Thursday, April 26, 2007

Senate Completes Work on Budget

Week 17 - April 23 - 27, 2007

Bill Repealing Loss Limits Gets First-Round Approval

Missouri is one step closer to having a budget for the 2008 fiscal year since the Senate completed work on the spending plan. Senators spent a good portion of the week discussing where the state’s revenue will be used over the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2008.
The $21 billion budget includes major increases for education and healthcare funding. Elementary and secondary education will receive a 3.6 percent increase in state spending to make a total of $2.8 million. Higher education will receive a 6.5 percent increase totaling state spending to $936 million. The Department of Social Services will receive a 9.8 percent increase which includes state sponsored healthcare funding. State spending on state supported pharmacy programs will increase to $26 million and budgeted reimbursement for physicals will increase to $20 million in state funds.
The spending plan also contains a $200 million surplus, which supporters say will provide security for the state in case the economy weakens in the future. Opponents argue that the surplus should be returned to Missouri taxpayers.
The Senate approved budget, made up of House Bills 1-13, will now be discussed by members of the House and Senate to settle any differences. After final approval from both bodies, the budget will be sent to the governor. The deadline for lawmakers to complete their work is May 11.
The Senate spent many hours debating Senate Bill 430 before giving it first-round approval this week. The bill will create the Smart Start Scholarship Program, which is created through an increase in revenue gained from state gaming. The bill increases the tax levy on casinos to 4.25 percent and limits the amount of casinos allowed in Missouri to 16.
A controversial point of the bill repeals the maximum loss limits, which were set at five hundred dollars every two hours, when voters approved casino gambling in 1992. Those who support the measure argue that Missouri is the only state that has loss limits and repealing them will keep Missouri’s casinos from losing business to other states. Opponents of the measure point out that loss limits allow players to compose themselves and reflect on their losses. The bill needs another vote before it goes to the House.
Senate Bill 389 was sent to the House this week after a final vote in the Senate. The bill makes a several changes to Higher Education in the state including placing restrictions on tuition increases, selling the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, and funding a series of campus construction projects. The bill has also been touted as beneficial for students due to scholarship program increases and expansions. The legislation also creates a series of scholarship opportunities with Access Missouri Financial Assistance Program, which provides need-based scholarships for community college, public university, and private university students.
House Bill 444 was approved by Senate Committee this week. The bill phases out state income tax on social security benefits over a six year period. Starting in 2007 with a 20 percent exemption, the percentage would continue to increase until 2012, when social security would no longer be taxed. The bill would not apply to individuals with an income of less than $25,000 or couples with an income of less than $32,000, minus half of their total social security, since they are already exempt from paying income taxes.
Supporters of the bill argue that the exemption will prevent seniors from being taxed twice and encourage them to stay in the state after retirement. Detractors argue that the exceptions will cost the state money that should be used for other state programs to help seniors.
The Missouri Senate will reconvene at 2 p.m. on Monday, April 30. The First Regular Session of the 94th Missouri General Assembly runs until Friday, May 18.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Senate Works to Establish Joint CAFO Committee

JEFFERSON CITY— After much debate yesterday (April 19, 2007) on Senate Bill 570, a measure to address some issues with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the Missouri Senate decided the issue needs more study. Senators gave first round approval to an amended form of the original bill that will establish a joint House-Senate committee to consider plans for modifying state rules on CAFOs.
The committee would consist of five members from the Senate and five from the House with three from each chamber coming from the majority party and two each from the minority party.
The original SB 570 ran into sticking points over the amount of control local governments would have over CAFOs in their areas and if state and federal laws would trump those local regulations. The amended bill will charge the committee with conducting a comprehensive study on CAFOs, including that local control and regulation, economic impacts, and other issues it finds along the way. A report would be due to the General Assembly no later than the end of this year.
The measure needs a final vote in the Senate before it would be sent to the House. If approved, the governor would need to sign the bill to make the Joint Committee on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations a reality.
For more information about the Missouri Senate, visit www.senate.mo.gov. To contact Senate Communications, dial (573) 751-3824 or send and email to newsroom@senate.mo.gov.

Higher Education Legislation Receives Initial Senate Approval

Week 16 - Week of April 16 - 20, 2007

Jefferson City — After weeks of discussion and debate, the Senate has given first-round approval to Senate Bill 389, an omnibus higher education bill. The legislation passed after a parliamentary procedure ended debate and brought the bill to a vote.
SB 389 includes provisions for the partial sale of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA). The sale of MOHELA would result in a total of $350 million over a six year period, with the money going towards construction projects on campuses throughout the state. The bill also strengthens the power of the Department of Higher Education’s coordinating board and creates five performance standards for public institutions. Public colleges and universities would also be required to create common competency standards for entry-level courses, and would have to accept transfer credits from those courses.
The bill has also been touted as beneficial for students due to scholarship program increases and expansions. The legislation will create the Access Missouri Financial Assistance Program, which provides need-based scholarships for community college, public university, and private university students. Bright Flight, a merit-based state program, will see acceptance expansion and higher scholarship awards for qualifying students.
Tuition increases would no longer be able to rise higher than the consumer price index under the legislation. Public universities who violate the provision would lose some state funding unless granted an exemption from the coordinating board.
Teacher incentives created under SB 389 are meant to encourage recent graduates to teach in unaccredited schools, such at St. Louis Public Schools. The bill provides up to $21,000 in stipends or loan forgiveness for teachers who choose to teach in the unaccredited school districts.
Supporters of the bill say that it will create needed reforms in Missouri’s higher education system and will improve the accessibility of continuing education. Detractors argue that the plan to sell MOHELA’s assets is short-sighted and irresponsible. Another vote will send the bill to the House for debate.
A bill increasing the penalties on sexual predators targeting children was approved by the Senate and moved to the House. Senate Bill 5 makes several changes to current law relating to child pornography. Previously, possession of child pornography was considered a Class D felony, but the bill changes that offense to a Class C felony. If an offender is in possession of more than 20 images of child pornography or has a previous conviction, the offense is a Class B felony instead of the previous Class C. According to the bill, material that is considered child pornography can not be copied or reproduced and will remain in the custody of the state or court. The defense will be able to inspect, view, and examine the materials at a state or government facility.
The bill also prohibits anyone who is guilty of promoting child pornography in the first degree from being eligible for probation or parole for at least three years. Anyone who is guilty of promoting child pornography in the second degree would not be eligible for probation.
Sex offenders would also have to face stricter penalties and stipulations under SB 5. Current law requires that sex offenders cannot reside within 1,000 feet of a school or child-care facility. The bill clarifies that the 1,000 ft. distance will be determined by measuring the shortest distance between property lines. SB 5 also allows for child custody arrangements to be modified if a parent who has custody of the child has a continuing relationship with a registered sex offender.
The bill also allows victims of child exploitation the right to sue for damages caused by psychological illness or injury from the offense. If the court finds there are damages, they will total no less than $150,000. The civil suit would need to take place within 10 years of the victim turning 21 or within three years of discovery that the psychological injury is due to an offense.
The legislation allows for law enforcement agencies receiving grant money for multi-jurisdictional Internet cyber crime task forces to use the funds on equipment, supplies, and services. Previously, the funds could only be used for salaries and training.
A bill allowing home births with the use of a midwife received preliminary approval this week. SB 303 creates the “Board of Direct-Entry Midwives” in order to manage the licenses of midwives. In order to receive a license, the midwife must be licensed by the North American Registry of Midwives to care for women and infants before, during, and after birth.
Supporters of bill have argued that Missouri’s laws against midwifery limit choices women have when deciding on birthing options. Opponents of the bill say that the use of a midwife could endanger the lives of the mother or child and could lead to an increase in lawsuits. A final vote will send the bill to the House.
A bill meant to simplify necessary filings for businesses received first round approval in the Senate this week. Many of the provisions in SB 368 are in response to a survey distributed by the Secretary of State’s office asking for suggestions from business owners. Also known as the Red Tape Reduction Act, the bill allows businesses to file their corporate registration reports once every two years, offers incentives for businesses to file online for their limited liability company (LLC) filing, and offers an expedited service option for filings.
The First Regular Session of the 94th Missouri General Assembly runs until Friday, May 18.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Senate Sends to House New Public Health-care Program

Week 15 - Week of April 9 - 13, 2007

Jefferson City — During a week of lengthy debates and dozens of legislative amendments, state senators have sent to the House legislation implementing a new health-care program.
Senators approved a measure reforming Missouri’s public health-care system. Senate Bill 577 creates MO HealthNet to replace the current Medicaid program. MO HealthNet, which focuses on preventive care, wellness and consumer choice, provides incentives for doctors and patients to reduce costs. Under the program, physicians can receive increased funding for reducing hospital stays, and consumers who practice healthy behavior earn credits on debit cards useful for co-pays, prescription drugs and other health-related expenses, such as gym memberships. Participants also work with a “health-care advocate,” who assists patients in accessing care. MO HealthNet contains a premium-offset program, which subsidizes private health insurance for employers and workers. Increased health-care coverage for low-income women and stronger penalties against providers who defraud public health care have been added to the legislation. The House and Senate must agree on identical language to send the legislation to the governor.
Senators this week gave initial approval to legislation enhancing protections for sexual assault victims. SB 429 ensures that the state will pay for assault victims’ forensic examinations not covered by insurance or public health plans and prohibits alleged victims from being required to undergo a lie-detector test.
SB 429 also requires victims’ identifying information be removed from court records and bars rape crisis center employees from revealing victims’ identities. In addition, the legislation establishes the “Address Confidentiality Program,” under which victims’ addresses are made secret. The Missouri Secretary of State’s office coordinates the program and forwards mail to the proper address. Final approval sends the measure to the House.
The Senate has also approved legislation implementing a statewide biodiesel standard. SB 204 requires most diesel fuel sold in Missouri to contain at least 5 percent biodiesel by Jan. 1, 2009. Railroads and nuclear power facilities are exempt from the legislation. Similar to the ethanol standard signed into law last year, the requirement is suspended if biodiesel prices exceed the price of regular diesel fuel.
Lawmakers have sent to the governor a Senate measure barring restrictions on Second Amendment rights during emergencies. SB 257 prohibits state and local governments from restricting the lawful possession, sale, or use of firearms or ammunition during emergencies.
The House Rules Committee approved a Senate measure requiring every Missouri child enrolled in kindergarten or first grade to receive a comprehensive vision examination. Also under SB 16, all Missouri public school districts must conduct eye screenings for students before they complete the first and third grades. Screening results would then be kept by the state.
Members of the Senate Education Committee this week heard legislation modifying a state law enacted last year requiring Missouri school districts to implement anti-bullying policies. Under SB 646, the definition of “bullying” would also include cyberbullying, which refers to harassment through cell phones, e-mail and other electronic communication. Committee approval is required to send the bill to the full Senate.
Senators will reconvene at 2 p.m. Monday, April 16. The First Regular Session of the 94th Missouri General Assembly runs until Friday, May 18.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Senate Approves Medicaid Overhaul

Week 14 - Week of April 2 - 6, 2007

Jefferson City — After several days of debate, the Missouri Senate this week approved a new state health-care system. Meanwhile, senators received the budget from the House.
The Senate this week gave first-round approval to legislation implementing a new program to replace Missouri’s Medicaid system. Senate Bill 577 creates MO HealthNet, which focuses on preventive care over more costly emergency care and emphasizes transparency and consumer choice. The idea is to create a more efficient system by keeping people healthy, rather than treating them once they’re already sick.
The wide-ranging makeover to Missouri’s public-health-care system includes incentives for doctors and patients to decrease overall costs. For instance, physicians could receive more funding for reducing hospital stays, and health-care consumers who maintain health-improvement plans would earn credits for medications and gym memberships. MO HealthNet participants also work with a “health-care advocate,” who assists patients in accessing care. A premium-offset program contained in the measure subsidizes private health insurance for employers and workers.
Lawmakers on Wednesday approved amendments to SB 577 offering more coverage to women and cracking down on those who defraud public health care. An estimated 90,000 low-income women who lack access to employer-sponsored health insurance would qualify for a provision that provides for cancer screenings, family planning and other services. Stronger penalties against providers convicted of fraud and rewards for whistleblowers were also added. Final approval sends the measure to the House.
The Senate Appropriations Committee this week took up the budget bills for the 2008 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year. The approximately $21 billion state budget, comprised of House Bills 1-13, includes funding increases for the state’s Medicaid program and elementary and secondary education. Also included in the spending plan is a tax cut on Social Security benefits, an across-the-board pay raise for state workers and an estimated $200 million budget reserve. Upon Senate approval, members of both chambers would have to agree on a final version to send to the governor.
Judiciary committee members this week approved a House resolution that asks voters to bar Missouri courts from ordering tax increases. House Joint Resolution 1 proposes a constitutional amendment restricting court jurisdiction over taxing, spending and budgeting. Supporters of the measure say it is needed to ensure judges cannot bypass Missouri voters by ordering tax increases from the bench. They point to other states that have had courts order spending increases. Opponents of HJR 1 say it violates the separation of powers and restricts the right of the courts to rule on financial disputes, such as eminent domain cases.
Adult motorcyclists would not have to wear a helmet while riding under a House measure approved by the Senate Transportation Committee. HB 155 repeals the existing state regulation for riders age 21 and over. Substantially similar legislation has been filed in the Senate since 1999. The debate tends to center around issues of personal freedom versus public safety.
Missouri voters would be asked to reconsider term limits under a Senate resolution that advanced this week. Senate Joint Resolution 15, which passed the Senate elections committee, would increase term limits in both houses of the Legislature. Under a constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters in 1992, lawmakers are restricted to four two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate. SJR 15 increases limits in each house from eight to 12 years. The new limits would go into effect Jan. 1, 2012, and would count any service prior to that date in calculating limits.
Missouri has joined a number of other states in considering legislation that would require young women to receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. SB 514, which was debated this week in the Senate Seniors, Families and Public Health Committee, requires vaccinations for all female students enrolling in the sixth grade. HPV causes various sexually transmitted infections, including cervical cancer, and it is particularly common among women.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all girls be vaccinated against HPV. In February, Texas became the first state to enact a vaccination requirement.
Senate legislation implementing the Faith-Based Organization Liaison Act received approval this week by the House Special Committee on Family Services. SB 46 directs regional employees of the Missouri Department of Social Services to serve as liaisons to faith-based organizations in their areas. Liaisons work with and promote faith-based groups that provide assistance to low-income Missourians. The legislation is designed to promote private services as an alternative to public assistance. Approval by the full House would require agreement with the Senate before the bill is sent to the governor.
The House Special Committee on General Laws approved Senate legislation prohibiting restrictions of Second Amendment rights during emergencies. Under SB 257, also known as the Missouri Disaster Recovery Protection Act, state and local governments cannot restrict the lawful possession, sale, or use of firearms or ammunition during emergencies.
Senators will reconvene at noon Tuesday, April 10. The First Regular Session of the 94th Missouri General Assembly runs until Friday, May 18.
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