Bipartisan effort seeks best way to help Missourians who owe for unemployment overpayments

      One week after hearing from the Department of Labor about the state’s efforts to seek repayment of erroneous unemployment payments from struggling Missourians, a bipartisan slate of House members is debating the best way to provide relief.

      The Special Committee on Government Oversight has heard that of roughly $150-million in overpayments, only a small portion – roughly a quarter or less – came from the state’s unemployment trust.  State statute requires the Department to get that paid back. 

Representatives Scott Cupps and Jered Taylor (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The larger portion comes from federal covid relief, the repayment of which the federal government has said states can choose to waive.  Missouri Governor Mike Parson (R) has told his Department he wants it to be paid back.

      The committee held a hearing on six bills – three filed by Republicans and three by Democrats – and a resolution filed by a Democrat, to deal with the issue.   

      The big question before lawmakers is whether to require that Missourians pay back overpayments out of the state fund.  Committee members from both parties say they would like to waive all repayment, but some are questioning whether that can be done.  They are unanimous about finding a way to waive the federal repayments, but some think the state portion might have to be recouped.

      Shell Knob Republican Scott Cupps said a priority for the Department is to maintain the integrity of the state’s unemployment trust.  His bill is one of those that would waive repayment of federal funds, but require Missourians to pay back state overpayments.

      “If you’re sitting there staring at a letter that says you owe $4,200 back that’s probably not something you’re going to be able to digest real easy.  Where if it says, ‘Hey, you owe $500 back and we’re going to be able to put you on a payment plan where you pay $50 a month for a couple of years, that’s probably something you can digest a heck of a lot easier,” said Cupps. 

      Cupps, who sits on the House Budget Committee, is one of those concerned that to waive the repayment of state benefits, the state would have to replenish the fund.  This could come from other core budget functions, such as schools or transportation. 

      St. Louis Democrat Peter Merideth, also a Budget Committee member and sponsor of the resolution, noted that Governor Parson has proposed putting $500-million in federal CARES Act relief funds into the state’s unemployment trust.  He suggests that would be a way to waive repayment of state overpayments while maintaining the fund.

Representatives LaKeySha Bosley, Ian Mackey, and Doug Clemens (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I think that we need to not wrap ourselves in circles trying to figure out where this money’s coming from and simply recognize that if we think this is an important form of the relief, well the federal government has given us $2-billion in relief money to use right now.  Let’s use that,” said Merideth.

      Cupps and other Republicans said they would consider that option. 

“The main thing that I talked to the Department about was maintaining the integrity of the trust,” said Cupps.  “If it’s already been discussed that we were gonna throw some CARES Act money in there … it is something that could be a tool in the toolbox … it’s something we maybe should look at.”

      Five of the six bills filed are largely the same.  Committee Chairman Jered Taylor (R-Republic), the sponsor of one of them, said his intention is to pare them down into one bill and to have the committee vote next week on that and the resolution.

The legislation dealing with unemployment overpayments includes: House Bill 1085 (Taylor), House Bill 1083 (J. Eggleston – R, Maysville), House Bill 1050 (Cupps), House Bill 1036 (LaKeySha Bosley – D, St. Louis), House Bill 1035 (Doug Clemens – D, St. Ann), House Bill 873 (Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis), and House Concurrent Resolution 30 (Merideth).

Earlier story: House Members Denounce State’s Seeking Payback of Unemployment Benefits

House members denounce state’s seeking payback of unemployment benefits

      House members from both parties are not happy that Missourians are being asked to pay back unemployment assistance they received in error through no fault of their own.

      Department of Labor Director Anna Hui told the Special Committee on Government Oversight overpayments are “kind of built into” the unemployment system.  The Department is expected to make an eligibility determination and get a payment out to an applicant within 14 days, generally based solely on information provided by the applicant.  As additional information comes in, often from the applicant’s current or past employers, it could prove he or she was not eligible.

Missouri Department of Labor Director Anna Hui (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

She said for 2020 that amounted to about $150-million in benefits that the Department paid out and now wants back.

Hui told the committee Governor Mike Parson (R) has made clear that he wants the Department to seek collection of those overpayments, viewing them as taxpayer dollars that went to ineligible individuals. 

      Several legislators said they have heard from constituents who have been asked to pay back thousands of dollars in state or federal relief, sometimes months after they received it.  One constituent was asked to repay about $23,000.

      “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a more fiscally conservative person in here than me, but I think we screwed up as a state government, to ask folks [for that money] back this late in the game,” said Representative J. Eggleston (R-Maysville).   

      St. Ann representative Doug Clemens (D) said for Missouri to ask people already struggling financially due to covid to pay back thousands of dollars is wrong.

      “Need I remind you of our median income in this state?  Most people in my district make $26,000 a year, and you’re asking for $11,000 payback?” said Clemens.  “We’re talking about keeping Missouri’s economy going.  We’re talking about equity and conscience … [It’s] taxpayers’ money, it’s these people’s money, and frankly we’re in a crisis.  They need to keep it. 

      “Because that money’s already spent on mortgage, it’s already spent on food on the table, and frankly we have a responsibility to the common welfare here.”

      Representatives, including Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson), said the reasons given to individuals for their ineligibility were not always clear. She read a letter the Department sent to one of her constituents telling them they had to repay for a “miscellaneous reason.”  Proudie called that “unacceptable.”

      “As a State of Missouri employee and someone elected, I sincerely apologize that this was the caliber of correspondence you got from a state agency because it tells you nothing … how dare us do that?” said Proudie.

Members of the House Committee on Government Oversight, including (front row, from left) Reps. Tony Lovasco, Scott Cupps, Doug Clemens, (next row, from left) Richard Brown, Mark Ellebracht, and Raychel Proudie (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Federal directives have given states the option not to require repayment of assistance from the federal government, which makes up the majority of the $150-million the Department overpaid.  Hui explained that Missouri is choosing to seek repayment of federal relief. 

Proudie thinks the state shouldn’t be expending its resources to pull money from Missouri’s economy just to send it back to the federal government, and Representative Scott Cupps (R-Shell Knob) agrees.

      “It may be as low as only $30-million of it’s from the [state] trust and $120-million of it is federal funds … you are not going to catch Scott Cupps in favor of rounding up money out of Missouri’s economy and sending it to Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden in Washington D.C.” said Cupps.  “The feds are literally telling us, ‘Hey, forgive it.  Forgive it.’”

The Department is required by state statute to collect overpayments out of the state fund.

      Dan Thacker represents a union including about 500 school bus drivers and monitors.  He said many of them make salaries that would put them near the poverty level, yet roughly 400 are being asked to pay back thousands of dollars.

      “Now we want to take $9,000, $10,000 back from them?  Where are they going to get it?  These are hardworking individuals that did nothing wrong or fraudulent.  They simply did exactly what was urged for them by the Missouri Department of Labor.”

      St. Joseph Republican Bill Falkner said any legislative action will have to balance the waiving of repayment by Missourians with protecting businesses, as some of these overpayments are charged to them.

      “There’s consequences to every action that we want to do … we have to keep in mind what we can do for those businesses to protect them so we’re not asking them to pay for a mistake,” said Falkner. 

      Committee members also spoke directly to Missourians during the hearing.  Cupps said the repayment situation is adding to already heightened stress for struggling Missourians.  He wants them to know he and other legislators are paying attention, and are looking for a solution.

      “There’s somebody that could get a letter in the mail that could say that they owe the state $7,200 back, and there could be divorces because of this,” said Cupps.  “I want people to know this:  do not do anything dumb because the state has sent you a letter that says you owe them money.  Don’t do it.  If you’re stressed out about it stop being stressed.” 

Representative Jered Taylor chairs the House Special Committee on Government Oversight (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Liberty representative Mark Ellebracht (D) asked Hui whether it makes financial sense for Missouri to seek these repayments.

      “If all of these people begin to appeal … how much money are we looking at spending here … are we tripping over the dollars to get to the dimes when it comes to actually recouping this money?”

      Hui told the committee that Missouri is on pace to need a loan to support the state’s unemployment trust, likely by around June.  She did not offer a projection of how great that loan might be.  She said this could cause employers to have to pay more, as that loan is repaid.

      Witnesses and lawmakers alike suggested that repayment decisions have seemed arbitrary and inconsistent, with some people being ordered to pay back only federal funds, some to pay back only state funds, and some told to pay everything or nothing. 

      Three Democrats have filed bills to address unemployment relief overpayments:  Clemens, LaKeySha Bosley (St. Louis), and Peter Merideth (St. Louis).  The committee’s chairman, Jered Taylor (R-Republic) and Representative Cupps are developing proposals.

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 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.

Second House bill sent to Senate would increase penalties for trafficking fentanyl

The second bill the Missouri House has sent to the Senate would increase penalties for trafficking a dangerous drug, the use of which can easily result in overdoses.  Opponents worry the change will cast too broad a net, putting more users in prison for long terms.

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

The House voted to making it a class-B felony to knowingly distribute, make, or attempt to distribute or make, more than 10 milligrams of fentanyl or its derivatives.  This would carry a penalty of five to 15 years in prison.  Making or distributing 20 or more milligrams would be a class-A felony, carrying a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison.

Law enforcement advocates have told lawmakers that fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.  It is being trafficked frequently in Missouri – particularly illegally made – and is often mixed with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, often resulting very easily in overdose deaths.

The sponsor of House Bill 1450, O’Fallon representative Nick Schroer (R), said fentanyl trafficking has continued to increase exponentially in the past year.  He believes increased penalties will help law enforcement get to those who are making and selling fentanyl.

“Right now law enforcement and the prosecutors only have the ability to charge drug traffickers with possession, or possession with an intent [to distribute.]  We are seeing a trend across the United States from attorneys general, prosecutors, and law enforcement working with the federal government adding this to their criminal trafficking statutes, giving them a new tool in the toolbox to get to the criminal enterprises,” said Schroer.

Representative Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis City) agrees that fentanyl is dangerous and efforts should be made to get it off the streets, but he does not believe the way to do that is by increasing penalties.

“For the last many decades now we’ve been pursuing a drug war where we try and lock people up for longer times thinking that’s going to help us deal with our drug problem, and it hasn’t.  It hasn’t at all,” said Merideth.  “What we’re really doing is also pulling people out of their communities, out of their families and putting them in prison for extremely long sentences for drugs.”

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

Florissant representative Alan Green (D) said the longer sentences HB 1450 proposes fly in the face of recent years’ efforts toward criminal justice reform.

“We already got one prison shutting down, we’re looking at shutting down a second prison, and we’re talking about alternative sentencing and all that wonderful stuff now for the last two years, but you’re saying you want to give more to the prosecutors to give them ammunition to go after more cases, but we’re trying to close prisons, so I’m getting mixed messages here.  What are we really trying to do with criminal justice reform here?”  Green asked Schroer.

Schroer argues that criminal justice reform does not mean being “weak on crime, it means being smart on crime.”  He said fentanyl has not been addressed in Missouri and his proposal would do that.

“I agree with the governor … when he indicated that only the most violent of offenders, only society’s most harmful, need to be in our prisons, and I think anybody who’s going to bring these deadly drugs – that even [an amount the size of] a granule of salt will kill several people – those people need to be addressed,” said Schroer.  “If we lock that person up, if they just take a plea deal and are locked away we can’t get to the actual manufacturers, this will continue.  We’re not fixing the issue.  This is a tool which we have seen across this nation is starting to work.”

HB 1450 would also increase the penalties for trafficking one gram or more of Rohypnol or any amount of GHB, both of which are often used in sex crimes.

The House voted 122-33 to send the bill to the Senate for its consideration.

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.

Missouri House votes to block public contracts with companies that boycott Israel

The Missouri House has voted to bar the state and its local governments from entering into contracts with companies that are participating in a movement to boycott Israel.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bill 2179 would prevent any public entity in Missouri from doing business with any such company except those owned by a single individual.  The bill is sponsored by House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) and was carried on the House Floor by Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

“There’s a movement across the last couple of decades called the BDS movement – Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel – in response to that movement 26 states in this country have passed legislation to reiterate their ties to work with the Nation of Israel, Missouri being one of those states that should adopt this,” said Haahr.

Haahr said the legislature should pass HB 2179 because of Missouri’s economic ties to Israel.

Representative Peter Merideth (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“We do millions of dollars in economic development.  We’ve created hundreds of jobs in Missouri as a result of our trade partnership with them.  We have a trade location in Israel.  We’ve had at least six Israeli companies move to St. Louis, Missouri, as startups because of our trade relationships,” said Haahr.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior, said many Missourians won’t like that the bill would discourage companies from boycotting Israel even if those companies’ leaders hold strong or personal beliefs about that country’s policies.

“There are a lot of people that … a lot of people in Missouri … that feel as if the Palestinians are being persecuted – being treated terribly – by Israel,” said Franks.

Some Democrats argue HB 2179 would be unconstitutional, saying it would infringe on free speech.  St. Louis representative Peter Merideth (D) said the ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court regarding a similar law in that state proves that point.

“It’s without a doubt a restriction on speech in our state.  The [Supreme] Court has established that.  The Kansas court said it emphatically – this is a violation of the First Amendment.  They made no distinction between a sole proprietor and a business, and our Supreme Court has actually said the First Amendment applies equally to corporations as it does to individuals,” said Merideth.

House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Speaker Richardson said the bill does not infringe on anyone’s right to free speech or on a corporation’s ability to boycott Israel, and said the Kansas ruling has no bearing on HB 2179 because what it proposes would not extend to individually-owned operations.  Kansas’ law did extend to sole proprietorships and was challenged by one such entity.

“Can we stop using the Kansas decision as some sort of definitive precedent that this is unconstitutional?” asked Richardson.  “I refer to it as the Kansas boogeyman:  ‘This is like Kansas!  This is like Kansas!  This is like Kansas!’  We’re not Kansas, and I don’t want to have a law that’s overly broad here just like I don’t want to have tax policy in Missouri that’s exactly like Kansas, but using the straw man of saying everything we do out here is Kansas, therefore we can’t do it, is disingenuous on this bill because it’s not the same.”

The House voted 111-35 to send HB 2179 to the Senate.

House budget committee votes to continue barring state funding for DUI checkpoints

The House Budget Committee has proposed a state spending plan that would continue to keep state-appropriated funds from going to impaired driving checkpoints.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Last year the House proposed that $20-million made available for grants to law enforcement agencies not be allowed for use in checkpoints.  That proposal became part of the final budget plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2017.  Law enforcement agencies can conduct checkpoints but have to find other ways to pay for them.

The idea was controversial but has the backing of House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob), who cited data from the Department of Transportation showing saturation efforts – periods of increased law enforcement patrols on the roads – result in more arrests per dollar.

Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles) remains adamant in her opposition to the prohibition.  She proposed letting $500,000 be used on checkpoints in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, and argued that checkpoints are effective.

“Checkpoints are not really used to catch drunk drivers and impaired drivers.  They’re mostly to make the public aware of the risk of being caught,” said Conway.  “There’s been ten studies reported in five separate papers that the impact of sobriety checkpoints showed relative decrease in alcohol-related crash fatalities of 9-percent, and that’s just the fatalities.  Two of these studies showed a decrease of 64-percent in one and 28-percent in the other of blood alcohol content above the legal limit.”

Those who supported barring state-appropriated funds from going to checkpoints last year stood by their decision.  Representative Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis) said what’s happened in the last year shows it was correct.

“We were pretty confident last year when we spoke about focusing this fund to methods that work and actually remove drunk drivers off the road because after all, that is the goal – to arrest drunk drivers and get them off the road to make our roads safer,” said Hill.  “In the first six months, without using these funds to use checkpoints, we saw an increase of 15-percent statewide in DWI arrests, and you know some may say that’s kind of a long shot to say that’s due to the lack of checkpoints, but I truly believe that sometimes this body has to make tough decisions to force the hand to do what not only is right, but to do what’s effective and efficient.”

Representative Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis) supported the partial opening up of state funds to checkpoints.  He said he believes checkpoints are effective, at least when used in conjunction with other things like saturation efforts.  He also believes checkpoints are fairer.

“What I would point out is that when we rely solely on individual officers pulling over individual vehicles we have significant research and evidence that those stops much more disproportionately impact poor and minority communities, and at the very least a checkpoint is a uniform way to check everybody fairly, regardless of your color, regardless of the type of car you drive,” said Merideth.

Representative Justin Hill (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Many backers of the prohibition on state funds being used for checkpoints say checkpoints are unconstitutional because vehicles are stopped without probable cause.  Yukon Republican Robert Ross said while he supports law enforcement and knows Conway does too, he said the issue is one of due process.

“Checkpoints are a system of being guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.  That’s exactly counterintuitive to the way this country was set up and how we should operate,” said Ross.

The committee rejected Conway’s amendment.  If that decision stands through the completion of a budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2019, the prohibition on state-appropriated funds being used for checkpoints would continue.  Conway said she would continue to try to lift it.

“I’ve stood in crowds of 200 and 300 police officers that were going out to do saturation and/or DUI checkpoints.  They’re very enthusiastic about their programs.  I’ve stood and talked with parents and spouses and children of people that were killed by drunk driving and they’re very supportive of DUI checkpoints; in some places it’s up to a 70-percent approval of the citizens where checkpoints are used,” said Conway.  “For some it simply boils down to a constitutional issue and their minds will not be changed, but I think it’s also – since it has been found constitutional under both Missouri and United States Supreme Courts – that until that changes we have to go with the constitutionality of it, and I must say that public safety is always at the forefront of most things that I do.”

The full House, when lawmakers return from spring break next week, will debate the proposal that was passed out of the chamber’s Budget Committee.  The issue could be debated again then.

House budget committee adopts stiff cuts to DHSS over Bourbon virus data dispute

House Budget Committee leaders have proposed deep cuts to the office of the Department of Health and Senior Services’ director because the Department has not provided data on a recent virus outbreak that left a state employee dead.

Representative Justin Alferman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House communications – click for larger version)

Committee Vice-Chairman Justin Alferman (R-Hermann) said prior to last week’s budget markup hearing that he would make such cuts if the information was not provided.  The Department continued to stand by its argument that it cannot release the requested data without violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Alferman’s proposal would cut more than $239-thousand in state revenue and another $925-thousand in federal funds from the director’s office.  That represents the salaries of seven attorneys in the director’s office, the director, the assistant director, and the legislative liaison.

“We have very little resources at our disposal in order to put checks in with some of these departments, and one of the checks and balances is the power of the purse, and we are absolutely using it right here to get information for the six million Missourians who live in the state,” said Alferman.

Alferman and House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) say the information they want – the number of people in Missouri who tested positive for the antibodies to the Bourbon virus, indicating they have had it – would not include specific patient information that would violate HIPAA.

A department spokesperson on Wednesday night told the House Budget Committee two people in Missouri have tested positive for Bourbon virus, but did not offer information on how many have tested positive for the antibodies.  The superintendent of eastern Missouri’s Meramec State Park died last year after contracting the virus from a tick bite.  Alferman said he wants to know whether there is a risk to public health from the tick-borne illness.

“All of the released information up until this point, 40-percent of all cases of the Bourbon virus have happened in Missouri, so for a state parks worker to pass away from this disease, I don’t think it’s an unrealistic expectation for us … we know testing was done.  We want the results of that testing to know … we’re policy makers.  Do we need to make a policy change in the state of Missouri to combat this virus?  We don’t know because we’re not getting any information back from the Department,” said Alferman.

He said the Department’s rationale is that releasing the number of people tested could allow someone to question park employees about whether they were screened and use a process of elimination to identify who was and was not tested – something Alferman called a “ridiculous” interpretation.

Representative Peter Merideth (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Democrats on the budget committee said while they might agree with Alferman about whether the Department should release that data, they don’t agree with cutting the department’s funding.

St. Louis Democrat Peter Merideth said the proposed cut could result in the firing of people in positions which work to enforce laws protecting Missouri’s seniors.

Merideth told a DHSS spokesperson, “I know that [Representative Alferman] has said that he is not trying to be punitive with this but it strikes me as that is all this is.  It is punishing you for something that you did that you shouldn’t have done … Maybe there is a very real complaint here that we should have gotten more information from you on a timely basis, but I don’t see how this cut to your budget actually helps address the problem and it looks to me like all it actually does is hurts the people of our state.”

Other Republicans, however, agreed with Alferman.  Representative Don Rone (R-Portageville) told the DHSS spokesperson that with as long as this issue has been developing, the DHSS’ director should have been in front of the committee and not a spokesperson.  The director was instead in the nation’s capital that night.

“There’s nothing can be, in Washington D.C., any more important than letting the citizens of this state know that if there is a problem … we’ve got a job to do here and that is protect the people of the state of Missouri, and it’s not right that the director is not here, sitting here, taking these questions,” said Rone.

Alferman’s proposed cut was adopted as part of the committee’s budget proposal, which the committee has voted to send to the House floor.  It will be debated there next week when lawmakers return from spring break.