Proposal to increase minimum age for marriage aims to fight sex trafficking

A freshman state representative has filed another effort to make Missouri less attractive to sex traffickers.

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

Manchester Republican Jean Evans’ prefiled legislation would increase from 15 to 17 the minimum age at which a person can receive a marriage license.  Missouri law allows teens as young as 15 to get a license when extenuating circumstances exist, as long as one of the teen’s parents gives consent.

Evans said traffickers have been taking advantage of Missouri’s law, bringing trafficking victims to the state to marry their abusers.  That makes prosecuting the abuser difficult or impossible.

“That’s not something that we want to be known for, is a place for sex traffickers to come to do that sort of thing,” said Evans. 

Evans said such marriages are able to take place because parents are sometimes involved in trafficking their own children.  She said she learned about the issue from a report by KMOV reporter Lauren Trager.

“One of the things they discovered in the [House Task Force on Sex Trafficking] is that it was more prevalent than I think people may have realized.  I recall one case where there was a woman who reported she had been trafficked starting at the age of 3, by her parents,” said Evans.  “As disturbing and disgusting as that is, that is a reality that we’re dealing with, and to the extent that we can intervene we want to do so.”

Evans said practically, there is little done to investigate extenuating circumstances when a marriage license is sought for someone as young as 15.

“We’ve sort of left it to the recorder of deeds or whoever is issuing a marriage license in each particular county to determine that.  I believe that that’s not their responsibility.  They’re not social workers or FBI agents.  They’re just issuing the marriage license as long as they have one parent’s consent,” said Evans.  “I think it places an undue burden on them to investigate whether the circumstances are extreme, as outlined in the statute.”

Evans’ bill is not based on a recommendation from the Task Force on Sex Trafficking, but she has discussed the issue with its chairman, Springfield Representative Elijah Haahr (R).  She sees her bill as part of a broader effort to fight trafficking – an effort based largely on the work of that Task Force.

House members will be asked to consider other legislation related to trafficking – much of it based on the work of the Task Force.  HB 261 would require employers to display posters with the national trafficking hotline and related information.  Other recommendations by the Task Force deal with creating a position in state government to oversee anti-trafficking efforts, and supporting groups that offer victims treatment and assistance to transition out of trafficking.

Evans’ legislation is HB 270.

Bill for 2017 would expand newborn screenings to include two genetic diseases

The legislature will be asked in 2017 to expand screenings of newborns in Missouri to look for two more life-threatening diseases.

Representative Becky Ruth (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Becky Ruth (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Festus Republican Becky Ruth is proposing that infants be screened for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and mucopolysaccharidosis II (MPS II), otherwise known as Hunter syndrome.  Both are genetic diseases that can be fatal, but Ruth says the earlier they are caught, the better outcomes can be.

“It gives families hope and it gives us a chance to save the lives of even more babies here in Missouri,” said Ruth.

SMA results in a loss of physical strength that can include a lessened ability to walk, eat, or breathe.  It is the leading genetic cause of death for infants.

Hunter syndrome is caused by an enzyme deficiency that results in the buildup of harmful molecules that can affect a person’s appearance, mental development, organ function, and physical abilities.  An estimated 2,000 people have Hunter syndrome worldwide, with about 500 of those living in the U.S.

No drugs have been approved for SMA, but Ruth says one, nusinersen, could be approved by April.

      “The earlier [SMA] is detected the earlier [babies] can start therapy,” said Ruth.  “With this new drug that hopefully will get approved by the FDA this could be something that could affect newborn screening as well and could improve the outcome.”

There is no cure for Hunter syndrome, but Ruth says with it too, earlier detection could improve the lives or increase the lifespan of those children who have it.

“Most often with this disease it’s not recognized until the ages of two to four years old.  By that time the disease is already progressing, so early detection is actually vital here,” said Ruth.  “Gene therapies can be started and it can lessen or completely reduce and regress some of the symptoms.”

In 2009 the legislature passed and the governor signed HB 716, The Brady Alan Cunningham Newborn Screening Act, named for Ruth’s grandson.  Ruth, not yet a legislator, testified for that bill.  She said Brady’s diagnosis was her introduction to certain rare diseases.

      “We have actually, to date, saved the life of about 120 children by expanding newborn screening,” said Ruth.  “We will be starting the [severe combined immunodeficiency] in January – testing that our legislature approved last year … Where some of this came from with SMA, they have developed an assay that kind of piggybacks with SCID to make it very, very reasonable and cost-effective and to make it possible for the testing.”

Ruth said that “piggybacking” means there should be little or no additional cost to screen for SMA, and she believes screening for Hunter syndrome can be done “very reasonably.”

The bill would make the additional screenings subject to annual funding by the state, and would allow the Department of Health and Senior Services to increase its newborn screening fees to pay for the additional tests.

Ruth said with the occurrence rate of SMA, it is something that should be tested for.  She said Missouri already tests for MPS I, so testing for MPS II is a “natural next step.”

Ruth’s bill is HB 66.  The 2017 session begins January 4.

 

Speaker Richardson previews the 2017 session in the Missouri House (VIDEO)

Labor, tort, education, ethics, and regulatory reforms will be among the focuses of the Missouri House Republican supermajority in the 2017 legislative session.

House Speaker Todd Richardson discussed his caucus' priorities for the 2017 session (watch the video at the bottom of this story or click on this photo to view).
House Speaker Todd Richardson discussed his caucus’ priorities for the 2017 session (watch the video at the bottom of this story or click on this photo to view).

“We want to have an aggressive approach early in session and really follow through on some of the things that we think the voters were talking about when they spoke in November,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff).

Labor reform efforts will include work to pass legislation supporters call “right-to-work,” and “paycheck protection,” as well as reforms to project labor agreements.  Tort reforms will include resumption of efforts to pass legislation changing how expert witnesses are evaluated, and Missouri’s collateral source rule.

In education reform, Richardson says expansion of charter schools will be considered, and the caucus will look for ways to improve student achievement “across the board.”

“We’ve identified a task force of members in the House that’s going to start digging into those issues specifically,” said Richardson.

Richardson also wants to pick up where the legislature left off last year with ethics reform.  With that, his first goal in the House will be to again pass a bill banning gifts from lobbyists to legislators.

“I was proud of last year that we were able to take some substantive, meaningful steps forward on ethics reform but I don’t think anybody thinks that that job is complete,” said Richardson.  “We want the environment in Jefferson City to be better than it is today and that’s going to be an ongoing process.  This year that’s going to start with work on the gift ban.”

Republicans will also study Missouri’s regulations of businesses.

“We want to take this notion of cutting red tape and removing the regulatory barriers for business out of the campaign space and into the practical legislative space,” said Richardson.

He said the legislature will continue the work it began last year on a statewide regulatory framework for ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft.  The House will also push legislation being called, “The Sunshine Act,” which would require an analysis of proposed regulations before they are enacted.

Richardson said the House will also take a more comprehensive look at what licensing requirements exist in Missouri, to see if it presents “unnecessary barriers” to employment.

He said such regulations affect a broad section of Missourians.  One example that has come up in legislation in recent years has been people who want to get paid to braid hair.

“You think about the notion of somebody having to go get literally hundreds of hours of training before the state will allow them to do a little hair braiding on the side because they want to earn some extra income,” said Richardson.  “It’s just something that doesn’t make sense when you explain it to most Missourians.”

The prefiling of bills for the 2017 legislative session began December 1.  The session begins January 4.

Missouri House to investigate reports of harassment within Department of Corrections

The state House of Representatives will investigate reports of harassment within the state Department of Corrections, which has reportedly victimized numerous employees and cost the state millions in legal settlements.

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

A recent article on Pitch.com outlined multiple cases in which, it said, court documents showed some Corrections employees were the victims of harassment, retaliation, and threats based on sex, age, religion, or physical ability.

In several of those cases, the employees or former employees making the allegations agreed to a settlement with the state.  Between 2012 and 2016 those settlements totaled more than $7.5-million.

“The things that have been reported coming out of the Department of Corrections are unacceptable.  They’re unacceptable for our state.  They out to be unacceptable in any workplace environment,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff). 

“They’re doubly concerning here in Missouri because it’s leading to a huge budget impact.  The cost to the state to have to settle these claims has been significant,” said Richardson.

He said the House would take up a “very thorough review,” of what’s been happening at the Department.

“That will involve our budget committees but it’s also going to involve our policy committees, so we can get to the bottom of what’s going on and most importantly – how do we make the environment better than it is today,” said Richardson. 

Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles) chairs the House committee that deals with the Department of Corrections’ budget.  She said the reports of harassment never came up in her committee, even though they were resulting in sizable settlements.

“That is a personnel matter, and other than how many employees they have or need or have positions to fill, as far as budget goes that’s the only personnel issues we become involved with,” said Conway. 

The line in the state budget from which money for settlements with the state comes does not have a finite dollar amount in it.  Rather, it has an “E” at the end of that line, meaning it includes an estimated amount.  That allows for additional money to be used for that purpose, as needed.  Conway said that is one reason the settlements never came to the attention of a legislative committee.

Richardson said details on how the House investigation will proceed will be released in coming weeks.

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

The Missouri House’s Budget Committee Chairman said he doesn’t, “have a lot of optimism,” about putting together a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Representative Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

State revenue continues to come in more slowly than legislators and the governor projected when working on the current fiscal year’s budget.  Shell Knob Republican Scott Fitzpatrick said that means when Governor-Elect Eric Greitens (R) delivers his budget proposal next month, it could call for little more than covering things the state is mandated to pay.

“The biggest challenge that he’s going to be facing is the increase in Medicaid and other mandatory programs, that basically have to be funded in order to pay the providers that are providing services to the people that are eligible under state law,” said Fitzpatrick.

He said if the legislature does not find a way to stem those costs before Fiscal Year 2018 begins, “I would anticipate seeing cuts to a lot of other programs in order to just pay the bills related to Medicaid.”

Fitzpatrick said under the fiscal circumstances in which Greitens will be taking office, “I think he’s going to be doing well just to be able to get us a budget that balances without relying on unreasonable revenue assumptions, then we’ll take it from there and hopefully make some policy adjustments this session that will allow us to curb some of those costs.”

State General Revenue growth in Missouri spiked briefly, earlier this week, at more than 4-percent, but again fell off to well below the roughly 5-percent said to be needed to fund the current fiscal year’s budget.  Governor Jay Nixon (D) has, since that budget went into effect, withheld $150-million to keep it balanced.  Fitzpatrick said without a major improvement in revenue growth, more restrictions will be needed.  He called on Nixon to make them.

“If he wants to leave this state in a better spot than the way he found it he needs to make restrictions before he leaves office, but if he chooses not to do that then [Governor-Elect Greitens] will have to do that pretty much immediately upon assuming office,” said Fitzpatrick.

“Barring an unforeseen explosion in revenue growth for December, I would anticipate $200-million is around what this round of restrictions should be, and if things get worse from there then it could be possible that even more than that would be required,” said Fitzpatrick.

All this means that Fitzpatrick, as he enters his first year chairing the House Budget Committee, does not expect to make many people happy while playing his role in preparing the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

“I’ve told everybody who’s come to talk to me about the budget this year that they shouldn’t expect anything good to happen,” said Fitzpatrick.  “’Play defense,’ is kind of what I’ve told anybody whose job relies on a state appropriation because it’s going to be a tough year.”

Fitzpatrick said it will also be difficult to take care of his personal priorities:  fully funding the foundation formula for K-12 education; boosting state employee pay; and accelerating the repayment of state debt.

As early as next week, members of Nixon’s administration will join members of the governor-elect’s staff in meeting with House and Senate budget planners to prepare a Consensus Revenue Estimate – a projection of how much revenue the state will bring in during Fiscal Year 2018 that they will base a budget plan on.

Trio of public safety bills filed; sponsor says one could help prevent incidents like 2015 drowning in water patrol custody

The Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee for Public Safety and Corrections has filed three bills for the 2017 session dealing with public safety issues.  She said one would, in part, help prevent incidents such as the drowning of an Iowa Man while in patrol custody in 2014.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

That bill would increase by $1-million the amount collected from boat title and registration fees that would go to the Water Patrol Division of the State Highway Patrol.

St. Charles Republican Kathie Conway said that division does more than put boats and troopers on Missouri’s waterways.

“They have to take care of docks, they have to take care of emergency equipment, they have to have trucks and SUVs that have ability to go four-wheel-drive and into places that some of their other vehicles can’t get, so it’s not just simply, ‘Well instead of a car they have a boat,’” said Conway.  “The $1-million will go a long, long way, and it comes in fees so it’s not the taxpayers’ money.  It’s the people who are actually using our waterways and registering their boats that will be contributing this extra money.”

Conway believes additional funding for the Water Patrol division will also lead to continued improvements in training of its troopers, and that will help prevent incidents such as the drowning of an Iowa man, Brandon Ellingson, while in patrol custody on the Lake of the Ozarks in 2014.

“That is exactly why we want it, so we know that these water patrol officers have the best training that they can have,” said Conway. 

She said when the Water Patrol became part of the Highway Patrol in 2011 there was, “some confusion and some overlapping, and there wasn’t, I don’t think, the best opportunities to train everybody to the highest degree.

“This money would go a long way in alleviating those situations that could be dangerous for the boating public,” said Conway.

The state recently agreed to pay $9-million to Ellingson’s family as part of a settlement agreement.


Another bill would extend to the state’s community colleges the ability that colleges and universities have for their police departments to control traffic on streets maintained by those institutions.

Conway says community colleges were left out when colleges and universities were granted that power under a bill that became law several years ago.

“They are able to control traffic on their campuses much better and that’s the safety of the students and everybody that visits the campus,” said Conway.

She said such authority would also make community colleges eligible to apply for federal money for training – money they are not eligible to apply for now.


A third bill filed today by Conway would close what she called a “loophole,” in how money in the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Fund can be used.       Conway said Governor Nixon’s Administration has used money in that fund to pay for the core expenses of the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco.

  “That money is to be used strictly to hire and maintain field investigators so that the public is assured that when we issue a license to an entity to sell alcohol … that the laws governing them are enforced and that those that don’t are punished or have their licenses revoked,” said Conway.  “I think so much of the crime we see can be traced back to alcohol and drugs, so if we’re going to give somebody a license to sell alcohol I feel as a state we’re responsible to make sure that they follow the rules for selling alcohol.” 

Conway said the number of field agents has declined and she believes the work of those agents has fallen to local law enforcement officials.

“Police officers aren’t trained in everything involved in having an alcohol license.  It’s like having a real estate license.  You don’t expect a cop to know everything that a broker should know to sell real estate,” said Conway.  “It’s our responsibility.  The city didn’t necessarily issues that license that we did and collected fees on.  I just think that we’ve gotten very lax in it and I think we’ve been doing a big injustice to the public.”


Each of these measures was filed as legislation in the 2016 session, and each passed out of the House with 138 or more votes.

 

Gift ban proposal re-filed for 2017; sponsor expects better chance of passage under Governor-Elect Greitens

The sponsor of a key ethics reform proposal that the House passed in 2016 believes it has a stronger chance of becoming law in 2017.

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

Hermann Republican Justin Alferman filed in 2016 legislation that would ban gifts from lobbyists to state legislators.  It passed the Missouri House but did not reach the governor.

Alferman has filed that legislation for the 2017 session and said he expects it to have more vigorous support from the administration of Governor-Elect Eric Greitens.

“Governor [Jay] Nixon’s office didn’t coordinate with myself, didn’t coordinate with [House Speaker Todd Richardson] on any of the ethics bills that he took credit for,” said Alferman.  “Governor-Elect Greitens has already called me and I’ve already been in talks with his staff in order to craft a better bill.”

Alferman said the incoming governor’s staff is pleased with the position the House took last year of an all-out ban on gifts, rather than setting a limit.

“The House has proven our position is going to be zero.  We can’t even start negotiating on what the final bill’s going to look like until we get it back from the Senate,” said Alferman.  “Between infinity and zero … there’s a lot of wiggle room.”

The 2016 bill stalled in the Senate where, Alferman said, some senators worked to defeat it, but he says some among them are no longer in office.

“Having the executive branch that is going to be a major driver in this is going to be extremely helpful in getting this done this year,” said Alferman.  “[Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe] have been extremely helpful in at least giving it floor time last year and getting it to the point that it did.”

The legislature passed and Governor Nixon signed into law three ethics reforms in 2016 – bills that bar elected officials from hiring one another as paid political consultants; bar statewide elected officials, members of the General Assembly, or appointees subject to Senate confirmation from registering as lobbyists until six months after the end of their terms; and limit how long campaign funds can be invested and how they can be used.

Alferman said between those and policies enacted by House leadership to govern how House members and staff behave both in and out of the Capitol, and similar policies in the Senate, the public perception of the legislature should be better than it was four years ago.

“What the speaker has done and set in place has hopefully alleviated any concerns that there are of either sexual harassment or inappropriate workplace dealings that we potentially had in the past.” said Alferman. 

Today is the first day legislators can file measures to be considered in the 2017 legislative session.

Update:  The 2017 bill is HB 60.

Representative to propose tougher gun restrictions for domestic abusers

A state House Republican plans to propose tougher Missouri gun laws for those with a history of domestic violence.

Representative Donna Lichtenegger (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Donna Lichtenegger (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Donna Lichtenegger (R-Cape Girardeau) will propose mirroring Missouri law to a 1997 federal restriction on the ownership, possession, purchase, or sale of firearms by those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or who have orders of protection against them.  Missouri remains one of the states that have not adopted the same law, meaning only federal agents and courts can pursue cases regarding the federal law.

Missourians who were found guilty of a domestic violence misdemeanor or were the subject of an order of protection were to be denied concealed carry permits under the state’s original CCW law.  That prohibition was nullified after the legislature overturned the veto of SB 656, allowing anyone who can legally carry a gun to carry one concealed without getting a permit.

Lichtenegger expects her proposal will have support among her fellow Republicans’ supermajority.

“Under the circumstances of what I’m talking about and the fact that NRA is willing to help me … I’m not changing the gun bill at all,” said Lichtenegger.  “All I’m doing is taking the state law and matching it with the federal law as far as domestic violence goes just to give the people who are being hurt more coverage.”

Lichtenegger is pursuing the issue in part because of her own experience with domestic violence committed by her father when she was a child.

“My father was a violent alcoholic,” said Lichtenegger.  “Believe it or not, in his lawyer’s office he threatened to throw acid in my face and my brother’s face … when I was four years old I vividly remember my father abusing my mother.”

“I wanna make sure that these women and men who are hurt get their day in court without the fear that they’re going to be hurt more,” said Lichtenegger.

Lichtenegger said she is still developing language for a bill for the session that begins January 4, and said it could also deal in some way with those suffering from mental health issues.

Task Force on Human Trafficking preparing recommendations for 2017 legislative session

A legislative task force on Human Trafficking has held its final hearing, though its members could continue its work in some form.

Representative Elijah Haahr (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Elijah Haahr (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The group was created in 2015 with the goal of making recommendations to the legislature on how to fight trafficking in Missouri.  A report with those recommendations is due by the end of the year, and is being developed now.

The body already helped pass legislation adding to the crime of trafficking the advertising of a victim for sex or pornography, and letting a victim keep his or her address confidential, making it harder for traffickers to find them.

The group has been chaired by Springfield Republican Elijah Haahr.

“It’s been a good experience and I think it’s one of those things that everybody in the state can appreciate the work we’re doing here today,” said Haahr.  “Probably the biggest thing is opening people’s eyes to how bad the issue is in the Midwest, but then hopefully giving them some of the tools that we can to move forward.”

One of the task force’s recommendations will be the creation of a position in the state’s government that oversees anti-trafficking efforts.  That would require the legislature to propose where the money for such a person’s salary would come from in the state budget.  Discussion also continues of where in state government that position would be housed, or whether it should be a non-profit position outside of the government.

Representative Cloria Brown (R-St. Louis) also sits on the Task Force on Human Trafficking (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Cloria Brown (R-St. Louis) also sits on the Task Force on Human Trafficking (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Other recommendations could include using state money to help support groups that offer victims treatment and assistance transitioning out of trafficking, and requiring that employers post the national trafficking hotline in break rooms.  Haahr expects six to ten recommendations will be included in the report.

Another possible recommendation that Haahr said could face some resistance is that of decriminalization in cases in which a person working as a prostitute was coerced.  He expects legislators to be more supportive of proposing tougher legal penalties for those who solicit prostitutes, and of options for trafficking victims to have prostitution convictions expunged from their records.

“Nobody wants to be perceived as Missouri going soft on crime,” said Haahr.  “You also don’t want traffickers to declare open season and think, ‘We can bring women to this state where they’re not going to get arrested for prostitution,’ and have an influx of new trafficking in the state.”

Several members of the task force expressed an interest in seeing it continue to meet, though it is set to expire at the end of this year.  The legislature could consider a resolution that would continue the group or create a new one, or it could continue to meet as a working group.  Members also learned that Attorney General-Elect Josh Hawley and the state courts are also discussing efforts to fight trafficking in Missouri, so lawmakers could wait to see what develops there before deciding how a legislative effort might proceed.

Haahr expects the task force’s report and included recommendations to be released in a matter of weeks.

Proposal would ask voters for bonds to pay for new or improved veterans home

A House Republican wants to again propose asking Missourians to support adding to the number of beds in Missouri’s veterans homes.

Representative Lindell Shumake (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Lindell Shumake (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Hannibal representative Lindell Shumake has proposed in the past two legislative sessions a resolution that would ask voters to approve $50-million in bonds to build a new veterans’ home.  He plans to file on December 1 a similar proposal, though this time it could be for more money.

This time it could be for a new home, or for the replacement or expansion and upgrading of the state veterans home at Mexico, which is more than 30 years old.

“There’s some thought that the home in Mexico, Missouri, needs to be rebuilt,” said Shumake.  “Of course our goal would be to expand bed space by however much we can.”

As Shumake’s proposal worked its way through the legislature’s 2016 session, he and others were told that the state already exceeds the federal Veterans Administration’s limit on beds in Missouri veterans homes of 1,257.  That means if Missouri builds a new veterans home it would not receive a federal reimbursement for the construction.  It could, though, for replacing a home.

Shumake would prefer for the state to build a new home, which would have around 150 beds, because that would go farther toward addressing the growing waiting list of veterans wanting to get into one.  As of May more than 1,900 veterans were on that list, with roughly a third of those ready to enter a home now.

He plans to file his proposal regardless of whether the state Veterans Commission favors a new home or a replacement.

“Creating the fund, having it there available would be the first step certainly,” said Shumake.  “Before it goes to the voters, though, we would want to have some more concrete ideas in mind as to if it’s going to be new or if it’s going to replace and increase the number of beds in an existing facility.”

Last year Shumake’s resolution cleared the House but stalled in the Senate.  If approved, it would go before voters on the November, 2018 ballot.