House votes to require veterans courts in all jurisdictions in Missouri

Every circuit court in the State of Missouri would have to have at least one veterans treatment court in its jurisdiction under a bill approved by the Missouri House.

Representative Dave Griffith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Treatment courts utilize an intensive program of court supervision, drug or alcohol testing, and rehabilitation to help defendants overcome substance abuse, mental, emotional, or behavioral issues and keep them from re-offending.

Veterans treatment courts specifically focus on those who have served or currently serve in the military.  Many of their needs, including drug testing, utilize the Veterans Administration’s services.

Lawmakers said there is one circuit in the state that does not have a treatment court program.

House Bill 547 would require every circuit court in the state to establish a treatment court division.  For courts in which resources are not available for a veterans court, it would allow defendants who are veterans to have their cases transferred to any court in the circuit.

The bill is sponsored by Jefferson City representative Dave Griffith (R), who served in the Army as a Green Beret.

“When a soldier, a sailor, a marine, or an airman goes into battle, that experience changes who they are, and many of them come out of that experience and that situation different people.  They make decisions they very well would not have made prior to going on the battlefield.  Many turn to alcohol or drugs and because of those choices they can find themselves on the wrong side of the law,” said Griffith.  “The veterans treatment courts throughout the state will give these men and women an opportunity to clear their names, to get a clean record, and give them a second chance at life, but more importantly it will show them that we have not given up on them.”

Griffith said passing HB 547 would help mitigate the number of suicides among veterans in Missouri.

“#22 stands for the number of veterans committing suicide every day [nationwide].  This bill will show our veterans and military that we do care and we want to give them the second chance that they deserve,” said Griffith.

The bill would specify that veterans who had been in combat would be given preference by courts in determining whether to have their cases handled by a veterans court.  That provision was offered by Pleasant Hill Republican Mike Haffner, a retired Naval Officer and decorated combat veteran.

Representative Mike Haffner (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Let’s face it.  Men were never meant to kill men,” said Haffner.  “Every individual that goes into combat is changed psychologically.  They are never the same again, and the part that’s hard about this is the assimilation when we come back home.  For those that haven’t been in combat they don’t understand, coming into a room like this is not the same.  We’re forever changed … some can cope and some cannot.”

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about having courts prioritize combat veterans ahead of non-combat veterans, but Haffner maintains that no one who could benefit from veterans courts will be turned away.

“Given the triage priorities that they list [in the bill] I cannot think of a situation where any of the circuit courts, especially here in the State of Missouri, where this is going to be an issue given the number of vets that we have and how few of them are combat vets,” said Haffner.

Griffith thanked his colleagues for supporting the bill and said it is a further effort to honor veterans.

“When I was separated from the service my first sergeant told me not to wear my uniform home, but to wear civilian clothes.  As many of us walked through airports either returning home from deployment or separating from the service, we were cursed at, we were spit on, we were called ‘baby killers,’ and the list goes on and on.  Today when I look on Facebook and I see posts of soldiers receiving standing ovations in airports when they are making their way to their planes it brings a tear to my eye.” said Griffith.  “This bill will further support our veterans and military by giving them another resource to help them get the support they need so very badly.”

HB 547 would give courts until August 28, 2021 to establish a treatment court division.  The House voted 149-3 to send the bill to the Senate.

Missouri legislature completes special session, sends two bills to Governor Parson

The Missouri legislature moved quickly to pass two bills that were the subject of a special session called by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Kevin Austin (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Parson called lawmakers back into session to reexamine issues covered in two bills he vetoed.  One of those would establish statewide standards for treatment courts, such as drug and veteran courts; the other would allow high school computer science courses to count toward graduation requirements for math, science, or practical arts credits.  The House voted on Wednesday to send those bills to the Senate, and today the Senate approved those bills without making any changes to them.  That means they go to Parson for his consideration.

Representative Kevin Austin (R-Springfield) sponsored House Bill 2, which deals with treatment courts.  Such courts in Missouri provide a court-supervised, comprehensive treatment program as an alternative to jail time.  Lawmakers and prosecutors agree the program is not an easy out for a defendant.

Over the years courts have been established in numerous districts in the state but without universal guidelines for how to operate.  HB 2 seeks to provide those.

“It allows the expansion of treatment courts to counties that don’t have it but would like to have it.  It also allows for the coordinating commission to establish best practices based on scientific research that’s been done on the effectiveness of treatment courts and what works and what doesn’t,” said Austin.  “It allows for more data collection as well, it allows for technical assistance from [The Office of State Courts Administrator] to these courts.”

Austin said one of his favorite parts of the bill is a transfer clause, which will allow defendants who are candidates for treatment courts but are in a circuit that doesn’t have them, to be transferred to a circuit which does have them.

“That is not going to result in just dumping from one county to another of these defendants.  It has to be agreed to by both the transferring county and the receiving county.  It has to be agreed to by the prosecuting attorney as well as the defendant,” said Austin.

Austin said treatment courts save lives and improve the quality of lives, and not just the lives of the defendants that go through them.

“There’s people that interact with that person every day.  Maybe it’s their family, maybe it’s their neighbors, maybe it’s the merchants who they might otherwise be shoplifting from, it’s us as taxpayers.  It affects all of us in a very positive way.  It’s a way that we can restore dignity and return this person to a productive life,” said Austin.

House Bill 3 would let computer science courses count toward math, science, or practical arts credits needed for graduation.  Under the bill students could begin in middle school to be prepared for the opportunities they could have in the job market.  Its sponsor, Holts Summit Republican Travis Fitzwater, has been working on STEM legislation for years.

Representatives Jeanie Lauer and Travis Fitzwater (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m thrilled it’s done,” Fitzwater said on Wednesday after the House passed his legislation.

“What we need is broadening opportunities and this is doing that for kids … and at the heart of it that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with this bill,” said Fitzwater.

Representative Jeanie Lauer (R-Blue Springs) chaired the House Committee on Workforce Development and worked with Representative Fitzwater on the computer science portion of HB 3.  She said it could help move Missouri forward in workforce development.

“We know that from site selectors that are looking for where to place businesses that is the top item that they’re looking for in criteria is what is the workforce pool, and in order for us to be competitive not only within our state but with other states we have to increase the talent that we have, and this is certainly a step toward that,” said Lauer.

Parson announced on August 30 his call for the special session and legislators worked quickly to pass new versions of these bills that addressed the concerns he cited with his vetoes, while spending as little time as possible on the special session.  The session’s costs were lessened because it coincided with the constitutionally-mandated veto session.

Missouri legislature called into special session for STEM, treatment court bills

The Missouri Legislature will convene for a special session next month to reexamine two bills vetoed by Governor Mike Parson (R).

One bill dealt with guidelines for treatment courts.  The other allows high school computer science courses to count toward graduation requirements for math, science, or practical arts credits; and aims to begin preparing students at an earlier age for the opportunities they could have in the job market.

In Parson’s veto messages, he said the treatment courts bill appeared to violate the state constitution’s prohibition on legislation covering multiple subjects.  He objected to a provision in the education bill that he said seemed to narrow a bidding process down so that only one company could qualify.

Representative Kevin Austin (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Treatment courts in Missouri provide a court-supervised, comprehensive treatment program as an alternative to jail time.  Participants must complete a rigorous regimen including interventions and supervision in order to complete the program.  Drug courts, juvenile treatment courts, and veterans’ courts are some examples of these programs.

House Bill 2562 was sponsored by Springfield Representative Kevin Austin (R).  He said in the past the legislature has dealt with treatment courts in a “piecemeal” fashion, and the main goal of the bill was to consolidate the various types of treatment courts and lay out best practices.

“When we start a new treatment court in a county or a circuit, the judge that has that can have some direction and have some guidance on what to do … this is going to provide some of those directions and best practices, which are also evolving as we learn more about treatment courts nationally,” said Austin.

The bill would also allow defendants in a circuit that lacks a treatment court to be transferred to one in another circuit, with certain approvals.

Austin said treatment courts benefit not only participants, but also their families and communities, and they save the state money through factors such as decreasing incarcerations.

The House handler of the education legislation is Representative Travis Fitzwater (R-Holts Summit), who has worked on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) bills for several years.  He doesn’t believe that Senate Bill 894 needed to be vetoed, but is “thrilled” the governor and legislative leadership saw the issue as important enough to revisit it in a special session.

Representative Travis Fitzwater (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I think we just need to make sure that we broaden it to the extent that it makes it a process where more software companies can have access to it,” said Fitzwater.

Fitzwater said the STEM portion of SB 894 is aimed at middle school students.

“Why it’s so important to have the curriculum in middle school is because there are studies that show that 25-percent of high schoolers don’t have any idea what’s available to them in career fields when they graduate, and that’s a real problem,” said Fitzwater.  “The reason to have it early it middle school is the earlier the better in giving them some career paths that may interest them or to weed out maybe some fields that they’re not interested in as well.”

Fitzwater said by readdressing his legislation in a special session rather than waiting for the new session to begin in January, its provisions might not have to be pushed back another school year.  This would allow another grade level of students to benefit from it.

Austin said the sooner the legislature can deal with the treatment courts issue, the sooner the state’s courts can begin implementing the most effective practices.  It would also make a difference for defendants who could benefit from treatment courts but might not have access to them, especially in cases in which the transfer language would apply.

The special session will begin Monday, September 10 and will overlap with the annual veto session, which was already scheduled to begin Wednesday, September 12.

Additional audio:  Kevin Austin says treatment courts offer an alternative to jail time, but a defendant must go through a rigorous process to successfully complete the program and faces that jail time if he or she fails.

“Treatment court is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  It requires a ton of hard work by the defendant or the participant in the drug court … We’re changing lifestyle habits so it’s not something we can do in six months. It takes time.  The participant or defendant realizes that and actually signs a contract agreeing to this lengthy, arduous process.”

House members prepare for conference with Senate on FY ’19 budget

Missouri House budget leaders are preparing to confer with their counterparts in the state Senate about the two chambers’ respective budget proposals.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (left) fields questions from reporters as House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) listens. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The House last month passed the 13 bills that make up the proposed state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  Its plan laid out more than $28-billion in spending.  The Senate spent the last month going over that plan and making changes to it, and this week endorsed its own proposal totaling more than $28.6-billion.  Now the two chambers will have to work out an agreement between the two versions that can be sent to the governor by May 11.

“[The Senate] spent a little more money than we did but I think that they have a good budget plan that is workable for conference,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob).

Of the more than $570-million dollar difference between the two chambers’ spending plans, roughly $261-million comes from the Senate proposing spending in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget that the House plan would address in a supplemental budget early in calendar year 2019, when better data would be available on how much must be spent in some cases.

As far as the various components of the budget, Fitzpatrick said the greatest difference between the two chambers’ proposals in terms of dollars is in what each would spend on K-12 education.  Full funding for the K-12 education formula in Fiscal Year 2019 would be about $99-million.  The House proposed that, while the Senate took the position found in the governor’s budget proposal of spending $48-million.

“[The Senate] did use some of that money within House Bill 2002, which is the education budget bill, so we have the flexibility of moving some of that around,” said Fitzpatrick.  “It’s not a secret that one of my top priorities is fully funding the [K-12 education funding] formula and keeping our commitment on the pre-K expansion that most of the members that are serving today made a few years ago, that once we fully funded the formula that that expansion would be available.”

The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Representative Kip Kendrick (Columbia), said the Senate’s proposal for K-12 education funding is concerning and House members would work to maintain its position on that.

“I was happy to hear the chairman of the committee, Representative Fitzpatrick, talking about making sure that we’re going to hold that line, and I can tell you that we’re going to do whatever we can to hold that line for the foundation formula to make sure that we get back to that $99-million mark,” said Kendrick.

One issue that has already been settled is that of higher education funding and limiting tuition increases at all but one of the state’s publicly-supported colleges and universities.

The House chose to restore $68-million to higher education support that the governor proposed cutting, but only if institutions agreed not to increase tuition by more than one-percent in fiscal year ’19.  Those institutions agreed except for Missouri Southern in Joplin, which House members agreed is in a financial situation dire enough that they were allowed to opt out.  The Senate proposal has upheld that plan.

“It wasn’t something that the House could do on [its] own so we appreciate the Senate working with us on accomplishing that,” said Fitzpatrick.  “I think it will result in a positive outcome for the families and students who pay tuition in the State of Missouri.”

Kendrick is also glad to see that plan preserved but has some concern with the Senate breaking out funding for special initiatives at colleges and universities, which typically go toward projects including construction and expansion.  The House had rolled the money for those items into the core allocation for institutions.

Representative Kip Kendrick is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“Those received additional funds but I have concerns that those have been line-itemed back out rather than wrapped up in the core.  [The House] moved them into core to protect those lines.  We have some concerns that with them being separated out that they become more vulnerable for complete withholds or vetoes – just more vulnerable out there standing alone – so we’ll do what we can to move those back into the core,” said Kendrick.

Kendrick is also concerned about more than $4-million that the Senate proposed moving out of funding for treatment courts in Missouri – those are drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts.

“[Those are] services that have been proven very effective in reducing recidivism rates.  The actual recidivism rate for an offender coming out DOC is about 50-percent recidivism; treatment courts is around 15-percent recidivism,” said Kendrick, who has personally worked with people going through mental health courts.  “It does keep people out of prison.  It keeps them in services, making sure that they are properly rehabilitated and receiving the services they need.”

Kendrick wants to see the House work to hold its position on the support for treatment courts.

Other differences between the House and Senate spending proposals that either Fitzpatrick or Kendrick highlighted concern funding in the social services budget for nursing homes; whether state-appropriated money can be used for DUI checkpoints; funding for autism services; and increases in state employee pay, including a Senate proposal to boost pay specifically for corrections officers – a proposal Fitzpatrick said the House would try to find a way to concur with.

Fitzpatrick will begin next week meeting with his Senate counterpart, Senator Dan Brown (R-Rolla), and each chamber will begin selecting members for committees that will meet to negotiate compromises on each of the 13 budget bills.