House approves ethics reforms for local officials, open records exemption changes

The Missouri House has voted to enact a number of ethics reforms for local  officials, but support for the bill was tempered by an amendment that creates exemptions to the state’s open records, or “Sunshine,” law.

Representatives Nick Schroer (left) offered an amendment adding exemptions to Missouri’s open records law to a bill sponsored by Representative Shamed Dogan that dealt with ethics reform for local officials. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 445 extends to local officials the ethics policies that state lawmakers and statewide officials are now subject to.  It would bar lobbyists from making expenditures for local government officials, superintendents, or members of school boards or charter school governing boards.  Such expenditures could also not be made for those officials’ staffs or specific members of their families.

The bill would also keep elected or appointed local officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office.  It would limit to $5 per day the amount a gift to such officials can cost, and cap at $2000 any campaign contributions for municipal, political subdivision, and special district office races.

Bill sponsor Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) has proposed that language for several years, based on how he saw local officials being lobbied while he was a city councilman in Ballwin.

“This is simply making sure that that same ethical standard to which we hold ourselves is also going to apply to our local elected officials, who have the same level of public trust, who are also trusted with taxpayer dollars, and who we also expect not to profit from their public service,” said Dogan.

A previous year’s version of Dogan’s bill received 149 votes when the House sent it to the Senate.  This year’s version passed out of the House on Thursday, 103-47.  Democrats said the lessening of support was due to an amendment to Dogan’s bill that they say “guts” Missouri’s open records law that has been in place since 1973.

“I appreciate [Representative Dogan] and his quest to make Missouri a better place and also improve the perception that people have and the confidence that folks have in their elected officials,” said Kansas City Democrat Jon Carpenter.

“But at the same time I’m going to vote against House Bill 445 today because unfortunately it doesn’t just do those things.  It also upends almost five decades of open records and transparency law in this state.  In fact almost unquestionably, when this bill passes it’s going to be the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history,” said Carpenter.

The amendment, offered by Representative Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon), would add to exemptions from the Sunshine law any personal cell phone numbers, social security numbers or home addresses; records of constituent case files including any correspondence between an elected official and a constituent; and any document or record “received or prepared by or on behalf of” an elected or appointed official “consisting of advice, opinions, and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

“I took a massive interest in trying to protect the integrity of our positions,” said Schroer.

Schroer discussed with Representative Steve Helms (R-Springfield) incidents in the news that he said are the types of things he wants to prevent.

Representative Jon Carpenter and other Democrats said the changes HB 445 would make to Missouri’s open records law go too far. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications

“The Huffington Post ruined an entire family for one person’s tweets, doxing them,” said Schroer.

“So you mean the Huffington Post printed private, personal information out on social media because they disagreed with a tweet that one of the family members made?” asked Helms.

“Correct,” said Schroer.  “They accessed personal information just like I am trying to protect here.”

Democrats were largely unmoved by the concerns Schroer cited.

“I believe [Representative Schroer] protests way too much,” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood)“I don’t think the statute we have currently in place allows half of what he’s just told us is sunshineable … I don’t hand out people’s social security numbers.  I won’t give addresses.  I’m covered in the law that we have today.”

Dogan said he felt the provisions offered by Schroer regarding constituent information were necessary.

“I am concerned about people’s e-mail addresses, phone numbers, other personal information being a part of the public disclosure and us not being able to redact that information really is concerning,” said Dogan.  “With that said I’m not sure about the portion that has been the most controversial where it’s talking about all communications.  I think that might have been an unintentional kind of overreach, so I’m a little bit concerned about that section and I would be willing to work on toning that language down somewhat.”

Several Republicans voted against HB 445.  Dogan said most or all of those were likely opposed to campaign finance limits, which many Republicans believe limit free speech.

Today’s vote sends the legislation to the Senate, where several lawmakers in both parties said they expect it will undergo further revisions.

Bill to legalize limited medical marijuana in Missouri heard in House committee

Again this year the Missouri House has heard testimony on whether the state should legalize marijuana for limited medicinal use.

Representative Jim Neely (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Cameron doctor and state representative Jim Neely (R) has proposed allowing the use of marijuana to treat terminal conditions.  Neely said his House Bill 1554 would expand on legislation that became law in 2014 that allows the use of a cannabis extract, cannabidiol (CBD) oil, to treat intractable epilepsy.  It would also expand on Missouri’s “right to try” law that allows doctors and patients to use drugs that haven’t completed the approval process of the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The House Committee on General Laws heard from people who said marijuana did help or could have helped their loved ones.  Jane Suozzi said her daughter Kim was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly before she graduated with two degrees from Truman State University in 2011.

After studying and pursuing multiple experimental treatments Kim turned to marijuana shortly after her diagnosis.

“Kim viewed marijuana the same as all the other experimental options she pursued.  She didn’t enjoy it but it gave her some additional hope and sometimes relieved her nausea,” Jane Suozzi testified.  “I appreciate Doctor Neely’s efforts to afford people like Kim potentially life-extending access to experimental treatments including medical cannabis.”

The committee also heard from a number of veterans and organizations that represent them.  Kyle Kisner served in the Missouri National Guard for seven years and spent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He said for years he was treated with opioids for pain and benzodiazepines for depression, during which time he said his personality was altered and he twice attempted suicide.

“Cannabis allows me to focus.  It’s allowed me to consistently hold some kind of employment for the past few years, and for the past year-and-a-half I’ve gone back to school and I’m currently finishing up two bachelor’s degrees at Lindenwood University; something I couldn’t do when I was nodding out on three to four hours a day taking some kind of opioid or something for anxiety,” said Kisner.  “There’s thousands of veterans out there that are taking that.  You guys asked if this is medicine.  I say, ‘Yes, absolutely, without a doubt this is medicine.’”

The Missouri Prosecutor’s Association spoke against the proposal.  Its lobbyist, Woody Cozad, said for Missouri to pass legislation legalizing marijuana at any level would fly in the face of federal statute.

“Nullification was decided by the Civil War.  Whether this legislature has previously attempted to nullify federal gun law or anything else doesn’t alter the fact that under our system of government, the system for which all of these veterans including myself fought, the states don’t nullify federal laws,” said Cozad, “and it just creates a confusion that at least our members can have a lot of difficulty dealing with.”

Legislators noted that Missouri already has laws that conflict with federal laws, and questioned whether prosecuting people like those who testified for the bill – veterans and those with serious medical conditions – would be a priority for any prosecutors.

Kansas City Democrat Jon Carpenter told Cozad several states have already legalized marijuana to some extent, in spite of federal law, “and I don’t see the mass confusion happening, so I’m not sure why we would anticipate having a different experience if we were to go down this path in Missouri.”

Neely said his bill, as it is written, is about improving quality of life for patients.

“I remember, I may have been an intern, a doctor telling me that his goal as he was near the end of his life as a physician, what he did in life was to provide some comfort to people, and I guess that resonated with me,” said Neely.  “I think that’s what I’m after is that I’ve seen people struggle.  Narcotics aren’t effective, pain control, anxiety, depression, a variety of other issues that the marijuana may be beneficial.”

The committee has not voted on Neely’s bill.  Last year he filed the same language in House Bill 437 and it was voted out of two committees but was not debated in the full House.

Republicans move quickly to give state final say on minimum wage

House Republicans are fast-tracking bills meant to assert that only the state can set a minimum wage, while Democrats say the bills are a rushed effort that goes back on a promise legislators made two years ago to the people of St. Louis.

The state Supreme Court last week threw out 1998 language that prevented local governments from setting a minimum wage exceeding that set by the state.  In response, Representatives Dan Shaul (R-Imperial) and Jason Chipman (R-Steelville) introduced on March 1 House Bills 1193 and 1194, respectively, both of which would bar political subdivisions from requiring a minimum wage exceeding that of the state.

“What I’m trying to do is ensure that a community doesn’t become fragmented and businesses don’t continue to move out of the State of Missouri or the City of St. Louis due to fragmentation,” said Shaul, who said having the minimum wage vary in different parts of the state would hurt businesses and cause confusion.

“The state minimum wage is called ‘the state minimum wage’ because it is the state minimum wage,” said Shaul.

Gladstone Democrat Jon Carpenter said the bills ask the legislature to reverse a decision it made two years ago.

House Bill 722, passed in 2015, also had language barring the setting of a higher minimum wage by local governments.  It included a “grandfather clause,” allowing previous wage agreements between private vendors and the City of St. Louis to stand if they were enacted prior to August 28 of that year.

St. Louis enacted an ordinance on August 28, 2015, increasing its minimum wage first to $10 per hour this year and then to $11 per hour next year.  Lawsuits delayed implementation of that ordinance, which is now set to take effect later this month.

Carpenter said lawmakers in 2015 agreed the grandfather clause would also allow to stand the new St. Louis minimum wage ordinance, and argued that pending pay hike is why the bills are being moved so quickly.  Normally legislation goes through two committees before reaching the floor for debate, but these will go through only one.  They also include “emergency clauses,” which would make them effective immediately upon being signed by the governor.

“The reason for not waiting is so that we can pass the bill before people get their raises,” said Carpenter.  “If we do nothing, in a few weeks people in St. Louis are going to get a raise.  It’s the only reason to pass the bill this week.  It’s the only reason to attach an emergency clause to the bill.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (D), who traveled to the Capitol to testify against the bills, called it “unbelievable,” that the proposals were offered.

“This legislative body just two years ago gave St. Louis the okay to raise the minimum wage.  Something happened in between.  There was a lawsuit that, of course, we won, and within a couple of days a bill is introduced in this board and it’s on the fast track,” said Slay.

Republicans acknowledge the bill is being fast-tracked, but say that is to protect businesses from disruption.

“I think you have to ask the business owners are they prepared to have their labor costs increase overnight without adding value to what they’re producing,” said Chipman.  “That’s a hard thing for a business to do, especially if you’re a business that’s wondering about, ‘Should I renew my lease in my building because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to afford the cost increase of labor?  Am I going to have to inflate my prices and then watch my competitors, who may be bigger than I am, not have to do it, and then I lose market share and they gain market share, then I end up having to lay people off?’”

The House Committee on Rules – Administrative Oversight heard, too, from some St. Louis restaurant owners who said the minimum wage hike would force them to chair their business models and let go of some staff, as well as from some St. Louis workers who said they struggle to survive on their current salaries and said the wage increase is needed for many people to pay for basic needs.

The committee, after more than three hours of testimony and debate, voted 10-4 along party lines to advance the bills.

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.