Missouri House passes 5 bills in special session called to address crime

The Missouri House has given initial approval to five bills related to crime issues in Missouri.  The bills were filed in a special session of the legislature called by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Johnathan Patterson (photo courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Republicans say the legislation will help address violent crime in a year when Kansas City is on pace to set a new record for the annual number of homicides, and St. Louis is in the midst of a wave of murders and other violence.  Democrats decried the legislation as accomplishing nothing and said the special session was called only for political reasons.

House Bill 66 would create a fund to pay for law enforcement agencies to protect witnesses or potential witnesses and their immediate families during an investigation or ahead of a trial.

St. Louis City representative Peter Merideth (D) said the bill would be meaningless because there would be no money in the fund until it is appropriated in budget legislation.

“If we really believed this was an emergency wouldn’t we be funding it right now?” asked Merideth.

Bill sponsor Jonathan Patterson (R-Lees Summit) said his bill will create the program and funding can come later, as is usually the case with newly created state programs.

“I trust the mayors of our state.  They say it’s an emergency.  I trust the law enforcement in our state.  They say it’s an emergency,” said Patterson.  “We could have funded it [during the special session].  You’d have to ask yourself, ‘does that fit within [the governor’s call of topics to be addressed in this special session]?’  I don’t know.”

Representative Peter Merideth (photo courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Merideth said he would still support the bill, but also expressed concern that the offer of state money to pay for a potential witness’ room and board could be used to incent false testimony and lead to wrongful convictions.

The House voted 147-3 to send HB 66 to the Senate.

House Bill 46, sponsored by Representative Ron Hicks (R-Dardenne Prarie), would temporarily lift the requirement that St. Louis Police officers, EMS personnel, and firefighters live in the City of St. Louis.  The residency requirement would be reinstated after September 1, 2023.

“Out of all the things in the governor’s call this is the one really good thing that will immediately improve the conditions of [St. Louis’] crime problem,” said Representative Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis), a former law enforcement officer and undercover detective.  “Men and women in blue want to to work in the city.  Right now they don’t feel empowered enough by their city to stay there.”

St. Louis area Democrats say the bill infringes on local control because St. Louis residents are set to vote on whether to remove the  residency requirement in November.

“This comes up about every eight years in our city.  It has never passed,” said St. Louis representative Wiley Price (D).

The House passed HB 46 117-35.

House Bill 11 would increase the penalty for endangering the welfare of a child from a misdemeanor to a first-degree felony.  Bill sponsor Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) said criminals are taking advantage of juveniles by giving them guns and encouraging them to participate in violent crime.

“The issue of our youth being involved in horrific violence should be of the utmost importance to everyone in this body.  That is why I fought so hard since I’ve been in this body … to address this in one way, shape, or form,” said Schroer.

The House passed HB 11, 117-33.

House Bill 16, also sponsored by Schroer, would define the unlawful transfer of a weapon to a minor as the lending or sale of a firearm to a minor for the purpose of interfering with or avoiding an arrest or investigation.  It would change current law to allow such transfers to be a felony even if done with parental permission.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“It’s very important that we focus on these adults … that are victimizing our youth.  Sometimes it’s resulting in their death, sometimes it’s resulting in them going into the juvenile justice system,” said Schroer.  “Amending this law pursuant to the conversations we’ve had across the state it’s going to lead to a decrease in crime.”

St. Louis representative Rasheen Aldridge (D) said those bills will not reduce crime and won’t help his city.

“We’re not addressing the root cause of crime.  We’re not talking about after school programs.  We’re not talking about real criminal justice reform.  We’re not talking about how we make our neighborhoods not food deserts so we don’t have to travel 20 and 30 miles out.  We’re not talking about how we make education equitable for neighborhoods like ours,” said Aldridge.

HB 16 was sent to the Senate with a 103-45 vote.

The House also approved 133-11 House Bill 2, sponsored by Representative Barry Hovis (R-Whitewater), which aims to clarify current law on the admissibility of witness statements when a witness has been tampered with or intimidated.  If a court finds a defendant tried to keep a witness from testifying and the witness failed to appear, an otherwise inadmissible statement from that witness could be allowed into evidence.

All of these except for HB 16 were passed with a clause that would make them effective immediately upon being signed by the governor.

House panel told Missouri is ready for coronavirus

A Missouri House panel today heard from three doctors, including the Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, about how ready the state is for the coronavirus.

Doctor Randall Williams, Director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Legislators heard Missouri is very prepared and that the best thing Missourians can do to prevent the disease from spreading is wash their hands.

“We have been meeting daily since January 27,” DHSS Director Randall Williams told lawmakers.  “I believe we are very well prepared.  Our motto is, ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,’ and we think we are prepared for both.”

More than 100 people had been confirmed to have the coronavirus in the United States and it is responsible for six deaths in this country as of Monday afternoon.  The disease has killed more than 3,000 people globally.   House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield) created the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention to assess Missouri’s readiness for the disease to appear here.

Doctor Stevan Whitt with the University of Missouri Health System deals with infectious diseases.  He told committee chairman Jonathan Patterson (R-Lees Summit) the current rates of infections and deaths suggest a 3.3-percent mortality rate with coronavirus.

“Which means you have about a 97-percent rate of survival even if you get the virus,” said Whitt.

“And that number’s probably even lower given that there’s been underreporting of the cases,” said Patterson.

“We know there are asymptomatic people who would never have gone to a doctor and never gotten tested, so in all likelihood those numbers are higher,” said Whitt.

Representative Jonathan Patterson (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Williams noted that the mortality rate is twenty times greater than the flu.

“It’s two percent and the flu is one in 1,000, so you’re talking about two out of 100 versus one in 1,000, so that’s concerning,” said Williams.

No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Missouri.  Williams, who has been in regular contact with federal officials and his counterparts from other states, said samples from fewer than 15 patients in Missouri are being tested for the virus, while California has tested more than 460 people.

Whitt said corona is very much like the common cold or flu in the symptoms that a person presents.

“You get it from coughing, sneezing, runny nose; all the usual things, contact, close contact with somebody who’s had it, inhalation of droplets – especially a large amount of droplets from somebody who you’re very close to, distance wise,” said Whitt.  “We know that cases can be everywhere from completely asymptomatic to death.  Most of the deaths are associated with lung involvement and inability to appropriately oxygenate, similar to influenza.”

The doctors told lawmakers that the state has a plan in place for dealing with a pandemic and those plans were made available to lawmakers and the media.  They also said the best things the public can do to protect against coronavirus and stem its spread are the same things commonly recommended to keep healthy.

“Starting today we’re pushing out to all 50,000 state employees our messaging that the most important thing that will keep people from dying in this epidemic is that … soap.  It’s public health 101,” said Williams.

“If you’re sick, please stay at home.  If you’re sick and need to go see a doctor please check in, tell them about your symptoms.  Usually you’ll be given a mask if part of your symptoms are fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath, and please put on the mask,” said Whitt.  “If you’re sick and do not need to be in the hospital or see a doctor just stay home, call in sick.  I would encourage [legislators] to help us encourage employers to give very lenient practices to people who are sick and want to stay home during this time.”

Whitt said another concern is the “classic hoarding mentality” applying to things like masks.  He said for people who are not sick to wear those affords them very little protection.

“They protect mostly the person from disseminating the disease.  For instance the regular surgical masks that are the recommended masks for people who are ill, they don’t really filter air.  What they do is they trap particles … that’s what happens when you cough into one, that’s what happens when you sneeze into one,” said Whitt.  “If, on the other hand, the person who is the source of infection is not wearing the mask but you are, you still breathe around the edges, you still breathe around the gaps in the top around your nose.  It’s not very protective for individuals who are not sick.  It’s protective of groups of people to put it on the sick person.”

The doctors also recommended that those who haven’t gotten a flu shot go ahead and do so, as cases of the flu continue to rise.

Williams said the state health lab in Jefferson City now has the capability to test for coronavirus and have a result in six hours.

Doctors said another concern if the disease reaches Missouri will be in hospital and clinic staffing if staff members begin getting sick.

Speaker Haahr said the legislature is prepared to act as needed to support the response to coronavirus, including by appropriating funds or giving authority for the spending of federal funds.  He said the citizens of Missouri should know their government is prepared to protect them from the virus, and said he has complete faith in Williams to head up the state’s response.

The committee will hold additional hearings on an as-needed basis.

House gives initial passage to changes to Missouri medical marijuana provisions

The Missouri House has given initial approval to a bill addressing issues with implementing a medical marijuana industry approved by voters in 2018.  This comes as its Special Oversight Committee continues to explore problems in the issuing of cultivation licenses.

Representative Jonathan Patterson (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1896 would give the Department of Health and Senior Services authority to review criminal background checks to ensure no workers in the medical marijuana industry have committed a disqualifying felony criminal offense.  Article 14 of the Missouri Constitution, passed in 2018 by Missouri voters, includes the authority for DHSS to conduct criminal background checks, but the FBI does not share that information with non-law enforcement entities.

HB 1896 would give DHSS statutory authority to satisfy the FBI’s concerns.  It would also make it a Class-E felony for a state agency to share data about medical marijuana card applicants with the federal government.

The House on Thursday added a provision to the bill that would require a medical marijuana card applicant to meet in-person with a Missouri doctor in order to be certified.

That piece was proposed by Representative Jonathan Patterson (R), a Lee’s Summit surgeon, who said it would strengthen the fledgling program.

“Because if you are doing these certifications online or over the phone then the strength of the certification is really diminished, so as we’re starting this program we want everything to be above board,” said Patterson.

Some lawmakers opposed Patterson’s amendment, saying it took a narrowly focused bill to fix a problem holding up the system, and added roadblocks to some potential medical marijuana patients.

“The Department testified to us the other day that the ‘North Star’ of Amendment 2 and the ‘North Star’ of their implementation of this was patient access, and all I see in here is a limitation on the physician I can go to,” said Representative Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis).

Representative Peter Merideth (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Merideth is also critical of Patterson’s amendment having first appeared on the House floor and not being the subject of a committee hearing.

“When people passed Amendment 2 do you think they had in mind an online doctor from some other country or another state?”  Patterson asked.

“I think we should ask them,” Merideth responded.  “That’s the point of a public hearing on something like this so that they can come in and say, ‘Here’s how it impacts me,’ so I can hear from a doctor, so I can hear from a patient.”

O’Fallon attorney, Representative Nick Schroer (R), said he believes Patterson’s amendment will lead to court challenges.

“This is going to prohibit the actual implementation of what the voters intended and what the voters requested,” said Schroer.

Other lawmakers said requiring certification from only Missouri doctors would be a burden to those who live near the borders and visit doctors from neighboring states.

Patterson argued his amendment would protect patients.

“The people of Missouri … wanted a safe program that provided patients access.  They wanted a safe program of Missouri-grown marijuana sold in Missouri to Missourians certified by a Missouri physician that is licensed to practice here,” said Patterson.

The House also added a provision to require DHSS employees involved in medical marijuana regulation to disclose any “actual or perceived” conflicts of interest to the Department.

Another favorable vote would send the legislation to the Senate.

The House Special Committee on Government Oversight has held several hearings into apparent inconsistencies in the approval of licenses to cultivate marijuana for medical use in the state.  More such hearings are expected as early as next week.

House votes to clear needle exchange programs to fight IV drug use, disease

The Missouri House has passed a bill that would legalize programs already operating in the state that give drug abusers clean needles.  Supporters say those fight the spread of intravenous diseases and expose drug users to treatment options.

Representative Holly Rehder (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Those running needle exchanges in Missouri now could be charged with violating the state’s drug paraphernalia law.  They are protected only by handshake agreements with local law enforcement who recognize the benefit of the programs.

House Bill 168 would exempt from that law needle exchange programs that are registered with the Department of Health and Senior Services.

“Syringe access programs have been found to cause a 13-percent reduction in use.  They play a very large role in referral for treatment, and they’ve also been found to decrease needle sharing by 20-percent,” said Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder, the bill’s sponsor.

She said the CDC has identified 13 counties in Missouri as ripe for an outbreak of Hepatitis C and HIV.  She said preventing an outbreak would save lives and save the state money.

“In 2016 the cost to the state for Hep-C and HIV treatment was $70-million.  In 2017 it was $63-million, and in 2018 it was $80-million,” said Rehder.

Missouri has plenty of examples in other states to look to, to see how needle exchange programs have run and what results they’ve had.

“We’ve had over 30 states enact legislation to allow these to take place,” said Columbia Democrat Martha Stevens.

Supporters say in places with needle exchange programs, drug users are five times more likely to enter treatment.  That’s because when users go to get needles, they’re getting them from a health care professional who can tell them about treatment options.

“This could be the entryway into someone getting treatment.  This could be the first healthcare professional that one of these IV drug users ever meets,” said Lee’s Summit Republican Jonathan Patterson.

“So often people who are using, once they get to using needles, they don’t have anyone in their life that knows how to get them help, that knows how to get them plugged in when they reach out for help,” said Rehder.  “Having this person who meets them where they’re at, becomes their friend, and becomes that medical professional with the knowledge to get them plugged in, and that’s who they go to reach out to when they’re ready for help.”

The House’s 124-27 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where it stalled last year.  Rehder has said she has assurances from members of that chamber that it will be supported this year.

Earlier stories: 

House Committee considers legalizing needle exchange programs to fight disease, addiction

Missouri House asked again to revamp HIV infection laws, endorse needle exchange programs

Missouri House votes to support needle exchange programs to fight IV drug abuse, disease