Extensive Foster Care reforms passed in 2018 session set to become effective

The Missouri legislature this year passed a number of provisions aimed at making life better for children in the state’s foster care system.  Legislation that has become law would help children get an education, proper medical care, and ease their transition out of state care.

Representative Jim Neely carried Senate Bill 819 in the House and chaired a committee tasked with examining issues related to foster care. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) in January created the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People, to focus on foster care issues.  That committee and its chairman, Representative Jim Neely (R-Cameron), handled many of these provisions and oversaw combining several of them into one bill, House Committee Bill 11.  Many of them later became part of Senate Bill 819 which was passed and has been signed into law.  The provisions in that bill become effective August 28.

The Director of Missouri’s Office of Child Advocate, Kelly Schultz, has been a foster parent to 17 children over the years.  She said both as a foster parent and as the director, this year has been “huge,” for professionals, families, and most importantly children in foster care.

“Just to recognize what the professionals in foster care and what the foster families go through, and that really talking about it and just going through and looking at just everyday decisions that we make – as the legislative body, as the executive branch and policy – what those decisions are and how they impact the children in care,” said Schultz.

She said this year the legislature took steps toward doing the most important thing changes can do for children in Missouri:  to “normalize” their lives relative to those of their peers.

“Normalizing mistakes, normalizing learning, because that’s honestly what the teen years are about a lot of times, is testing boundaries, learning from that, moving forward, taking chances and risks,” said Schultz.

Schultz described some of the changes the legislature approved this year as “low-hanging fruit;” issues that were easily fixed that could have a major impact on the lives of children and those who work with them.

One example is a provision that allows children in state care to get bank accounts in their own name after they turn 16.  That measure was originally found in a bill handled by Representative Don Phillips (R-Kimberling City).

“I think it really gives the foster children some freedom, it gives them some independence, some responsibility, and they don’t have to have a co-signer or anything like that where most would have to have, and I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them,” said Phillips.

House Speaker Todd Richardson in January created the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People, which spent much of the 2018 session examining foster care issues. Much of its work became law in SB 819. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Schultz said as a foster parent, that provision doesn’t just help children.  She was once “on the hook,” when a child whose account she was a co-signer on overdrew that account.

Another provision will allow fees for birth, death, or marriage certificates to be waived if those documents are requested by certain state agencies on behalf of a child under juvenile court jurisdiction.

The sponsor of the original legislation dealing with that, Representative Mike Kelley (R-Lamar), said the fees for those documents might be considered nominal to most people, but they can seem insurmountable to children trying to gain their independence.

“It’s hard for most citizens to realize that $10 or $15 to someone who doesn’t have a job and has no way to make income is a huge amount of money and a burden upon those citizens that truly are wards of the state that we should be looking out for and doing what we can to help them be successful,” said Kelley.

Also included in SB 819 are provisions to:

– Allow a child who is homeless or in state care and who has not received all his or her required immunizations to enroll in school, daycare, preschool, or nursery for up to 30 days while he or she begins getting caught up on those immunizations.

– Expand assessment and treatment services for children in foster care.  It would require such services for all children in foster care – currently it is required only for those under the age of ten – and would require that those services be completed in accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ periodicity schedule.  Current law requires screenings of children in state custody every six months.

– Allow minors to contract for admission to a rape crisis center if qualified as specified in the act

SB 819 also creates the “Social Innovation Grant Program.”  It will create a state program to fund pilot projects that seek to address social issues such as families in generational child welfare, opioid-addicted pregnant women, or children with behavioral issues who are in residential treatment.  Projects receiving grants should have the potential of being replicated to get the most out of state funds and address such concerns.

Earlier stories:

House prepares extensive foster care reform legislation

House proposes increase in state aid to sheltered workshops

The Missouri House has voted to increase state financial support to sheltered workshops.

Representative Rory Rowland’s has a son, JP, who has Down syndrome and loves working in a Kansas City-area workshop. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bill 2644 would increase from $19 to $21 dollars the amount the state pays to workshops for every six-hour or longer day worked by a handicapped employee. Backers say the boost would give those workshops and their employees more financial stability, while reaffirming the state’s support for them and the work they do.

HB 2644 is sponsored by Representative Rory Rowland (D-Independence), whose son JP has Down syndrome and works in a Kansas City-area workshop.

“I want to thank everyone in this body for your kindness and support of this,” an emotional Rowland told his House colleagues. “This means so much to my family [and] my son.”

Many lawmakers spoke while HB 2644 was before the House about the workshops in their districts and what those mean to their communities, and their employees.

Representative David Wood (R-Versailles) has been on the board of directors for a workshop in his district for more than 30 years. He said the employees of that workshop would rather be there than have a day off even on holidays.

“You see these workers not grumbling about being there. They want don’t want to take off. They want to be at work. They want the socialization. They want to feel a worth,” said Wood. “When you’re packaging something that they can go to Wal-Mart and see on the shelf and say, ‘Hey, I packaged that. I did that work,’ it gives them a feeling of self-worth that nothing else can.”

Representative Richard Brown (D-Kansas City) is the parent of a daughter with cerebral palsy who died at the age of 15.

Representative David Wood has been on the board of directors for a sheltered workshop for more than 30 years.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“As a parent I often wondered, ‘Where would my child be able to go to work?’” Brown told his House colleagues. “A lot of the kids that she went to school with, they work at a sheltered workshop in my district called Southeast Enterprises, and when I look at kids like Dwayne Bell or Tiffany Johnson I see the joy that comes from their heart from going to work every day and having the ability to maintain a job and having a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth from doing a job each day.”

Hermann Republican Justin Alferman said the value of workshops doesn’t only come from what they mean to their employees. He spoke about a component for air conditioner compressors that is made at a workshop in his district.

“It’s not just about giving these individuals a job. They are huge economic drivers of our communities,” said Alferman.

Wood said because of a combination of lagging state support and a pencil producer moving its operation from his district to the country of Mexico, the workshop he sits on the board of had to cut 45 of its employees.

“The state aid is extremely important. This is an extremely important program to the State of Missouri. They do work that you wouldn’t believe,” said Wood.

Rowland and other lawmakers thanked Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo (R-Arnold) and House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) for their support of the legislation.

HB 2644 goes to the Senate with less than two weeks left in the legislative session, but Rowland is optimistic that because of its subject matter it will receive enough attention to pass before the session’s end.

Earlier story:  Effort to reaffirm House support for sheltered workshops led by lawmaker whose son works in one

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 Speaker: Committee investigating governor will ‘have the time it needs to finish its work’

Missouri’s House Speaker said he doesn’t want to constrain the committee he created to investigate allegations against the state’s governor.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (image center) takes questions from reporters following the House’s adjournment on Thursday, 04/19/2018. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“This committee’s going to have the time it needs to finish its work,” Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) said to reporters on Thursday after the House adjourned for the week.

A St. Louis grand jury in February indicted Governor Eric Greitens (R) for felony invasion of privacy.  He is accused of taking, without consent, an intimate photo of a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015.  A circuit judge in St. Louis today declined Greitens’ request to dismiss that case.

Earlier this week Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) said he has enough evidence for a felony charge against Greitens for violating campaign laws.  Hawley said Greitens took a list of those who donated to his charity for military veterans, The Mission Continues, and transferred it to his political campaign to use in fundraising efforts.

The developments concerning Greitens this week have some calling for the House to take action concerning him now, but Richardson said the chamber will stick to the plan he announced last week.  Preparations are continuing for the House to call itself into special session in case more time is needed for its members to review the recommendations of the Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, when those recommendations are ready.

“The committee didn’t believe, at that point in time, that they would be able to finish their work before the end of session.  I think they still believe that they need additional time to do that work, which is why we have begun the process of calling ourselves into a special session,” said Richardson.  “My point last week and my point this week is, there’s not going to be an artificial timeline or a deadline here.  We’re going to let the committee work, we’re going to let them work as thoroughly as they need to, and when they come back with recommendations we’ll be ready to take them up.”

As for the decision today by Judge Rex Burlison to allow the invasion of privacy case against Greitens to continue, Richardson said it has no bearing on what the House does and it never would have.

“The Missouri legislature is a separate and co-equal branch of government and no matter how that decision had gone today, the House and the Senate would continue to go through our process,” said Richardson.  “Our role and responsibilities here are different than the role of the court in the City of St. Louis so it doesn’t impact it at all.”

Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty and Representative Gina Mitten, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, answer questions from reporters after the House adjourned on Thursday, 04-19-2018. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Richardson and other members of House Republican leadership said this week they believe Greitens should resign.  The President Pro Tem of the Missouri Senate, Ron Richard (R), said this week he also believes Greitens should resign, and if he does not, Richard believes he should be impeached and that effort should begin now.

Richardson said he believes he and the Senate president remain committed to the same process.

“He and I have been in constant contact, and we both want the House committee and the legislature to execute a thorough and fair process, and a process that makes sure that the members of the general assembly – who are going to be tasked with deciding some of those recommendations – that they have the most information that they need in front of them to make a good decision,” Richardson said.

The leader of the House Democrats, Gail McCann Beatty (D-Kansas City), said she thinks Speaker Richardson is handling the situation with caution, but she is anxious to see the chamber take further action regarding Greitens.

“From my perspective I think I have seen enough [to vote on impeachment now].  This is a cloud over our state.  It’s embarrassing, and we need to be moving forward to resolve this sooner than later,” said McCann Beatty.

The investigative committee has continued to meet, and has hearings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Missouri House adopts resolution launching investigation of charge against Gov. Greitens

“We will do our best.”

Representative Jay Barnes presents a resolution that would launch the House’s investigation into a felony charge against Gov. Eric Greitens. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

That was the final statement to the House Thursday from Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City) before the chamber adopted a resolution that launches its investigation of a felony charge against Governor Eric Greitens (R).  Barnes will chair the Special Investigative Committee on Oversight that will conduct that investigation.

A St. Louis grand jury last month indicted Greitens for felony invasion of privacy.  He is accused of taking, without consent, an intimate photo of a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015.

House Resolution 5565 authorizes the Committee.  It was approved 154-0.

Barnes discussed with other members how the investigation will be conducted.  He said the committee will close its hearings to the public when witnesses are giving testimony.

“The reason for that, if you think about legal process and the context of a trial where testimony is given, other witnesses in a case are excluded from the courtroom while a separate witness is testifying … lawyers call that, ‘invoking the rule.’  So we could ‘invoke the rule,’ but if we have a public hearing, invoking the rule means nothing because everything that a previous witness says would be reported to other potential witnesses and they could come in and that would color their testimony based on what they had heard previous witnesses have said, and I think the best way to get accurate information is to close those hearings so that other potential witnesses don’t know what previous witnesses said,” Barnes explained.

Barnes said the first witnesses the committee will question are individuals that were identified in publicly-available documents and documents that have been reported on, though he did not name them.  He said subpoenas would be sent to those witnesses.  Based on their testimony, more individuals could be called to testify.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (right) and Majority Floor Leader Rob Vescovo (left) talk with Representatives Jay Barnes (second from right), who chairs the Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, and Representative Don Phillips (seated), the vice chair of that committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Democrats expressed concerns that they would like more clarity about what possible actions will remain after the committee completes its work, but in the end they joined in supporting the resolution.

Columbia representative Kip Kendrick (D) said the situation with the governor has become a distraction for lawmakers.  He wished the committee well in conducting its investigation.

“It’s an embarrassment for everyone in this body, for everyone in this chamber, for the whole state,” said Kendrick.  “The charge of this committee to hold this investigation is very serious.  Outside of passing the budget this year it’s probably the most serious thing that’s happening … I hope that everyone in this chamber, on both sides of the aisle, don’t enter into the partisan bickering or partisan fights on this moving forward.  There are going to be attempts to make this a partisan issue and it’s not.  This should be a fair and thorough process that should be allowed to play out.”

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (D-Kansas City) asked Barnes about the process, and at the end of her inquiry told him, “We’re putting all of our trust in you to handle this properly.”

Barnes acknowledged to the chamber the levity of the job before him and the committee.

“This is a solemn and serious obligation.  Thank you for the trust that you have placed in me and the members of this committee and the trust that this body places in us.  We will do our best,” said Barnes.

The committee, whose other members are vice chairman Don Phillips (R-Kimberling City) and representatives Jeanie Lauer (R-Blue Springs), Kevin Austin (R-Springfield), Shawn Rhoads (R-West Plains), Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis), and Tommie Pierson, Jr (D-St. Louis), is expected to begin holding hearings next week.

Missouri House creates committee to investigate felony charge against Gov. Greitens

The Missouri House has created a committee that will investigate the charge on which Governor Eric Greitens (R) has been indicted.

Representative Jay Barnes and House Speaker Todd Richardson (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Greitens was indicted by a St. Louis grand jury for felony invasion of privacy.  Greitens is accused of taking, without consent, a photo of a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) and other Republican members of House Leadership said Thursday they would begin identifying the legislators that would investigate that charge.  On Monday Richardson announced the committee will be chaired by Jefferson City Republican Jay Barnes.

“This committee’s task is going to be to investigate facts.  We’re going to do so in a way that is fair, thorough, and timely, and we’re going to do it without any preordained results,” said Barnes.  “We are going to be asking questions of witnesses on both sides and hope to have a process with full involvement from everyone involved in this matter.”

Barnes, an attorney, has been tasked with heading other investigative committees including one into the state’s involvement in a fraudulent deal to bring to Moberly a sucralose producer under the name Mamtek.

He is joined on the committee by its vice chairman, Don Phillips (R-Kimberling City) and representatives Jeanie Lauer (R-Blue Springs), Kevin Austin (R-Springfield), Shawn Rhoads (R-West Plains), Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis), and Tommie Pierson, Jr (D-St. Louis).

Representative Pierson, one of two Democrats on the committee, said it’s unfortunate that the panel is needed but the process should be as prudent as possible.

“I did accept to be on the committee because I feel that I will be fair and honest and open to hearing and allowing the process to run its course,” said Pierson.  “That’s what I hope to see happen.”

Meanwhile, said Richardson, the House will continue its other work.

“We are going to continue to move forward with the substantive legislation that we have spent the bulk of this session working on,” said Richardson.  “Yes, Representative Barnes and his committee are going to have a big task but that is not going to deter us or limit our ability to move forward on priorities that the people of Missouri sent us here to do.”

The committee will hold its first hearing later this week.

House considers barring public contracts with companies boycotting Israel

The state House’s Speaker is asking his colleagues to bar state and local governments from contracting with any company that is boycotting Israel.

Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) is sponsoring only one piece of legislation this year:  House Bill 2179.  It would prevent any public entity in Missouri from entering into contracts with such companies.  It’s being called the, “Anti-Discrimination Against Israel Act.”

Richardson told the House Committee on General Laws the bill is a push-back against the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS movement) against Israel.  Richardson says the U.S., and Missouri in particular, have strong economic ties to Israel.

“I think there is a belief, and I think rightly, that while some people that may sympathize with the BDS movement may do it legitimately and with good intention, but at its core the BDS movement seeks the economic destruction of the State of Israel,” said Richardson.  “I think it’s been the longstanding public policy in the United States, and certainly here in the State of Missouri, that the State of Israel legitimately exists.  It’s existed legitimately and been internationally recognized for more than 70 years and those efforts to seek to destroy it are something that we shouldn’t be supporting.”

St. Louis representative Peter Merideth (D) asked whether the bill sets a precedent for the state to take a position or action against those who participate in protests.

“There was talk of some conservative folks across the country wanting to boycott the NFL because of some protests in the NFL and there were businesses saying we’re not going to advertise on NFL games now.  So if that had spread and grown and all of a sudden business across our state are going, ‘We’re going to protest the NFL by boycotting advertisements on the NFL,’ and we said, ‘Well you know what, we benefit economically from the NFL.’  Are we then entitled to, as a state, say as our policy because we economically benefit from the NFL we can tell those businesses they’re not allowed to do business with our state?” Merideth asked.

Richardson said he would not support something to the extent of the position Merideth posed, and said his bill addresses a unique situation.

“You are talking about a deep and long-standing public policy of this country and of this state to support the State of Israel and its continued existence, and Missouri enjoys tremendous economic benefits from that relationship,” said Richardson.

The bill was the subject of two hours of testimony.

Andrew Rehfeld of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis said BDS seeks to end the existence of Israel, and said that’s why the Federation supports HB 2179.

“What we are seeking to do is address the fact that Israel is consistently singled out for this kind of activity, that this activity is aimed at the distinctive character of Israel as a Jewish state, and this legislation makes clear – more than symbolically, I’ll grant you that – but at the same time it sends a statement that the state won’t do business with businesses that want to engage in that kind of discriminatory economic practice,” said Rehfeld.

House Bill 2179 was the subject of about two hours of testimony in a packed hearing room. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Naveen Ayesh told lawmakers the BDS movement is a peaceful attempt at changing oppressive Israeli policies she said she has experienced first-hand.  She argued HB 2179 would be unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court has recognized non-violent political boycotts as protected free speech under the First Amendment.  Legislatures should work towards protecting the rights of Missourians, not punishing them for exercising them, and hopefully push towards a more balanced Middle East foreign policy that grants equal rights for Palestinians and everyone in the Holy Land,” said Ayesh.

The committee voted 12-1 to advance HB 2179, with Representative Merideth casting the lone dissenting vote.  It faces one more committee, which will vote whether to send it to the full House for debate.

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.

Missouri House again fast-tracking ban on lobbyist gifts to legislators

Missouri House leadership is working to again make a proposed ban of gifts to lawmakers the first bill of the session to leave that chamber.

Representative Justin Alferman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Justin Alferman (R-Hermann) is sponsoring House Bill 1303 which is based on the gift ban proposal passed out of the House in 2017.  That bill, HB 60, was the first sent out of the House in 2017 but was never voted on in the Missouri Senate.

On Monday two House Committees held hearings on, and voted to pass, HB 1303.  It is expected to be debated Wednesday by the full chamber and could be sent to the Senate on Thursday, in keeping with House Speaker Todd Richardson’s (R-Poplar Bluff) statement on the opening day of the session that he expected that bill to be voted out this week.

House Democrats questioned several provisions in the legislation including one that aims to restrict the cost of gifts that would still be allowed under the legislation – things like plaques and awards.

Representative Tracy McCreery (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery was concerned that the language of the bill would lead to fewer items falling under mandatory reporting by lobbyists, instead being included in legislators’ personal financial disclosures.  She said those disclosures by legislators are less accessible by the public.

“What I’m trying to do is make sure by fixing one thing we’re not opening up another opportunity for abuse where all of a sudden things are considered to be awards,” said McCreery.

“Honestly, Representative, in dealing with this type of ethics reform it’s always going to be whack-a-mole,” Alferman told McCreery.  “Anyone who is decisively trying to circumvent ethics laws is already an unethical person and it’s really hard to be able to think about every which way those type of individuals are going to circumvent the law.  I’m trying to capture the 98-percent of problems that will be alleviated with this bill.”

Amendments offered by McCreery and other Democrats were voted down along party lines, but the bill was passed out of the Committee on General Laws 12-0.  One Democrat said that even without the changes they wanted to see, the bill would still be an improvement over current law.

HB 1303 would still allow lobbyists to make expenditures to the entire General Assembly – things like a dinner to which every member of the House and Senate are invited.  Members would have to have at least 72-hours’ notice before such an event, and it must be held in-state, so that all lawmakers would have the opportunity to attend.

“I just don’t want us to get into a ‘gotcha’ moment for going to something like a Missouri Chamber dinner or something of that nature that we’ve all been invited to.  I don’t think anyone’s going to say that there’s an influence being levied at those large events.  You don’t have the one-on-one interaction like you do if a lobbyist takes you out for a dinner where 100-percent of their focus is on you,” said Alferman.

Last year’s legislation, HB 60, was passed out of the House 149-5.  Alferman expects similarly strong, bipartisan support for HB 1303.

House endorses new abortion provider regulations; sends bill to the Missouri Senate

The Missouri House has passed a Senate bill that proposes new restrictions on abortion.  The House made several changes to the bill, so it goes back to the Senate for consideration.

Representative Diane Franklin carried Senate Bill 5 in the House during the legislature’s second extraordinary session of 2017. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill would allow the attorney general to prosecute abortion law violations without first involving local prosecutors; repeal a St. Louis ordinance that bars discrimination in housing and employment against women who have had an abortion, use birth control, or are pregnant; and require annual, unannounced state inspections of abortion facilities, among other provisions.

“The bill that we received from the Senate, we thought, was a good framework but it did not really specifically meet the governor’s call, so we re-put in provisions that helped to provide for the health and safety of women,” said Representative Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton), who carried Senate Bill 5 in the House.

Democrats argue the legislation is not about women’s health and safety, saying it is about making it more difficult for women to get abortions in Missouri.

“For the entire last week the only word I’ve heard was, ‘abortion,’” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood)“It’s actually a scam that we think – we’re saying – that we’re protecting women when actually all we’re doing is putting additional hurdles in their way for them to access healthcare.”

Franklin said a key provision for her is language that would require that all tissue removed after an abortion is sent to a pathologist, rather than a sample as is required now.  A pathologist would have to account for all tissue and note any issues.  The Department of Health would follow up any inconsistencies with an investigation.  It would also report annually to the legislature all information it gathers regarding fetal tissue handling.

Franklin has carried various forms of such language going back several sessions, after a series of videos emerged alleging that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue after abortions.

“I think that especially important that I worked on have been the fetal tissue portion of that – the tracking of that – so that we have the assurance that it is indeed going where it should be going and that our department is able to keep track of that,” said Franklin.

The bill also aims to bar laws that would interfere with the operations or speech of alternatives to abortion agencies.  Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove) says those agencies do a lot to help pregnant women.

“They offer pregnancy testing; ultrasounds – I’ve heard many, many, many stories directly from young mothers who … were in a place where they didn’t have any other options.  They needed alternatives and they needed help, and coming back to me, in particular, and saying, ‘I saw my baby.  I saw my baby move,” said Kelly.

Democrats are critical of information given out at alternatives to abortion agencies, saying it is medically inaccurate and skewed toward discouraging a woman from having an abortion.  Republicans say the agencies give women information with which they can form their own decisions.

Representative Cora Faith Walker offered an amendment that would have required quarterly reporting from alternatives to abortion agencies, but it was voted down. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ferguson Democrat Cora Faith Walker also questioned the effectiveness of those agencies.

“In total there are about 70-plus alternatives to abortion agencies that exist here in the state of Missouri and yet we still have issues with infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates that surpass national averages,” said Walker.  “In specific areas of Missouri where there seem to exist several alternative to abortion agencies that are supposed to be providing healthcare and other services to women as an alternative to abortion, we still have these very, very high infant mortality rates.”

The legislature returned to Jefferson City in a special session to consider abortion legislation at the call of Governor Eric Greitens (R).  Democrats used debate of SB 5 to criticize the governor for what they said was a stunt meant to help him politically.

“Make sure we’re not letting a governor bring us back to special session for political gain,” said St. Louis City Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior“I know how passionate you (Republicans) all are about this issue.  I would never take that away from you.  I know how passionate we (Democrats) are.  But we’re not paying attention to how we’re being played … Now just because this is one of our particular issues that we feel so strongly about doesn’t mean it’s right that we’re here.”

Republicans called the session an important opportunity for the state to reaffirm a commitment to protecting unborn children and making sure women receive proper care from abortion providers.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff), when asked about lawmakers’ attitudes toward the governor, said, “I think we’ve been focused here in the House on issues, and I think the issues that we’ve worked on back in regular session and through these two special sessions are issues that are of particular importance to the House, and they’re of particular importance to members of the Senate as well, so the fact that we’ve got a governor that’s willing to engage on these issues has been positive and helpful.”

Representative Jay Barnes (left) talks with House Speaker Todd Richardson. Barnes offered several amendments that contributed to the final form of Senate Bill 5. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Democrats note courts have ruled against laws that placed similar restrictions on facilities that provide abortions, and say this legislation will likely be thrown out as well.

“You already know this is going to straight to litigation once it goes into effect, and you also know the [financial cost to the state of defending it],” said St. Louis Democrat Stacey Newman.

Richardson believes if the bill the House passed is challenged in court, it will be upheld.

“This is obviously a very highly litigated area of the law.  It will continue to be a highly litigated area of the law in every state, but I’m very confident that the state of Missouri, if this law is challenged, will prevail,” said Richardson.

The state Senate is expected to debate the House’s changes to SB 5 in the coming days.