House perfects prescription drug monitoring program proposal

The Missouri House has given initial approval to a proposed tracking system for prescription drugs that backers hope will fight opioid abuse in Missouri.  Specifically it aims to help stop “doctor shopping;” the practice of going to multiple doctors seeking multiple prescriptions for valuable and addictive medications.

This is the fifth session in which Representative Holly Rehder has sponsored PDMP legislation.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
This is the fifth session in which Representative Holly Rehder has sponsored PDMP legislation. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 90 would make Missouri the 50th state to enact a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP).  The electronic registry would take information on those who prescribe, use, or dispense prescription drugs.

The bill had bipartisan support in a 109-40 voteWest Plains Republican Shawn Rhoads, a former police detective, said it is an answer to opioid abuse in Missouri.

“There’s just so many times in a career [someone has] had to go to somebody’s house and tell them that their loved one has overdosed and died because somebody was doctor shopping, selling them drugs, and they’ve overdosed on them.  That is the worst thing that you will ever have to do in a career, and I’m telling you I never, ever, want to do it again,” said Rhoads.  “That’s why, Mr. Speaker, I urge the body to vote for this bill.”

The bill is sponsored by Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder, who has spoken publicly many times about her own family’s experience with addiction.

“I grew up in poverty.  One of my stepdads was a dealer.  My sister married a dealer at 16, was a main line user by the time she was 16,” said Rehder.  “I didn’t use drugs because I was afraid of them.  I saw what they did to those around me.”

Rehder said it was that fear that caused her to raise her children “differently,” but when her daughter was given a prescription for opioid painkillers after cutting her thumb at work, she became addicted.

“From that point forward we had 13 years of addiction,” said Rehder.

Rehder said addictions to opioid painkillers often begin with a legal prescription following an injury, such as when a high school athlete gets hurt.

“An athlete breaks a leg or whatever, they go to the doctor, they get an opiate to help with the pain, and then if that person is predisposed to addiction, they become addicted.”

Before giving the bill first-round approval, the House changed it so that by 2020, pharmacists will have to report information to the registry in real-time.

The sponsor of that change, Representative Lynn Morris (R-Nixa), owns a chain of pharmacies.

“By doing real-time, all my stores are connected real-time, and we know how much importance that is in trying to catch people that are drug shopping every day, and we catch them and we don’t fail to catch them,” said Morris.

Opponents say a PDMP creates a government database and poses a threat to the privacy of anyone using prescription drugs.

Representative Rick Brattin was among those Republicans who opposed the PDMP legislation filed by one of their fellow caucus members.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Rick Brattin questioned the PDMP legislation offered by a fellow Republican, but voted for the bill on perfection. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Harrisonville Republican Rick Brattin also argued PDMPs must not be effective because they exist in all other states, yet President Donald Trump has launched a task force to fight opioid addiction.

“So that would lend to me that this sort of program does not work and it has no effect, and if it has we would not be issuing a task force for the entire country to tackle the overprescribing of opioids,” said Brattin.

Ash Grove Republican Mike Moon also maintains PDMPs are not effective, and urged his fellow lawmakers to consider whether Missouri should launch one.

“As of 2014 Missouri ranked 24th in the nation related to the number of deaths due to prescription drug overdose, and we’re not participating in the PDMP.  You’d think that Missouri would be number one in the abuse category, but we’re not,” said Moon

Brattin and others offered other changes to HB 90 saying it needed to be strengthened, in part because similar versions have stalled in the state Senate in past years.  Rehder urged legislators to reject them, saying that over the five years she’s handled the issue, stakeholders including law enforcement and medical experts have helped develop the language she’s proposing.  Those amendments were then rejected.

Another favorable vote would send the bill to the Senate, where in past years it has been stopped primarily by Senator Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph), who has his own PDMP proposal which cleared that chamber early this month.

House bill targets St. Louis ordinance, aims to protect alternatives-to-abortion clinics

The Missouri House has given initial approval to a bill that proponents say would protect alternatives to abortion agencies and their employees’ rights to assembly, religious practices, and speech.

It targets a St. Louis ordinance that the bill’s opponents say protects from discrimination women who have had abortions, use contraceptives or artificial insemination, or have become pregnant out of wedlock.

The sponsor of House Bill 174, Representative Tila Hubrecht (R-Dexter), said that ordinance penalizes agencies that refuse to hire a woman who would counsel a woman to have an abortion or refer a woman to get an abortion.

“This ordinance could also force private property owners to rent space to abortion facilities or to doctors who perform abortions, and force private employers to include abortion coverage in employee health plans,” said Hubrecht.

Hubrecht said without her bill becoming law, the St. Louis ordinance and its like could, “interfere with the mission of alternatives-to-abortion agencies and persons not affiliated with a religious organization, and obstruct their conscience rights.” 

St. Louis Democrat Stacey Newman said by nullifying the ordinance, the legislature would be allowing discrimination.

“Are you in favor of firing a woman just because she’s pregnant?  That’s what the ordinance prevents.  Are you in favor of terminating a lease just because a woman is pregnant?  Again, that’s what the ordinance prevents.  St. Louis Ordinance 70459 prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy including childbirth, and as you would suspect, these are private decisions that are none of the employee’s or a landlord’s business,” said Newman.

Newman said the bill would also protect those agencies’ dissemination of “medically inaccurate” information to women, aimed at discouraging them from having an abortion or using contraception.

“You’re saying as a government body you have the right, then, to go and interfere in other people’s personal, private health decisions and even allow them to be getting inaccurate medical care,” said Newman.

Another vote in favor of HB 174 would send it to the state Senate.

House close to proposing a repeal of Missouri prevailing wage law

The state House has given initial approval to a repeal of Missouri’s “prevailing wage” law, which sets what local governments and school boards must pay for construction or maintenance work.

The wage is set on a county-by-county basis based on wage surveys for each type of work, such as carpentry, bricklaying, or electrical work.  When a county does not have adequate wage data, the union rate for that trade is used.

Republicans supporting House Bill 104 say the prevailing wage law drives up the cost of projects, making local governments postpone work or forgo it altogether.  The sponsor of HB 104, Representative Warren Love (R-Osceola), said his bill would allow more projects to move forward.

“We talk about economic development in this state.  I can’t think of hardly anything that’s been brought forward that will create more work for Missouri workers,” said Love.

Love gave the example of an ambulance district in his district that was based in a house, which needed roof repair after a hailstorm.  Love said other, similar repairs in the area were costing about $22,000, but because the ambulance district must pay prevailing wage, it would cost more than $63,000.

“The insurance company, due to the similar, like projects in that area only paid $22,000 for that public work project, so the other $40,000 had to come up and be made out of the ambulance district, which was taxpayer money,” said Love.

Democrats including Doug Beck (D-St. Louis) say the legislation is simply another attack on workers.

“There’s been study after study that says that eliminating the prevailing wage does not reduce construction costs.  All it does is reduce the amount of revenue that comes into a state from construction workers,” said Beck.

Grandview Democrat Joe Runions said eliminating prevailing wage would lead to more jobs going to contractors from other states, who would take their pay back out of Missouri.

“Then local contractors will come back and continue to have to fix what’s screwed up,” said Runions.

Opposition to HB 104 was bipartisan, but it was given first-round approval on a 93-60 vote.

Another vote could send HB 104 to the state Senate.  It would be the continuation of the House Republican Supermajority’s labor reform efforts this year, which have also included passage of a bill to require annual permission from a worker before union dues could be taken from his or her pay, and a right-to-work bill that has been signed into law by Governor Eric Greitens (R).

House budget plan aims to improve harassment investigations in Department of Corrections

The latest version of the House’s proposed budget would restructure the Department of Corrections, in light of how it handled cases of harassment and retaliation against employees.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said his plan would redirect money that goes to the Department’s offices of Inspector General and Human Resources, and create an Office of Professional Standards.

Fitzpatrick said he worked with Corrections Director Anne Precythe in developing his proposal.

“She’s making significant changes to the Department,” said Fitzpatrick.  “The Department of Corrections has an inspector general, currently, which I think has been doing a sub-par job, and that’s what I’ve gotten from the director.”

The House in January announced the creation of the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct after a news article revealed the Department had settled numerous lawsuits filed by former employees who had been harassed.  Those settlements were costing the state millions of dollars.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Jim Hansen (R-Frankford), said the committee came to a similar conclusion about the job that the inspector general had been doing.

“In the hearings it appeared to me like there was a lot of confusion concerning who’s doing what when it comes to [human resources] and the investigators handling the cases, of who’s handling what, who knows what’s going on.  The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” said Hansen.  “I think it needs to be streamlined … there needs to be adjustment made and a review of everybody’s responsibility, and maybe be able to put this under one silo on who’s going to handle it and who’s reporting to who, and how fast it can get to the top.”

Fitzpatrick’s spending plan would reallocate within the Department’s budget more than $2.3-million to create the new office.

“We’ve created that in its own section in the budget, and [Director Precythe’s] plan is to use that to try to build more trust in the institution of the Department of Corrections, and to better deal with the personnel issues that they’ve been having, that have been creating these large claims,” said Fitzpatrick.

Missouri Department of Corrections Director Ann Precythe (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Missouri Department of Corrections Director Ann Precythe (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Precythe did not speak to House Communications for this story, but the Department did supply a memo from her dated March 14.  In that, she said the Office of Professional Standards will be made up of the Civil Rights Unit (formerly Human Resources), the Employee Conduct Unit (formerly the office of Inspector General), and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Unit.

She said new processes would “begin soon” and, “we are still fine tuning the remaining details,” but said, “We are changing our investigative processes to allow institutions to handle most offender-related incidents.  This change allows us to reallocate resources into the Civil Rights Unit.  The Civil Rights Unit will conduct investigations into allegations of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and unprofessional conduct.  With additional resources, the Human Relations Officers will be able to conduct and complete investigations even faster than they do now.”

“In addition, Human Relations Officers will soon be conducting training statewide for all employees and will be doing additional outreach and follow up with employees who feel that they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, retaliation or unprofessional conduct.  More Human Relations Officers also means more opportunities for them to visit institutions and offices throughout the state and interact with employees outside of the investigative process.”

Precythe explained the Employee Conduct Unit would investigate employee violations of procedure, unexpected offender deaths, suicides, and potential homicides.  Those investigations would be assisted by law enforcement in certain cases.

Fitzpatrick’s budget also removes the “E” found on many lines in the budget.  Those Es represents an open-ended spending limit on funds in which legislators expect money beyond what they allocate might be needed before the next budget is created.  One such E was found on the budget line from which comes money for settlements the state must pay.

Fitzpatrick and others have said it is because that line had an “E” that legislators were unaware for years of the settlements involving the Department, and the harassment and retaliation issues that caused them.  By removing the E, agencies must now come to the legislature and explain why they would need additional money for court settlements.  That could shed light on recurring problems such as the Corrections Department had.

Fitzpatrick said he also proposes putting an appropriation for legal expenses in the budget of each state agency, whereas before the money for settlements across all agencies came from one line.

“It’ll make sure that we can still pay claims and judgments against the state, but it’ll also put some skin in the game from the departments’ perspective so that the effects of their actions aren’t something that they don’t feel,” said Fitzpatrick.

The House continues work this week on a budget proposal to send to the Senate.  Once the House and Senate agree on a spending plan it must still go to Governor Eric Greitens (R).

Lawmaker wants Missouri on track to next-generation 911

Some Missouri lawmakers think you should be able to send text, photos, videos, or data to 911, and they want to put the state on a schedule to achieve that goal.

Representative Lyle Rowland (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Lyle Rowland (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

A House Committee has been asked to consider House Bill 1094, offered by Cedarcreek Republican Lyle Rowland after he was approached by a friend who sits on the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  He was told people who are deaf could use text to communicate with 911 operators.

Rowland’s bill would require the Advisory Committee for 911 Service Oversight to develop a plan and target dates for Missouri to test, implement, and operate a next generation 911 system.

“This will provide our deaf communities a way of getting emergency help when it’s needed,” said Rowland.

The Committee heard from Opeoluwa Sotonwa, the Commission’s executive director.  He explained what it could be like for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing to use 911 in most of Missouri.

“A hard of hearing individual who speaks may be able to share his or her needs, but may not be able to hear questions being asked.  I may not be able to understand what action others are taking if I cannot hear them speak.  Moreover, I am not able to speak directly with a 911 operator,” said Sotonwa through an interpreter.  “You can count the resources used to track a suspect, evaluate the cost of replacing a house, and tally deaths of those who cannot receive help fast enough, however what is not measureable is the fear, insecurity, and indignity of the Missourians who are not able to access 911 services because our state’s technology is simply outdated.”

Representative Bruce Degroot confirmed as true what Sotonwa said would happen if, in most of Missouri, a person sends a text to 911.

“I did exactly as the witness suggested and texted 911, letting them know it wasn’t a true emergency, and sure enough I got a message back,” said DeGroot.  “’Make a voice call to 911 for help.  Text to 911 is not available.’”

Steve Hoskins, the Vice President of Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, told the committee his organization also backs the bill.  He said a next generation 911 system wouldn’t just help those with hearing problems.

“What if you’re calling 911 but the reason you’re calling is because you’re choking and you can’t speak?  That’s why we need this kind of technology,” said Hoskins.

No one spoke against Rowland’s bill.  The committee has not voted on it.

(VIDEO) Rep. Bruce Franks discusses chairmanship of new panel on police/community relations

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (D), has been chosen by House Speaker Todd Richardson (R) and Representative Don Phillips (R), the chairman of the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety, to chair the newly formed Subcommittee on Police/Community Relations.

Franks discusses why the House Republican supermajority’s leadership considers him an “ideal choice” to head this committee, even though he is a member of the Democratic minority.  He also talks about the work the committee will do and  how he plans to approach that task.

Franks sits down to discuss the new subcommittee with House Communications’ Mike Lear.

House Budget Chairman proud of proposed full funding of education

The House Budget Committee Chairman is proud of a budget proposal that would accomplish what’s been his top goal since taking that job.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Shell Knob Republican Scott Fitzpatrick said in August when he became the budget chairman that his number one priority was to fully fund Missouri’s public schools.  He recently unveiled budget bills that included fully funding the K-12 school formula.

If that part of the budget were to become law, it would be the first time the formula’s current form has had full funding since it was created by Senate Bill 287 in 2005.

“We’re making another year of record investment in K-12 public education,” said Fitzpatrick.  “To me that’s the single biggest thing of which I’m most proud, and the other thing is we did it without spending any more than the governor and the General Assembly agreed to spend.”

Some have noted that the full funding would come one year after the legislature reinstated a cap on how much the formula could grow, year-to-year.  Fitzpatrick said without those caps, the growth in the formula was unsustainable.

“When I got in to the General Assembly the formula was $400-million underfunded, and over the next three or four years we added about $300-million, I think, in funding to the formula, and it was still about $400-million underfunded,” said Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick’s proposal would also reject Governor Eric Greitens (R) proposed cut of all funding to K-12 transportation.

“That’s an important part of what we’re doing with education is that we’re not taking money from transportation and just putting it into the formula to say we fully funded the formula.  We’re making the commitment that we’ve made in previous years to funding transportation as well as fully funding the formula,” said Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick’s budget is based in part ON passage of a bill that would end a tax break for low-income seniors and disabled renters.  The money the state would save from that repeal would go to a program that provides in-home care for the elderly and disabled.

“We’ve invested every single dollar of that back into services for seniors – low-income seniors and a little bit as well for people with disabilities,” said Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick believes a property tax credit should be for people who own their homes and are working to pay it off, “especially because people who are receiving nursing home services being completely paid for by Medicaid are eligible to receive the renter’s portion of the credit, so somebody could be in a nursing home that’s already being completely paid for by the state and then on top of that the state will write a check to them for what’s supposed to represent a credit for property taxes that they paid, and that seems to me to not make a lot of sense.”

The House has passed the legislation repealing that portion of the credit. It must next be considered by the Senate.

Fitzpatrick’s budget also restores some of the state aid to colleges and universities that the governor proposed reducing.  Fitzpatrick said he wanted to minimize the impact reductions would have on students in Missouri.

When legislators return next week from spring break, the full House Budget Committee will debate changes to Fitzpatrick’s proposal before sending it on to the full House, which could make further changes.  It then faces debate in the Senate before going to Governor Greitens, who could sign it into law, veto it in part or in whole, or make spending restrictions.

Bipartisan bill would help parents keep state child care assistance when receiving pay raises

Bipartisan legislation in the Missouri House seeks to help families stave off what’s called the “cliff effect,” with child care.

Representatives Cryscal Quade (left) and Dan Shaul decided to work together, across party lines, on a bill to help working parents keep needed child care subsidies when they earn a pay increase, while the two were on the state tour for freshmen legislators. (Photo; Chris Moreland, Missouri House Communications)
Representatives Cryscal Quade (left) and Dan Shaul decided to work together, across party lines, on a bill to help working parents keep needed child care subsidies when they earn a pay increase, while the two were on the state tour for freshmen legislators. (Photo; Chris Moreland, Missouri House Communications)

The “cliff effect” refers to a person receiving a pay increase that puts him or her over the income limit for receiving a state benefit.

“Basically it came down to this.  You make so much money and all of a sudden you fall off the cliff.  You get one more pay raise and you get no more day care subsidy,” said Representative Dan Shaul (R-Imperial).  “We found that to be counterproductive to trying to hand up.  All of a sudden, what’s the motivation to continue on?”

Shaul, whose wife is a social worker, and Representative Crystal Quade (D-Springfield), who herself is a social worker, are sponsoring identical legislation that would launch a pilot program in Green, Jefferson, and Pemiscot Counties.  It would allow individuals to participate in an existing transitional program.

That program offers tiered levels of childcare subsidies based on the individual’s income level, but requires participants to start at its lowest income level.  Under Quade and Shaul’s bills, a participant could enter the program at his or her current income level, rather than have to take a lesser-paying job.

Quade said the program would keep working parents from having to make tough choices about whether to accept better pay, or to decline it because it would not offset the cost of losing government assistance.

“It’s my belief that if we allow this to happen we will be essentially having more folks enter the workforce at a higher paying rate, eventually getting off of the state subsidies at every level if we’re allowing them to become productive members of society by not having to make those hard choices,” said Quade.

The House Committee on Children and Families held a hearing on those bills, House Bill 712 (Shaul) and House Bill 713 (Quade).  They heard testimony from several Missourians including Leann Seipel of Sparta, who told representatives she had to turn down a 15-cents per hour raise to avoid losing her child care subsidy.  She still lost the subsidy for one month.

“It cost me more than half of what I bring home in a month to provide child care for my children,” said Seipel.  “We ate a lot of Cheerios and ramen noodles that month, and it took me four months to pay off that debt for one month of child care.”

“It’s a very scary thing when you’re sitting there and you’re trying to do the math and trying to figure out, if I take this raise or if I take this new job am I going to lose my child care subsidy or food stamps or something,” said Seipel.  “When you’re living so close to the line, every little bit … it was a 15-cent raise.  15-cent raise killed us that month.”

Meghan Roetto of Republic moved from Montana to Missouri after her husband returned from serving in Iraq and left her and her daughter.

She told lawmakers she was frustrated when after going to college and getting a bachelor’s degree, she was offered a $10 an hour job, and that meant she would not be eligible for child care assistance.

“I felt punished for getting a degree and doing better, and being able to give to the workforce,” said Roetto.  “I chose to move from the nice home I lived in which did not have expensive rent – it was a wonderful neighborhood – to a smaller apartment that didn’t have as nice of a neighborhood – it was not as safe – so that I could continue to work.  I felt that I could move myself forward better.”

Shaul said he and Quade decided to work together on the issue after discussing it, “somewhere between Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and Rolla,” during the tour for freshmen legislators, held between the November election and before the start of session.

“It was a good trip.  We talked about kids, and parents trying to raise kids, and how we could help them with the child day care subsidy,” said Shaul.

The committee has not voted on those bills.

Bill named for sponsor’s brother, shot to death at 9, seeks better education of youth about violence

Missourians would be asked to remember children killed by violence in the state, and to work to prevent more such deaths, under a bill passed out of the state House.

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, asks fellow legislators to support a bill filed in the name of his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, asks fellow legislators to support a bill filed in the name of his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill filed by Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (R-St. Louis City), would ask Missourians to do those things on June 7 – the anniversary of his brother’s death.

“His name was Christopher Harris and he was nine years old.  I was six,” Franks said while emotionally presenting House Bill 183 to the full House.

Franks told his fellow legislators about how his brother was killed on that day in 1991, while the two were playing baseball on the street they grew up on.

“Two men came out the house arguing.  In our community that’s what we’re used to.  We didn’t pay any attention to it.  We kept going, kept playing baseball, as most kids do.  As my brother rounded second one of the men pulled out a gun.  The other man picked my brother up simultaneously, and as the other man shot, the other one used my brother as a human shield.”

Franks said the bill would make June 7, “Youth Violence Prevention Day,” in Missouri.  He said it would be more than, “having another day where we name a day after somebody, but we spark a day of advocacy, a day of action, and a day against youth violence.”

Franks, as he has done with many other issues, urged his fellows not to think of gun violence as an issue limited to any one part or few parts of the state.

“I saw this as an opportunity to bring light to a situation that has plagued my family and many other families throughout our nation.  This has been my normal.  This shouldn’t be anybody’s normal,” said Franks.  “The issues that affect us when it comes to youth violence, when it comes to gun violence, is not just an issue in the City of St. Louis, but it’s an issue for each and every person here that represents Missourians.”

Missouri House members listen quietly as Representative Bruce Franks (yellow shirt near center) asks them to support increased education about youth violence, in a bill named for his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Missouri House members listen quietly as Representative Bruce Franks (yellow shirt near center) asks them to support increased education about youth violence, in a bill named for his brother, who was shot to death at the age of 9. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Franks asked that the legislators remember what happened to his brother and work to educate others statewide about youth violence prevention.

He recalled that when he and other freshmen members of the legislature toured the state, they saw the statue of his brother that stands outside of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

“No matter what side we’re on, no matter how we feel about our Second Amendment rights; stand your ground, open carry, assault bans, bans on weapons – none of that would have kept my brother alive,”  Franks told House members.  “What would have kept my brother alive is those same two men, who were actually family friends who grew up in the same disenfranchised community as me and my father, who felt like they need to live the life that they live, the lack of resources, the lack of education, the lack of opportunity – that’s what would’ve saved my brother.”

Franks’ bill was passed out of the House 156-1.  He received a standing ovation from the rest of the chamber’s members after presenting it on the floor.

The bill would encourage Missourians to observe June 7 through education related to safety and violence prevention.  It now goes to the state Senate.

Legislators considering whether to criminalize protests that block highways, streets

A state legislator has proposed making it a crime to block streets or highways during protests or riots.

State Representative Nick Marshall (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
State Representative Nick Marshall (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Parkville Republican Nick Marshall said he filed the bill in response to protests in recent years, such as those in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the decision by the St. Louis County prosecutor not to file charges against the Ferguson police officer that shot him.

Marshall said the goal is to discourage roadway protests, “which have the intent of blocking innocent citizens which are trying to make their way home or wherever they have to go, may or may not have children in their vehicle.”

House Bill 826 would create the crime of, “unlawful traffic interference,” for walking, standing, sitting, laying in, or placing an object on a street, highway, or interstate highway with the intention of interfering with traffic.  Penalties would range from up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine for first offenses, to up to seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine for blocking traffic while part of an unlawful assembly.

Marshall said the bill would protect Missourians.

“If I’m actually trapped on an interstate, I’m surrounded by cars, I’m surrounded by angry folks that are not letting me leave, I am really having trouble – and a lot of my constituents as well back home have trouble, and those watching it on TV – have trouble distinguishing that from being unlawfully imprisoned,” said Marshall.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks was among those who protested in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.  He told Marshall, “I would have had a felony if this law was in place.”

Franks said he understands Marshall’s position, but he felt the bill would interfere with people’s rights of assembly and free speech.

“It just feels to me that we do have the right to protest but only if we’re holding hands and singing Kumbaya,” said Franks.

The bill has the support of the Missouri State Trooper’s Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the Missouri Sheriff’s Association.

Brad Thielemier with the Trooper’s Association said it is concerned about safety issues raised by protests on roadways, for both drivers and protesters.

“People who might be standing in the highways and may get hit, especially on the highways and interstates where cars may be moving fairly fast, possible altercations that may take place from angry motorists, also the motorists who may have medical issues, law enforcement personnel trying to get to certain places,” said Thielemeier.  “We support the concept of making sure that public safety is protected.”

Ballwin Republican Shamed Dogan asked Mark Bruns with the Fraternal Order of Police whether protesters blocking traffic truly creates a substantial obstacle.

“Everybody has to deal with traffic accidents every day, and these are kind of less common occurrences,” said Dogan.  “I would think that firefighters and law enforcement could work their way around these situations.”

“They could,” Bruns responded.  “I think it would be a big burden, though, for the person that needs the help.”

Franks also questioned whether the new crime would actually deter anyone who wants to protest on streets or highways.

“Do you think the punitive damages within this bill is going to deter somebody who’s passionate about whatever it is that they’re fighting for from shutting down a highway, or a street, or anything else?” Franks asked Thielemeier.

“I would like to think that possible penalties may give someone pause,” said Theilemeier.  “But I understand that passions for issues that people believe in, they probably will not worry about that.”

The House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety has not voted on HB 826.