The last week of the First Regular Session of the 99th General Assembly ended with controversy and unfortunate legislative actions.
People on the other side of the political aisle preach the Democratic Party is the party of big government and the other party will save the people from the grip of that “monster” we call big government. They say policy issues, those affecting the economy, education and other social issues, are better decided as locally as possible — at the city and county levels. Yet, in the last weeks of the regular session, the majority party of this Republican-controlled Legislature seemed to believe the idea of local decision-making is nonsense, vehemently attempting to undermine the progress of counties and cities, especially the city of St. Louis.
The city of St. Louis passed an ordinance that would improve the well-being of its citizens by increasing its local minimum wage well above the outdated state minimum wage law. This ordinance has strong support from the city’s residents and the city’s legislators in the General Assembly. But members of the Missouri people’s legislative chambers — members who live nowhere near the city — chose to bring down the force of the state on the political will and desires of local governments. Whether people are on the left or right of the political spectrum, they should be concerned about attempts to prohibit people, acting through their local governments, from enacting specific, narrow policies.
House Bill 1194, whose sponsor represents a district far outside St. Louis’ city limits, has two important purposes: (1) to further divide the rural and urban communities and (2) to distract the Legislature from addressing serious issues such as the lack of access to education and the economic inequality that pierces our communities.
Why should the people of a city not demand higher wages simply because other cities have not? Why should the people of a city not have higher wages simply because the Legislature thinks it not important? Why should the economic progress and the quest to reduce economic inequality be shackled to the ornate gates of legislators’ comfortable and affluent lifestyles? These are serious questions and they demand answers.
Studies show that when people have more money — when people have higher wages — they spend more, and when spending increases, local economies benefit. I truly believe the St. Louis ordinance is good for the residents here and a step in the right direction for fixing our economic problems.
It is told that the late Maya Angelou said “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” With the passage of HB 1194, members of the Legislature showed us what they really think about small and limited government. And during the election cycle next year, these members will proudly boast how unyielding their “limited government” principles and viewpoints are — Don’t believe it.
I just want to briefly discuss two other important bills that made progress during the final days of the session.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 34, which is intended to help crack down on those who illegally reentered the state after being deported to another country. Under this bill, those who have been deported, returned and committed serious felony offenses could face up to ten years in prison. Moreover, the bill has provisions that would allow for the records of certain felons to be expunged. With these provisions, people, especially those who have committed nonviolent offenses, may be given a second chance and not be held down by the weight of unfair and unreasonable punishments.
The House also passed Senate Bill 52, which was one of my top priorities for this legislative session. We lose hundreds of Missourians each year to suicide. What I have tried to do as a legislator is work with colleges and universities to address mental health issues and suicide prevention. According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college-aged students and the prevalence of suicidal thoughts is highest for those between the ages of 18 and 29. With this bill, colleges and universities will be required to develop and implement policies that advise our students about suicide-prevention programs, such as those dealing with crisis intervention, post intervention and mental health. I hope our institutions will also develop student communication plans and use social media to increase awareness of these programs.
The body of a former St. Louis University student who was reportedly missing was found earlier in the month. Investigators and law enforcement officials believe the young woman, Gift Kamau, had committed suicide, noting that a suicide note had been found.
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Suicide does not only have high prevalence with college students. A profession that has relatively high numbers of suicide is the medical profession. An estimated 300 physicians commit suicide annually in the United States. Depression is found to be just as significant a factor in physician suicide as it is in non-physician suicide. Also, physicians who took their lives were less likely to have received mental health treatment than comparable non-physicians. As such, risk for suicide increases as mental health conditions go unaddressed and as the use of self-medication to address anxiety, insomnia and other distressing disorder increases.
I want to conclude by noting that something has seriously gone awry with the work in the Senate. Given that there is a supermajority in the General Assembly, one would think that there would be less division and dysfunction. But most of the gridlock and conflict have been intraparty; quarrels between members of the majority party have stalled the business of the Senate for many hours and days.
Yet, this infighting gives me a great sense of optimism. I strongly believe that the people of this great state will realize, if we already have not, how poorly the Legislature and the governor, a Republican, have governed our state. For me, there is hope — hope that we will not have to waste precious hours questioning whether we should help the thousands of seniors and disabled Missourians or fully fund the education foundation formula for our children and schools. The obvious answer to the questions is “Yes”.
I thank you for allowing me to represent you here in the Missouri Senate, and as long as I continue to do that, I will stand strong against those who want to come after some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Bill gutting Missouri Human Rights Act goes to governor
By a vote of 98-34, with many Democrats abstaining in protest, the House of Representatives on May 9, granted final approval to legislation that would make it significantly more difficult to hold employers accountable for illegal workplace discrimination. The bill previously cleared the Senate and now awaits action by the governor.
Senate Bill 43 erects several new barriers designed to discourage lawsuits under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, disability or familial status. It is sponsored by a state senator who owns a chain of rent-to-own stores that faces a pending lawsuit for alleged acts of racial discrimination in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Democratic critics of the bill said the senator’s sponsorship amounted to an abuse of power. They urged the governor, who campaigned on a pledge to clean up the culture of corruption and self-dealing in state government, to veto the bill. However, SB 43 is supported by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a key special interest group that was an early backer of the governor during last year’s crowded four-way GOP gubernatorial primary.
Federal judge upholds campaign donation limits
On May 5, a federal judge upheld new limits on campaign contributions Missouri voters approved last year, but restricted the enforcement of some provisions of the wide-ranging measure and outright blocked others. The ruling is expected to be appealed.
At issue is Amendment 2, which 70 percent of Missouri voters ratified in November 2016. It prohibits a donor from giving more than $2,600 per election to a single candidate or more than $25,000 per election to a political party. The measure also contains several other campaign finance regulations.
Shortly after Amendment 2 was ratified, a coalition of groups sued on claims that limiting campaign contributions violates their free speech rights. The groups, which sought to have Amendment 2 invalidated in its entirety, are represented in court by the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, whose involvement has been seen as a sign of the party’s opposition to campaign finance regulation. Missouri voters first imposed contribution limits in 1994, but the then Republican-controlled General Assembly repealed them in 2008.
Senior U.S. District Judge Ortie Smith said Amendment 2’s contribution limits pass constitutional muster, but found other provisions more problematic. In particular, Judge Smith struck down sections intended to ban contributions from out-of-state entities, prohibit businesses from giving to political action committees and block donations between committees, which are often used to obscure the original source of contributions.
In addition, Judge Smith upheld other challenged provisions to Amendment 2, but ordered that they be enforced consistently with advisory opinions previously issued by the Missouri Ethics Commission. Those opinions assert that contribution limits do not apply to donations to certain non-candidate committees and businesses and unions are not prohibited from giving to campaigns supporting or opposing ballot initiatives.
Prescription drug monitoring fails final hurdles
Legislation to establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring program to help prevent opioid abuse failed to pass after the Senate insisted on a weaker version of the bill, which the House of Representatives was unwilling to accept. A last-minute compromise could not be brought to final votes before lawmakers adjourned for the year on May 12.
The House approved the measure, House Bill 90, 102-54 more than a month ago. However, opponents in the Senate, who see prescription monitoring as an unwarranted government intrusion into patient privacy, added a number of restrictions to the bill, such as excluding many drugs from being subjected to monitoring and requiring patient information to be purged after just six months. Supporters for monitoring said a six-month time period is too short to effectively track excessive purchases.
Because of the lack of a statewide monitoring program, more than two dozen Missouri counties and cities, including St. Louis and Jackson counties, have created their own. Because HB 90 would preempt local efforts, lawmakers with strong local programs objected to giving up those programs for a weaker statewide program.
Missouri is the only state in the nation that hasn’t enacted a monitoring program to alert doctors when patients seek to obtain multiple prescriptions from different doctors. With HB 90 unable to pass before the legislative session ended on May 12, more cities and counties are expected to join the growing network of local programs.
REAL ID compliance bill wins final approval
On May 11, the House of Representatives voted 112-39-2 to grant final approval to legislation that would bring Missouri driver’s licenses into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act of 2005. Although many states initially resisted the federal law due to privacy concerns, that resistance has dwindled to the point that Missouri is one of just four states that has yet to comply.
Compliance has taken on new urgency this year since the federal government has said that effective Jan. 22, 2018, it will not allow state-issued IDs that do not include the security features mandated by the REAL ID Act to be used to board commercial flights or enter certain federal facilities.
The compliance measure, House Bill 151, appeared to be headed for defeat in the Senate until May 9, when a compromise was struck to address some senators’ privacy concerns. The governor is expected to sign the measure.
Legislature passes bill during extraordinary session
On May 22, the Senate convened after the governor called for an extraordinary session. The Missouri Constitution gives the governor the power to convene the General Assembly for “extraordinary occasions.” Two days later, the House voted 120-17-1 to advance legislation that would authorize special electric rates for certain industrial users as an incentive to bring new jobs to Missouri. Bipartisan passage came only after lawmakers stripped a controversial provision championed by the governor that would have made it significantly easier for electrical monopolies to raise customer rates with the approval of state utility regulators. On May 26, after a longer-than-expected day, with several lawmakers of both parties vowing to block the bill because of the now-removed provision they say would have harmed consumers, the Senate passed HB 1 by a vote of 24-5, with Sen. Nasheed voting “no”.
The legislation is primarily geared toward providing incentives for two separate projects in New Madrid County in the Bootheel. One is the potential reopening of the former Noranda Aluminum smelter, which closed in 2016, eliminating 900 high-paying jobs. The other proposal is for a small steel mill within the New Madrid city limits.
Under HB 1, the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) could authorize Ameren Missouri to offer discounted electric rates for the facilities. Ameren’s other business and residential customers, who are heavily concentrated in the St. Louis metropolitan area, would pay for those subsidies through higher rates, which was a point of contention for many lawmakers.
When the governor took the unexpected step of calling lawmakers back for an extra session on the issue just a week after the regular session ended on May 12, the New Madrid County job creation part of the bill was widely viewed by the legislation’s critics as a Trojan horse for the further deregulation of electric rates. The governor has accepted $178,000 in disclosed donations from investor-owned utilities. That amount doesn’t include any secret and untraceable contributions the industry may have given to the governor’s “dark money” committee, A New Missouri Inc., which has been promoting the bill and launching attacks against lawmakers who oppose the measure.
According to a May 25 story by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, A New Missouri Inc. has failed to register with the Missouri Ethics Commission as a lobbying organization as required by state law despite its lobbying activities. Last month, the governor admitted to unrelated state ethics violations and agreed to pay a fine as a result of his campaign committee’s failure to make certain required disclosures.
Governor says he might call more extra sessions
The governor has told various media outlets he might call more extra sessions this summer for lawmakers to consider issues that didn’t pass before the regular session ended May 12.
The governor has not committed to any specific issues, but some high-profile matters still remaining from the regular session include establishing a statewide prescription drug monitoring program to combat prescription narcotics abuse, imposing a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials, passing various anti-organized labor measures and proposing new abortion restrictions.
Although the Missouri Constitution grants the governor the authority to convene an extra session, he has no power to compel legislative action. If lawmakers do not support the legislation the governor is seeking, they can simply gavel in and gavel out, as essentially happened during the 2003 extra session in which Gov. Bob Holden called for revenue increases. They can also adjourn without taking final action if agreements on legislation cannot be reached. That occurred during a 2011 extra session in which Gov. Jay Nixon called for an economic development bill.
Extra sessions cost taxpayers roughly $125,000 per week, mostly for lawmakers’ per diem and mileage expenses. However, the cost can be less if at least one legislative chamber is not in full session on days when only procedural actions take place and votes aren’t required.