28.

Earlier stories:  

Legislature proposes reforms to end ‘debtor’s prisons,’ mandatory minimum sentences

House votes to prevent of jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills

House bill to relax mandatory minimum sentencing signed into law

Judges will be able to ignore Missouri’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in some cases, under a House Bill that was signed into law this week by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law requires that offenders with one prior conviction serve at least 40-percent of a prison term.  Those with two prior convictions must serve at least half their term, and those with three or more must serve 80-percent.

House Bill 192 contained language that would give judges flexibility in sentencing for some nonviolent offenses.  It was part of a broader look at criminal justice reform that House members have been pursuing over several sessions.

The language was proposed by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

“When Governor Parson signed House Bill 192 that was the most significant mandatory minimum sentencing reform, to my knowledge, that we’ve ever had in Missouri,” said Smith.  “That’s an incredibly rewarding feeling when we know that it’s become clear that harsh mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent crimes only leads to bad outcomes, and this is a way that we can start to help change the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Smith said the number of people in Missouri’s prisons has steadily grown for decades.  He said many of those being incarcerated are non-violent offenders, who have a high rate of recidivism and of committing increasingly violent offenses.

“I’ve heard it said that prison is finishing school for hardened criminals,” said Smith.  “You go in for something that may be relatively innocuous in terms of violence … you come out and you’re a hardened criminal.”

Smith, who is also the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said reducing Missouri’s prison populations would also save the state money.  He notes that as recently as 2017, Missouri was on track to need two new prisons to accommodate the growing number of offenders.

“I believe that the mandatory minimum reform language that’s in House Bill 192 will help deter those costs by keeping people out of prison – again we’re talking only about folks convicted of non-violent crimes – keeping them out of prison is better for them, better for their families, better for society, and also better for taxpayers who don’t have to pay to keep them in prison.”

Ballwin representative Shamed Dogan (R) chairs the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, which handled not only HB 192, but Smith’s original legislation, House Bill 113.  He said the mandatory minimum sentencing changes will allow judges those cases to be judges.

“That is something that will give people more second chances – people who shouldn’t be in prison as long as that mandatory sentence would determine,” said Dogan.  “A judge can look at that person’s overall life; they can look at the particulars of their offense, and really just letting judges do their job, which is to make tough decisions without having their hands tied behind their backs by mandatory minimum sentences.”

Other language in HB 192 will keep counties from putting an individual back in jail for failing to pay the cost of his or her earlier jail term.

The bill’s provisions take effect August 28.

Hundreds of Vietnam veterans and families honored in Missouri Capitol ceremony

Today hundreds of Vietnam veterans and their families gathered in the Missouri State Capitol, where they were honored by members of the House as well as Governor Mike Parson and Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe.

Hundreds of Vietnam veterans gathered in the Missouri Capitol for a ceremony to honor them during the ongoing 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The ceremony was part of the continuing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that conflict.

“It is our hope that today and each day forward that you will always know that your state legislature, along with those serving in the executive and the judicial branch and the people of our great State of Missouri have not forgotten you, our Vietnam veterans, and we will never forget your service.  To you we are forever grateful,” Grant City Representative Allen Andrews (R) told the veterans and family members who filled the rotunda.

Click here to view a montage of photos taken during the ceremony

Andrews spearheaded the ceremony, which continues an annual tradition started by former state representative Pat Conway (D-St. Joseph) who left the legislature due to term limits.

Vietnam War veterans and their families gathered in the Missouri State Capitol rotunda for a ceremony honoring them during the ongoing commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that conflict. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Unfortunately [for] many of you here today this will be the first time that you have been honored.  This potentially may be the first time that you have been offered a sincere, ‘Thank you,’ for your service to our state and to our nation,” said Andrews.

Governor Parson, who served 6 years in the Army, said it wasn’t until he wore the uniform that he understood the importance of the U.S. flag and the Pledge of Allegiance.

“When I did figure out what it all meant, it wasn’t about me wearing the uniform.  It wasn’t necessarily about you wearing the uniform.  It was about all the people that wore the uniform before me and you.  It was about the sacrifices they made for our county,” said Parson.  “The only reason that we’re all here today, the only reason all of us have lived the American dream … is because of the sacrifices people made before you – the sacrifices to this country, to this service.  They stood on solid ground for me and you.”

Parson said he also wanted to thank another group, “that normally don’t get to be recognized and sometimes we take them for granted.”

Missouri House members wait during a ceremony to honor Vietnam War veterans to present those veterans with pins commemorating their service and the 50th anniversary of that conflict. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Today I also want to say, ‘thank you,’ to the mothers, fathers, wives, children, relatives, and friends that so many times worried and prayed for us while we were overseas, while we were gone from home.  They truly deserve distinction themselves for their service to the country by helping us when we served,” said Parson.

All the veterans who attended were pinned with a lapel pin proclaiming the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.  The pins were meant to recognize, thank, and honor those who served in that conflict.  The pins were presented by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and several House members.

“Allow me to offer you our most sincere gratitude for the selfless service that you have provided to our country.  This is a nation that is rich in tradition of heroism, of bravery, that is exhibited by outstanding individuals like you – Americans who put love of country before love of self,” said Andrews.