House budget plan keeps Rock Island Trail development funds

      The state House has voted to preserve more than $69-million in federal dollars to support development of another hiking and biking trail on a former railway.  That funding survived two attempts to redirect it over concerns some House members have about its use.

Representative Tim Taylor (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) recommended that appropriation, which would use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  It would pay to revitalize a 78-mile stretch of the former Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad corridor, commonly referred to now as the “Rock Island Trail.”  Work would include the stabilization of tunnels and bridges. 

      Bunceton representative Tim Taylor (R) said his family owns property along the Katy Trail, Missouri’s other hiking and biking trail along a former railway.  He said he’s seen how communities have benefitted from being along that trail.

      “It has brought a sense of small prosperity to our community.  When the railroad left, as it did on the Rock Island, much of the town ceased to exist.  We have prospered and those towns and cities along the Rock Island are going to prosper just like the Katy Trail.”

      The Rock Island corridor runs through Bland, hometown of Representative Bruce Sassman (R).  He said hiking and biking trails are engines for economic development, and this is Missouri’s chance to expand them.

Representative Bruce Sassman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I have been working on this Rock Island development project for 35 years, almost half of my life, and it’s a vision to create a trail system and a trail route that is unlike anything in the country and maybe in the world.  I wish you could see this project through my eyes.  I wish you knew the history of this project,” said Sassman.

      Taylor and Sassman were among those who spoke against amendments that would have blocked that $69-million from going to the trail.  One of those, offered by Chillicothe Republican Rusty Black, would have diverted that money to maintenance that has been deferred on other Department of Natural Resources’ properties.

      “In my eight years up here, every year we have had this fight with DNR about maintaining what we already have.  This is a one-time use of funds that, if we spend it on the trail, is going to further dilute the sales tax money that they get to use to maintain all of the other parks in the state,” said Steelville Republican Jason Chipman.  “What we have already is in bad shape and we could put a big dent in the maintenance needed for all of the other parks that bring in a whole lot of people to Missouri rather than partially work on this one.”

      “I think there’s arguments to be made for and against the Rock Island Trail,” said Representative Dirk Deaton (R-Noel), the House Budget Committee’s vice-chairman.  “I think it’s compelling to me as a conservative, as a fiscal conservative, you’ve got to take care of what you’ve got before you start taking on new things – building new things, acquiring new things, setting up new things, and we do have a substantial maintenance backlog within our state parks and so I think we really ought to address that before we do this, and then you can get to the question of, ‘If we do this.’”

Representative Scott Cupps (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Another amendment was offered by Shell Knob Republican Scott Cupps.  It proposed that the money be withheld from the project until lawsuits involving property owners along the Rock Island route are settled.

      “The rationale for that is there is concern that we will spend millions and millions of dollars on this project and, depending on what happens in federal court, we may not be able to complete it until this is resolved,” said Cupps.  “If you stand up for land owners’ rights and property owners’ rights … then you sure as heck better be a ‘yes’ on this.”

      Cupps noted that there were similar legal disputes for people who owned property along the Katy Trail, which he says weren’t settled until 11 years after that trail opened.

      Lawmakers who want work on the trail to proceed argued that those lawsuits’ outcomes will have nothing to do with Rock Island’s development.

Representative Jason Chipman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “This is not about converting it back to ownership by these folks who are suing.  They simply seek to reclaim the money for land that was never part of their farm in the first place, whenever they purchased it,” said Representative Don Mayhew (R-Crocker).  “These lawsuits, this is a red herring.  It has nothing to do with it.  The state can proceed with this.”

      In the end the House voted down those amendments 53-81 and 62-70, respectively, and then voted to keep the money for the trail project in the budget. 

      Some, like Representative Jim Murphy (R-St. Louis), were glad to move forward that spending proposal.

      “When I leave here I think it’d be nice if I could look at one thing and say, ‘We did this for the future.  We did this for this state.  It’s long lasting.  We didn’t spend it on frivolous things.  We didn’t buy shiny objects.  We built something that our citizens can use now and in the future,” said Murphy.

      The House voted today to advance that spending plan to the Senate.

Committee hears plan to teach social media literacy, evaluating news

      A bill aimed at teaching children how to critically consider today’s constant stream of information and to be safe online has been presented to a House committee.

Representative Jim Murphy (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      St. Louis Republican representative Jim Murphy has proposed House Bill 1585, the “Show-Me Digital Health Act.”  It would instruct the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to create a curriculum on the “responsible use of social media.”

      Murphy said children are exposed to information from numerous sources and mediums, and often legislators discuss how to regulate that information.

      “I don’t care how much you try to regulate it it’s not going away and it’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse, and if we’re not teaching our children how to process the information that they see – how to question it, how to verify it, how to not internalize it, we’re just going to get worse and worse and worse,” said Murphy.  “This is not about what the content of media is.  It’s about how to process media.”

      The Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education heard from Julie Smith, an instructor at Webster University in St. Louis who has authored books and offered numerous presentations on media literacy and news analysis.  She said “digital citizenship” is the term that’s been used for teaching children how to behave online.  She said Murphy’s bill would expand on the basics of “digital citizenship,” which tends to focus on being “nice” online.

      “Kids have been lectured since day one how to behave online.  They know.  Now we need to help them process this digital world that they live in,” said Smith.  “Digital citizenship already exists in Missouri schools but we need to help that go deeper.  We have to go beyond the ‘be nice online’ and help students examine not only how they use the media but how the media uses them.  This 21st century survival skill, these additional digital citizenship skills will not only increase and enhance their digital health but could potentially help preserve our republic.”

      She said a new curriculum would encourage children to read the terms of service for the websites and apps that they use and educate them about laws governing internet use; how websites and apps are designed to keep them online and make money off of them; how to spot and deal with fake accounts; and how to cope with anxieties and depression related to an online presence.

      The committee’s top Democrat, Paula Brown of Hazelwood, is a retired teacher with 31 years of experience.  She expressed concerns about adding to the already extensive curriculum from which teachers are expected to work.  

      Smith said the school districts with which she has worked have asked how to weave this education into existing curriculum, “So that if you’re a math teacher this is how you can do it, if you’re a science teacher this is how you can do it, so that it’s not an additional class and it doesn’t replace anything.  It merely enhances what already exists.”

      Brown said she would talk further with Smith about that, and would do further research into her concern about what additional cost the bill might create for individual school districts.   

      University of Missouri freshman William Wehmer said he believes as someone who just finished his K-12 education Murphy’s proposal is “much needed.”

      “As I made my way through my education I was faced with the abrupt uprising of social media and was given no tools as to how to handle myself online, what a digital footprint was, and most importantly how to respect others with differing opinions,” said Wehmer.

      The bill’s supporters include the Missouri School Boards Association and the Missouri Broadcasters Association.  Mark Gordon with the Broadcasters Association said its member radio and television stations think the bill would support their work on social media.

      “We’re licensed to serve and as a result of that we produce trusted information and the last thing we want is for people to be confused on a side-by-side issue, where they’re looking at something and they see postings from our members versus those from untrusted sources.”

      The committee has not voted on HB 1585.

Previous story: House proposal aims to teach youth responsible social media use, evaluating constant flow of information

House proposal aims to teach youth responsible social media use, evaluating constant flow of information

      A House member believes Missouri children should be taught in school how to deal with and scrutinize the constant stream of information with which they are faced every day.

Representative Jim Murphy (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      St. Louis Republican Jim Murphy believes all media has one thing in common:  that it was created by someone, and created for a reason.  He thinks children aren’t being equipped with how to figure out, in each case, what that reason is and how to deal with it.

      House Bill 1585 would create the “Show-Me Digital Health Act.”  It would have the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education create a curriculum on the “responsible use of social media,” but Murphy said his aim is to teach how to critically analyze information whether it comes through news, entertainment, advertising, or anything else.

“It’s about how you process the message.  We see things coming at children from so many different angles, and today they’re not being taught how to process that information, how to verify it, how to question why is it they’re receiving that message, what is it the person on the other end of that message is trying to make me do,” said Murphy.  “We’ve just gotta teach our kids to question, to verify, all of the different aspects of the information that’s being sent to them.”

Murphy’s bill would have DESE create a curriculum to cover things including the purpose and acceptable use of social media; identifying online misinformation; and applying protections for freedom of speech for online interactions in schools as provided by DESE. 

The bill also specifies that the bill should cover cyberbullying prevention and response.  Murphy said bullying goes beyond interactions between bullies and victims, but is fueled by what children see online.

“If they don’t fit into the mold of everything they see then they feel like they’re an outcast.  We don’t teach them that they’re not an outcast just because they’re seeing it out there.  It’s a very encompassing view, but if we’re not teaching our children to process all of the information as a whole, and questioning it as a whole, and understanding it as a whole, then they’re going to take some things personal and it can have catastrophic results,” said Murphy.   

“They have to understand that what they see and hear on the internet is meaningless in their lives, and we can teach that to them but we don’t.  We try to, instead, try to put a policy up that says you can’t put this information out there.  Well it’s out there anyway so we have to teach the people on the other side how to process it when it gets to them.”

      Murphy stresses he doesn’t believe this is a partisan issue.  He doesn’t want the curriculum to be tailored to favor information from any given sources, but to teach children to understand and dissect everything with which they are presented. 

      He said his legislation could be expanded to address teaching children how to be safe from online predators, scams, and other such threats. 

      HB 1585 would require Missouri schools to adopt such a curriculum for grades three to 12 by the 2024-25 school year and provide professional development to the teachers who would use the curriculum.   

      His bill has been prefiled to be considered in the session that begins Wednesday.

Veto session: House votes to fund programs fighting child abuse, neglect; Senate disagrees

      The Missouri House voted Wednesday to override Governor Mike Parson’s (R) vetoes of several spending proposals in the state budget, including one aimed at stemming the sexual abuse of children in Lincoln County. 

Representative Randy Pietzman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The Senate did not concur on those overrides and allowed the governor’s actions to stand, and those proposals to fail.

      House members including Lincoln County representative Randy Pietzman (R-Troy) took to the floor expressing anger and frustration that Parson rejected $300,000 to fund a 3-year pilot program that would’ve hired investigators, a prosecutor, and staff to address an increase in sex offenders in the region.

      “I have children in my district that are getting ravaged … I’d like to read you the list of the cases but I think it’s just too much.  Children in my district getting raped and made child pornography with them.  It’s going on and we’ve got to stop it,” said Pietzman.

      He said that line item would be enough to get the program started and after 3 years local officials could sustain it after that.

Pietzman said he was approached with “offers” by people who didn’t want him to even propose the override.

      “Screw those guys.  I’m fighting to the end for these kids.  They deserve justice.  This is small piece of pie of our budget but it can do so much good if we get it into the hands of the right people, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

      Pietzman directed his criticism squarely at the governor, saying this was a plan he and others in the county worked for years to develop.  The governor has said that a federal grant program can be used to address this issue but Pietzman says that will not work.

      “Unlike [the governor] I’m not looking for a photo opportunity saying this is what I’m doing.  I’m doing it for those kids,” said Pietzman.

      The House voted 150-3 in favor of that override.

      The chamber also voted 151-3 to reverse the governor on a $2-million item that included 3-percent pay raises for caseworkers and supervisors in the Children’s Division.  These employees deal with abuse, neglect, and other issues facing children in the custody of the state.

Representative Raychel Proudie (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Representative Raychel Proudie (R-Ferguson) said Missouri is having a hard time retaining those workers, partly because of how much they are paid.

      “Some of these workers [are] being spat at, cursed at, threatened  [while] trying to protect the children of this state when they can just go down to the local wizard stand or the local Wal-Mart and get paid more, and deal with less.  We owe them better than that,” said Proudie.

      On another vote, the House voted to restore funding for court costs to the owners of certain wedding venues.  St. Louis Republican Jim Murphy said these owners were years ago told by the Department of Revenue they did not need to pay sales tax, but years later the Department sent them bills for tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes.  Eventually everything was paid back to those owners but the court costs.

      Murphy said the Department harmed and lied to those Missourians.  “This year there was $150-thousand put into the budget to do the right thing, and that’s give these people their money back … well the governor, in his wisdom, and I cannot explain why, vetoed this,” said Murphy.  “We have promised these people over and over again that we would do right by them, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.”

      The House supported that override 152-2.

      It also voted 112-38 to override a veto on $700,000 for a Community Improvement District along Business Loop 70 in Columbia.

      These overrides were sent to the Senate, which voted to reject two of them and did not vote on the other two, so the governor’s vetoes stand.

House debates reinstating tax credits for shows, movies shot in Missouri

Missouri lawmakers are debating whether the amount of money that comes into the state when movies and TV shows are filmed here is enough to merit giving producers a tax break in return.

Representative Kathy Swan (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Cape Girardeau representative Kathy Swan (R) says it is.  She’s proposing in House Bill 923 that the tax credit for production of film projects in Missouri be reinstated.  It was eliminated in November, 2013.

Swan’s district is where the major motion picture Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck, was filmed in 2013.  She says one need look no further than how that benefited her region to see these credits are worthwhile.

“With a $7.9-million boost to the regional economy of Cape Girardeau … the state redeemed $2.3-million in tax credits, generating a net of $4.7-million in economic activity in the State of Missouri,” Swan said.  “116 Missouri crew members were hired, 1,400 local extras, 7,000 hotel room nights paid for and secured, cars rented, set supplies, office supplies were all purchased from local businesses, and food was catered for workers.  In addition, university students had the opportunity to apprentice alongside professionals.”

Swan said since the film tax credits were allowed to expire the state has missed out on more than 10 projects that could’ve carried more than $150-million of economic impact.  That includes projects that are set in Missouri, such as the Netflix series Ozark, starring Jason Bateman.

That series, a dark drama about drug money laundering that has been renewed for a third season, is set around the Lake of the Ozarks, yet is mostly shot in Georgia.

That frustrates Lake Ozark Republican Rocky Miller.

“The Ozarks happen to be in Missouri … they are not in Georgia,” said Miller.  “The beautiful Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t have a whole lot of pine trees, nor a muddy bottom, nor a lack of fun stuff that goes on in the Ozarks, and I know for a fact that if it were not for the lack of this film credit we would have greater exposure for the actual, beautiful, bluff-laden Lake of the Ozarks rather than the pine tree surrounded lake from somewhere in Georgia.”

Miller said for a series like Ozark to have filmed at a site already so popular with tourists such as the Lake of the Ozarks would have brought tourism dollars to Missouri for years to come, exceeding the $150-million impact Swan referenced.

Not everyone is sold on the proposal.  St. Louis Republican Jim Murphy said to vote for this bill would be a “vote for shiny objects.”

Representative Jim Murphy (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“What we’re talking about here is spending $45-million over the next ten years, or $4.5-million next year for a shiny object – to bring in a [transient] film crew to film a film just to make us feel good,” said Murphy.  “Would that $4.5-million be better spent bringing a factory here that year after year will employ Missourians?  That’s what tax credits are for.  Not for shiny objects.”

Amendments to the bill would require applicants for the film tax credit to disclose any political contributions in excess of $25 made to a Missouri candidate or party; allow municipalities where a project is being filmed to offer a local one-percent tax credit that would trigger a greater tax credit from the state; and require a film receiving the credit to include a logo and statement in its credits indicating it was shot in Missouri.

Another favorable vote would send Swan’s proposal to the Senate.

Bill honoring the late Rep. Cloria Brown becomes law

Missouri House members have taken time this session to honor one of their own.

Representative Cloria Brown (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communciations)

The House and Senate agreed on House Bills 448 & 206, to rename a portion of U.S. 61/67/50/Lindbergh Boulevard in St. Louis County the “Rep. Cloria Brown Memorial Highway.”  Brown was a state representative representing part of south St. Louis County for more than five years.  She died in March of last year after a battle with cancer.

That legislation was signed into law today by Governor Mike Parson (R), who was accompanied by Brown’s family and some of her colleagues, and in front of around 100 legislators.

Parson said it was significant that so many lawmakers stepped away to witness the signing while the busy legislative session is still underway.

“This says a lot for Cloria … who she was,” said Parson.  “What she accomplished, the goals she had in mind, with the representation she made of her family that are here today, and a representation of you – of all of us that work in this building when you have people like that come along sometimes and show us all that there’s a higher road to take.”

Brown has been remembered by colleagues and even political rivals as hard working, tough, and compassionate.  She worked on the House’s budget committee; proposed a ban on texting while driving; and backed measures aimed at fighting human and sex trafficking.

In 2017 Brown sponsored a bill to require the development and display in certain workplaces of posters with the Human Trafficking Hotline.  The posters’ aim is to provide information on how victims can be helped and how to fight trafficking.  A similar bill, House Bill 1246, became law last year, with Brown considered one of the driving forces behinds its passage.  It was sponsored by Representative Patricia Pike (R-Adrian).

“Cloria Brown was a joy to so many people; her family, her friends, the legislators, and the citizens.  We loved her smile, we loved her very defined work ethic,” said Pike.  “As a state representative she served with grace and she served with commitment.”

Earlier story:  Missouri legislature approves human trafficking hotline posters

Brown also co-sponsored House Bill 1562 in 2016, which expanded Missouri’s law against sex trafficking to include advertising a child participating in a commercial sexual act.  That bill was sponsored by current House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

Earlier story:  Missouri toughens laws against human trafficking, sponsor says more to come

Representative Jim Murphy (R-St. Louis) now represents what was Brown’s district.  He also knew her personally.

“Cloria, your legacy inspired us not to sit idly by, but to continue to stand up for those who have no voice,” said Murphy.

Governor Mike Parson, House Speaker Elijah Haahr, members of former Rep. Cloria Brown’s family, and dozens of current and former lawmakers attended the signing of legislation naming a portion of highway in honor of Brown. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Scott Sifton’s (D-Affton) Senate district overlaps the district Brown represented, and they served together in the House.  He praised Brown for representing the refugee population in her district.

“For anybody that knows south St. Louis County, it is an area that demands a lot of accountability and attention from its elected leadership.  Folks there take things very seriously,” said Sifton.  “What that results in, and really demands, is a lot of hard work and close connection of the people that represent that area to the constituents they serve, and nobody exemplified that better, in the time that I have been involved, than Cloria Brown.”

Brown was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, which overlooks Lindbergh Boulevard, a portion of which will now be named for her.

The sign designating that section of road in her name will be paid for by private donations.