Missouri legislature approves human trafficking hotline posters

The first bill to be passed out of the Missouri legislature in 2018 aims to fight human trafficking.

Representative Patricia Pike (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1246 would require the Department of Public Safety to develop posters that provide information on what human trafficking is and how victims can get help.  It would require those posters to be displayed by certain businesses including hotels and motels, strip clubs, private clubs, airports, emergency rooms, bus stations, and truck and rest stops.

The posters will include the National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline, which is 888-373-7888, and by text is 233733 (BEFREE).

HB 1246 is sponsored by Adrian Republican Patricia Pike.

“This bill works to provide rescue information to the victims and educate the citizens about human trafficking in a statewide and uniform way,” said Pike.  “I believe this bill will save lives, bring victims home to their families, and educate the public further on how to identify human trafficking.  It will also provide law enforcement with increased opportunities to receive tips to help combat trafficking.”

Representative Michael Butler (D-St. Louis) said trafficking is a major issue in Missouri and particularly in St. Louis.  He said the legislation is a sign that the legislature, and the state, are starting to recognize how great that issue is, and said more must be done.

“The greatest fear I have is something like this happening to my daughter.  Many of us, I’m sure, who have children, we think about it every time we’re in the grocery store, every time we’re somewhere public – that you could lose that person and it was your responsibility,” said Butler.  “I just thank [Representative Pike] for making me feel a little more comfortable about what I’m doing here today and whenever I think about that in the grocery store … I think about this bill.”

Under the bill the posters must be created by January 1, 2019, and must be displayed by the establishments specified in the bill by March 1, 2019.  Businesses that repeatedly fail to display them could incur fines.  The posters will be printed at the cost of each business that must display them.

House Speaker Todd Richardson prepares to sign HB 1246 so that it may be sent to the governor’s office for consideration. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The creation and display of such posters was one of the recommendations of the House Task Force on Human Trafficking, which was chaired by Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

Pike said more than 20 states have such posters and it has been shown that trafficking victims who use the national hotline have a better chance of being rescued.

The bill was passed out of the House in January 139-5 and the Senate passed it early this month.  It now awaits action from the governor’s office or it could become law without any such action after 15 days.

Last year a similar bill sponsored by Representative Cloria Brown reached the state Senate but did not come to a vote in that chamber.

The House this week also passed a bill that sets a minimum age for applicants for Missouri marriage licenses.  Sponsor Jean Evans (R-Manchester) said the bill would combat traffickers and abusers bringing minor victims to Missouri to marry them.  That bill has been sent to the Senate for consideration.

House endorses minimum age for Missouri marriage licenses

The House this week voted to set a minimum age at which people in Missouri can get a marriage license, but the bill met more resistance than last year.

Representative Jean Evans (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Marriage licenses can now be issued to persons younger than 15 under certain conditions.  House Bill 1630 would increase that age to 17 and require a court hearing on whether the marriage is advisable.  No licenses would be issued when either party is younger than 15, or when one party is 21 or older and the other party is younger than 17.

Bill sponsor Jean Evans (R-Manchester) began offering the legislation last year as a way to fight human trafficking; particularly cases in which abusers bring young trafficking victims to Missouri to marry them.

“Currently we do not have a minimum age of marriage in Missouri and this bill seeks to correct that,” said Evans.  “In addition it will protect young people from predators and those who might do them harm with forced marriages.”

The bill had bipartisan support, including from St. Louis Democrat Michael Butler, who said it’s appropriate for the legislature to set a minimum age for things like marriage.

“A decision to get married … is a very important decision, and minors in a lot of cases, we know, generally don’t have complete control when that decision is made.  To create a way for young people in our state to be protected from tough decisions that aren’t made by themselves, and we know this is occurring, is something that we should be doing,” said Butler.

Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) who argued that Missouri has a serious problem with human trafficking.

“If someone over the age of 21 – someone 30 years-old comes to a high school and engages in sexual activity with a 15 year-old or a 12 year-old or anyone under the age of consent that’s statutory rape, and right now that person can legitimately get married.  That’s a problem,” said Dogan.

Similar legislation passed out of the House last year 139-1, but this year many Republicans opposed the bill.  Some, including Lincoln Republican Wanda Brown, don’t like the requirement that a court hearing decide whether a marriage license should be issued for someone between the ages of 15 and 17.

Representative Wanda Brown (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m not opposed, necessarily, to raising the age limit for marriage.  What I’m opposed to is telling every parent in this state they’re not fit to make a decision for their child without asking a judge, and of course paying an attorney,” said Brown.  “The bill was brought forward in the name of stopping human trafficking.  This is a made-up concept.  This does nothing to stop the traffickers.  This only takes the parental rights of good, law abiding citizens.”

Others like David Wood (R-Versailles) expressed concern the bill might affect religious populations living in their districts.

“I have a very large Mennonite population.  Mennonite population typically marries relatively young,” said Wood.  “My court could get really backed up waiting on a judge to approve a lot of these weddings when they’re approved by the family, they’re approved by the church, and they’re welcomed in the community.”

Regarding concerns like those of Wood, Evans said her bill is very similar to one in place in Pennsylvania where there are significant, similar religious populations.

“If you’re under 18 you have to have parent permission and go before a judge, and the judge just has to basically say there’s nothing – there’s no ill will here.  There’s not somebody taking advantage of someone.  This is a good fit, the families support it, and go forward and get married,” said Evans.  “It’s very similar to that and it’s worked very well in Pennsylvania where, again, they have much larger communities of Amish and Mennonite even than we do here in Missouri.”

Evans also said the bill does nothing to prevent a religious wedding ceremony.

Despite increased opposition over last year, a bipartisan 95-50 vote sent the bill to the Senate.  Last year Evans’ similar legislation was approved by a Senate committee but advanced no further.

Another measure backers say will help fight human trafficking became the first bill sent to the governor’s office in 2018.  Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) signed House Bill 1246.  The bill, sponsored by Adrian Republican Patricia Pike would require the development of posters displaying information on human trafficking.

House passes bill meant to let Missouri farmers grow hemp

The state House wants to give Missouri farmers a chance to enter a new market.  It has passed a bill that would legalize the growing of industrial hemp.

Representative Paul Curtman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Paul Curtman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant with a low concentration of THC, the psychoactive component found in marijuana.  It can be used to make products including paper, clothing, and biodegradable plastics.

House Bill 170, sponsored by Washington Republican Paul Curtman, would allow the Department of Agriculture to issue a permit to growers who pass a background check, have not been found guilty of a felony in the previous ten years, and have never been  convicted of a drug-related offense.  The Department can also inspect growers and handlers for compliance, and inspect crops to make sure nothing illegal is being grown.

“We have manufacturers in our state who use industrial hemp as a raw material in their manufacturing goods, however because it’s illegal to grow in Missouri they have to spend Missouri dollars in the economies of other states and other countries because they can’t spend the Missouri dollars in Missouri to buy this raw material from Missouri farmers,” said Curtman.

Curtman and other supporters emphasized the bill is in no way related to attempts to legalize marijuana.  He noted the concentration of THC is so low that if anyone tries to smoke it, “they’re just going to get a headache, they’re going to throw up, and they’re going to regret it for the rest of their life.”

Some representatives disagreed.  Dexter Republican Tila Hubrect argued the small amounts of THC found in hemp can cause “intoxication.”  She also said hemp and marijuana plants are “indistinguishable to the eye,” so allowing the farming of hemp could complicate law enforcement efforts.

Carrollton Republican Joe Don McGaugh said the federal farm bill allows the growing of hemp by universities and colleges and state agriculture departments for research, unlike what Curtman is proposing.

“I support industrial hemp.  I want there to be research in industrial hemp.  Why would I not?  Why would we not want another market for our farmers?” McGaugh asked.  “I just think we need to do it right.”

The bill had broad, bipartisan support, passing 126-26.  Similar legislation has been passed out of the House in several previous years, and St. Louis City Democrat Michael Butler said he’s supported it every time.

“I am, for one, tired of voting ‘yes’ on this bill.  I think it should already be law,” said Butler.

St. Louis City Democrat Bob Burns also wanted the bill to advance.

“I believe we are people with entrepreneurial spirit, and if 31 other states are doing this I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel to create jobs right here in Missouri, and we don’t have to write every Nth degree of this law.  You’re just trying to give people an opportunity to explore it legally,” said Burns.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

House budget plan targets Conservation Department’s deal with former director

The state House is poised to send to the Senate a budget that would cut $500,000 from the Department of Conservation.

Representative Craig Redmon (R-Canton), who chairs the budget subcommittee that oversees Conservation, proposed the cut.  He said it is in response to the Department having paid $127,000 plus benefits to former director Robert Ziehmer since he left the Department in July.

“There was a deal struck, unbeknownst to myself or the budget chairman [Representative Scott Fitzpatrick], where they continued to pay the director a salary and didn’t inform us, and it was contrary to what they had in their policy,” said Redmon.  “We feel like this is a blatant disregard for the House of Representatives so this is a message sent to the Department of Conservation.”

Representative Michael Butler (D-St. Louis), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, argued Ziehmer had earned his settlement

“I’d like to ask the body to imagine if they were a director of an agency.  They are taking a lot less money than what they’re worth.  They work in an agency for 30 years and they are forced out politically from that agency,” said Butler.

Redmon said it is not clear why Ziehmer left the Department, and said his committee is still trying to find out.

St. Louis Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis) said Redmon’s amendment represents a punishment greater than the perceived offense.

“I think you’ve succeeded in getting the attention,” McCreery told Redmon, “but I think that what you’re going to do to the Department of Conservation is in the wrong spirit.  We do not use the budget to punish a few commissioners by punishing all the employees in the department.”

Redmon noted that the budget must next go to the state Senate, and that $500,000 could be restored depending on what the Department tells lawmakers.

The budget for the Department of Conservation is laid out in House Bill 6.

House refuses additional reductions to MU in higher education budget

The state House has finalized its proposed budget for state aid to colleges and universities for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  Another favorable vote will send that plan to the Senate for its consideration.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

That plan would reduce funding to the University of Missouri by 9-percent, or $50-million, compared to the current fiscal year.  This was part of a reduction across all higher education due to the need to reduce spending.  Lawmakers blocked on Tuesday attempts to take additional money from MU.  House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) urged legislators to not seek to penalize MU over its handling of racial tensions, as many sought to do during last year’s budget debates.

“I don’t like any more than any of you do some of the things that have happened over the last year-and-a-half at the University.  That being said, there is a new president at the institution.  He has already started implementing changes.  I think that a little over 9-percent cut to their operating budget in one year is pretty significant,” said Fitzpatrick.  “I think that if we continue to cut the University of Missouri system the message that we are sending across the state is that we’re going beyond punitive reductions at that point.  At that point I think we’re sending the message that we are expecting the University to raise tuition to make up the difference that we are going to be causing here if we continue to go down this path.”

Some lawmakers still wanted to take more from MU.  Ash Grove Republican Mike Moon wanted to take $1-million from the University to promote tourism.

“One thing that keeps ringing in my mind is $2-million in hidden bonuses that were uncovered by the state auditor,” said Moon, referring to a recent finding regarding the university.  “Maybe I should’ve been more diligent and directed where that money be taken, and maybe salaries need to be looked at.  These bonuses, though, have to stop,” said Moon.

Moon’s amendment was rejected.

The House also rejected attempts to redirect money that goes toward Lincoln University’s land grant status and the federal dollars that come with it.  This was of particular importance to Democrats, including the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Michael Butler (D-St. Louis).

“We are in danger again this year for a university in the State of Missouri losing those matching funds,” said Butler.  “A lot of work on both sides of the aisle has gone into this.  We’re very happy with the result even though we’re still $3.6-million away [from where we’d like to be].” 

Democrats attempted to remove language in the higher education budget that blocks state money from going to higher education institutions that offer less than the international tuition rate, or scholarships, to students lacking lawful immigration status.

Kansas City Democrat Lauren Arthur called that language punitive, and said it often hurts students who entered the country not by choice but with their parents.

“We passed this language a few years ago and we’ve seen two outcomes for these students.  First, they can’t afford to go to college so they don’t … or, they decide to go to college outside of this state, where we lose an individual who is a contributing member of society,” said Arthur.

Fitzpatrick said Missouri must, “prioritize the citizens of the state, and for that matter the United States, when we look at who’s going to pay the lowest rate of tuition … “This was never an issue until the federal government administratively granted lawful presence – not lawful immigration status; they still have an unlawful immigration status – but when they administratively granted lawful presence to people who were here illegally.”

Arthur’s amendment was rejected.

The higher education budget is laid out in House Bill 3.  The House is expected to vote Thursday on whether to send that and the rest of its proposed state budget to the Senate.

Missouri House to finalize its budget proposal this week

Legislators often say it is the one thing the General Assembly must do even if it does nothing else:  pass a balanced state budget.  This week the state House will take the latest step toward that end, when its members debate a budget proposal to be sent to the Senate for its consideration.

The Missouri House Budget Committee worked Tuesday to finalize the proposal it would send to the full chamber for debate that will happen this week.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
The Missouri House Budget Committee worked Tuesday to finalize the proposal it would send to the full chamber for debate that will happen this week. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Scott Fitzpatrick’s (R-Shell Knob) top priority when he was named House Budget Committee Chairman was to fully fund the formula for K-12 school funding.  This budget plan would do that.

“That’s going to continue to be my number one priority in the budget, and we did it without cutting the transportation program in K-12 that the governor recommended reducing,” said Fitzpatrick.

The bills would also not appropriate all of the money projected to be available, so that some will be left for expenses that are unforeseen or are greater than projected.  In recent years, the legislature and governor had to take care of such expenses in a mid-fiscal year, or supplemental, budget.

“We agreed with the governor and the Senate that no less than $100-million should be set aside for a possible supplemental request,” said Fitzpatrick.  “We also set another $100-million almost that is made up of Medicaid increases that the department requested that we did not fund, and we said, ‘Listen, we need you to do your best to hold down these expenses in Medicaid.”

The budget proposal would also maintain at their current level in-home Medicaid services to seniors and people with disabilities, assuming that a House bill to end a tax break for low-income seniors and disabled becomes law.  The money that bill would make available would go to the in-home care program.

House Democrats don’t like basing the support of the in-home care program on eliminating that tax break.  The lead Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Michael Butler, said his party came up with other options, and one of those would be to dip into that money set in reserve.

“Secondly, when there is over $50-million left in different state funds across the state, we think there are other ways to pay for it,” said Butler.

Representative Deb Lavender (right) proposed taking $6.85-million from a fund in the Attorney General's office and giving it to the state's public defenders.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Deb Lavender (right) proposed taking $6.85-million from a fund in the Attorney General’s office and giving it to the state’s public defenders. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Democrats also want to preserve a change made to the budget proposal last week, when one of its members proposed shifting $6.85-million from the Attorney General’s Office to the state’s Public Defender System.  The Attorney General’s Office didn’t have representative in the hearing, and the budget committee approved the change.

The Public Defender’s Office wants a boost in state funding to hire more counsel, and to deal with what it’s told lawmakers is an “overload” of cases.   “We, along with quite a few Republicans, believe the public defender’s office is in dire need of those funds,” said Butler.

Fitzpatrick said there might be a statutory issue regarding that money beings shifted out of the Attorney General’s office.

“There’s still a long way to go for the budget and I think it’s entirely possible that that will be changed back,” said Fitzpatrick.

Butler said another priority for his party is to make sure Lincoln University gets enough money to maintain its land grant status.  He said the federal government has said Lincoln must have more matching funds in order to keep that status.

“We need to try to get as close to $6.1-million as possible.  We are putting up $2.5-million this year and we’re very hopeful that is enough equity to the federal government,” said Butler.  “Lincoln has for decades seen a disparity in funding.  It has never met the land grant match.  It has never been given proper funding.”

Butler said there is support from both parties for making sure Lincoln University keeps its land grant status.

The budget proposal would also fund a Medicaid asset limit increase, add money to the state’s senior centers, and restore some – but not all – cuts to higher education.

House passage would be just the latest stop for a Fiscal Year 2018 state budget.  From the House it would go to the Senate, which will likely propose changes to the House’s plan.  Once the two chambers agree on a budget, their proposal will go to Governor Greitens for his action.


Leading Democrat on House Budget Committee looks ahead to challenging FY ’18 process

State House members are doing groundwork on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, ahead of the release by Governor Eric Greitens of his proposed spending plan.  Mike Lear sat down with the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Michael Butler (St. Louis), to talk about his thoughts in facing what lawmakers say will be a difficult budget year.

Audio:  Mike Lear interviews Rep. Michael Butler

Representative Michael Butler is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Michael Butler is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

ML:   Let’s talk about the causes in a moment because I do want to get to that, but let’s start with where we are in the budget, and I think everybody agrees that there is a hole, that there is a – I don’t know if I’ve heard the word “crisis” yet – but it’s certainly a dire budget year.  How do you deal with the situation that we’re in this year?

MB:  “I think it’s first important to note how we got here.  How we got to this budget hole and what I could call a budget ‘crisis’ is we are currently about $450-million dollars that we have to cut out of the budget for this year, and that is not because of the past governor and the past administration.  It’s because of the legislature who controls the budget process.  We’ve been hearing that the past administration is to blame but we have to include Republican majorities in both the House and Senate that actually create the budget.

“They have cut revenue for years and revenue is down.  Expenses are barely up – are generally up for how they normally are, but because we aren’t taking in as much revenue because of plenty of tax cuts for the rich, and for businesses, and for specific special interests, are the reason why we don’t have enough money to provide services to people.

“We want to be a part of the solution.  We’re going to help, but we’re in the minority.  We didn’t cause the problem.  We’ve spoken against the problem in many cases, and we can’t take the blame for something we did not do.”

ML:  Since we’re talking about cause, we are going to hear a lot about Medicaid and the need to reform Medicaid, and that a lot of the costs [to the budget] are driven by Medicaid.  What is the answer there?  Is it a question of Medicaid reform?

MB:  “Well, with a brand new governor who is just learning the budget and is late on giving us his idea of the budget – much later than any other governor in recent history – we have to remind him and other folks around the state how we got here. Part of how we got here, especially with Medicaid; when many members of the majority, the Republican party and the governor says that Medicaid spending is out of control, they made it out of control.  They have cut Medicaid spending so much that it creates a system for poor people, Medicaid recipients, that can’t get to good care.  They can’t get to their primary care doctors, which cost the system much less.

“In fact when primary care doctors have a choice to decide whether to take these patients, Medicaid patients, when they decide not to those folks are forced to take emergency room care which is much, much, much more expensive.  And as we cut more – if we just say we’re going to cut more – we’re going to create more of that system.  We’re going to create where folks either can’t get care, or can’t get care that the state can afford, and in the end folks are going to suffer, and many of the folks in poor rural areas that they represent.

“On the Democratic side we’re going to be sure we’re continuing to take care of people, putting people first and not special interests, and put people first, not just numbers on a budget.  We believe that we should continue to make sure that folks can get good care and they can take care of their children as well, as Medicaid recipients.”

Earlier stories:  

House Budget Committee warned of impending fiscal challenges

House Budget Chairman not optimistic going into FY ’18 budget process 

ML:  We have a new administration in Washington D.C.  Is now the time to pursue Medicaid expansion if this state is going to do it, when we could be seeing changes or a repeal of Obamacare?

MB:  “Now is the time.  The time was three years ago when the federal government was going to reimburse us at 100-percent.  Now is still the time because we believe that President Obama, and the facts show that President Obama had it right.

“In states where Medicaid was expanded Obamacare premium healthcare costs have decreased. We’ve seen premium healthcare costs once again decrease in states that expanded Medicaid.  We’ve heard the governor and the new federal administration, new president, say that healthcare premiums are increasing, but they’re only increasing in states that didn’t expand Medicaid.

“So, we’re going to talk a little bit more about expansion of Medicaid and we know that we have facts on our side, and we have statistics on our side that show that if we expand Medicaid not only will poor folks and working class folks benefit, so will people that have premium healthcare.”

ML:  What is the path forward, then, on this budget year, when we do get the budget from Governor Greitens and start to go through that … as you said $450-million I think is the figure that’s going to have to come out of it.  How do you approach this?

MB:  “We can’t raise taxes.  We can’t take more from Missourians.  What we can do are find ways as we will continue to do where government can work better, where we can use more technology. We are unfortunately going to have to make tough cuts to services that may be a benefit to a small amount of people or a benefit to a small amount of special interests.  Unfortunately that may be just an extra service that government has done.

“As Democrats we’re not trying to raise taxes.  We don’t have the power to.  But we want to make sure we’re finding waste, fraud, and abuse, and we’re finding if there’s money that we’re not using in the state budget, that we’re being good stewards of the people’s money.”

ML:   Do you think there are a lot of places in the budget like that?

MB:  “I think there are very few.  Democrats have been working very hard over the years to fix those things in the budget already and we’ve been successful, and we’re going to continue to do that.”