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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      The House supported that override 152-2.

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

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

House votes to renounce Dred Scott decision by Missouri Supreme Court

      The Missouri House has again voted to renounce the 1852 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that denied Scott and his family their freedom.

Representative Raychel Proudie is moved to tears after the House votes unanimously to renounce to the 1852 Dred Scott Decision by the Missouri Supreme Court. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Scott had argued that he, his wife, and his two children were free because they had lived in the state of Illinois, where slavery was not legal.  The Missouri Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling and said they were still slaves.  The case preceded another suit in which the U.S. Supreme Court also found against Scott and his family.

      Representatives Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson) and Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka) both filed resolutions to denounce that decision. 

Proudie has often spoken about how for many reasons it is significant for her to be a state representative, including that she is an African American woman and the ancestor of enslaved people.

Representative Dottie Bailey (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I can’t believe I’m standing here at the mic.  I can’t believe I have an office key that unlocks this door.  Every day I can’t believe it. I am the descendant of slaves, ya’ll. I can’t believe I’m standing here,” said Proudie.  “We say that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.  I don’t even think that Dred Scott could have conceptualized it because he tried and they told him, ‘No.’”

Bailey said she had followed versions of this measure in previous years, including in 2018 when House Concurrent Resolution 86 was passed by the House.

The bust of Dred Scott in the Hall of Famous Missourians, in the Capitol. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “The federal government, Amendments 13, 14, and 15 came out of that and so that has kind of been recompense and healing for that, but the State of Missouri has never done anything,” said Bailey.  “This is a gesture, yes, but it’s monumental.”

“Dred Scott should never have been compelled to appear before any court of this state or government body to appeal his God-given freedom.  Neither the state nor any person ever had the right to impede upon that.  This state and its government should have risen up to defend Dred Scott and to ensure his freedoms as well as the freedoms of all mankind,” said Bailey.

      Representative Rasheen Aldridge Jr. (D-St. Louis) said the amendment in the House and its counterpart in the Senate have moved forward on the strength of lawmakers from different parties and ethnic backgrounds coming together.

      “We don’t agree on a lot of stuff up here but I think this sends a strong message from us to the state to let them know that we all really, really try to make sure we do what’s right and rewrite some of the wrongs and not be afraid to talk about it,” said Aldridge.  “We have some scary things in our history and we must talk about it.  We must address it and we must rewrite it and do it the correct way.”

      The legislation was written with the help of descendants of Scott.  The House voted 152-0 to send it to the Senate.

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.

Bills would let victims of domestic or sexual violence or stalking get out of leases

When a person is trying to get out of a domestic violence situation one of their needs is a place to live, sometimes for children as well as their self.  If that person is under a lease agreement, property owners are under no legal obligation to release that person.  This could have lasting repercussions both financially and in finding another place to live.

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

House Bills 243, 544, and 683 Sponsored by Representatives Jim Neely (R-Cameron), Jean Evans (R-Manchester), and Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson), are aimed at helping such individuals.

“This legislation would go a long way to help victims get a safe place to live,” said Heather Silverman with the National Council of Jewish Women – St. Louis.

Those bills would prevent anyone at risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking from being evicted, being denied tenancy, or violating a lease agreement as a result of that risk.  A person who was a victim or in imminent danger of being victimized would be able to use that as a defense if a landlord takes them to court.  The bills would establish what evidence a landlord must accept as proof of such situations.

Kate Heinen with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault told the House Committee on Children and Families, “In 2014 … 23,000 women and children were denied shelter [in Missouri] because the shelters were full, and shelters are often full because people arrive in one and then realize that there’s going to be a much longer trajectory before they can access safe housing because of their disrupted rental history, because there’s no laws to protect them.

Representative Raychel Proudie (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Allowing someone to be resolved of their lease agreement when they show some supporting documentation from a local program agency – an order of protection, a court record, anything that’s listed in the bill – is profound.  It’s huge.  It’s going to save lives,” said Heinen.

Heinen said individuals attempting to escape domestic violence often find it difficult to find a new place to live after facing problems getting out of a former residence.

“Either an eviction judgement on their record as a result of experiencing violence and being seen as a troubled tenant, or their rental history looks spotty because they’re seen as a troubled tenant as a result of experiencing violence, and then it makes it impossible for them to rent in their city or other places in their state,” said Heinen.

Representative Proudie’s legislative assistant, Holly Bickmeyer, told the committee she was 14 when she lost her mother due to domestic violence.  She thinks legislation like these bills could have made a difference in her life.

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

“I feel like if something like this had been in place to where we would have been able to leave, it’s entirely possible that I would still have my mother today,” said Bickmeyer.  “Speaking as someone who has lived through that, I can tell you how much of a help something like this would have been.”

The committee held hearings on HBs 243 and 544 on Tuesday morning.  There was no opposition voiced.  Daryl Dewe, a registered lobbyist for the St. Louis Apartment Association, joined those testifying in support.

“Our landlords, most of all, we want our tenants to be safe and secure,” said Dewe.  “If that means, in a situation like this, helping them to a safe space more easily, then it’s the right thing to do.”

The bills would allow landlords to impose a termination fee when a tenant or lessee wants to terminate a lease early.

The committee has not yet voted on HBs 243 and 544.