As the fourth week of the 2016 legislative session comes to an end, the Missouri Senate has settled into its pattern of free and fair deliberation. Senator Jamilah Nasheed continues to push her legislative agenda at a blistering pace: two of Sen. Nasheed’s bills were voted out of committee this week and she also filed a new bill as well.
Back home, St. Louis prepares for this weekend’s Mardi Gras festivities throughout the 5th Senatorial District. The weekend will kick-off with the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball on Friday night at the St. Louis City Hall Rotunda. Tickets are $150 with general admission and all proceeds benefit the St. Louis Mardi Gras Foundation, which makes community grants intended to support Soulard and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Bud Light Grande Parade is Saturday at 11 a.m., with the route starting downtown and ending in Soulard.
The fight against Senate Bill 575, which would abolish the St. Louis City Earnings Tax, continues as it threatens the city’s financial solvency. If passed, SB 575 would deprive the city of approximately $185 million, close to 40 percent of the city’s budget. The bill has not yet been reported from committee, but when asked about its prospects if it reaches the floor, Sen. Nasheed said, “my colleagues and I will be fully prepared to fight this bill until it’s dead.”
On Tuesday, Senator Nasheed announced that she would be sponsoring legislation to stop the dangerous act of texting while driving. Using a model set forth in Washington, D.C., where a similar law was implemented in 2003, Sen. Nasheed’s legislation is stricter on distracted drivers, whether they are emailing, texting, or dialing. Senator Nasheed stated, “The science is clear. The data is clear. Distracted driving is a problem. The driver texting is not the only life we can save.”
On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 153-0 to strengthen state laws against child sex trafficking by adding ‘advertising a child for participation in a sex act’ as one the elements specifically prohibited by state law. The legislation now advances to the Senate, where Sen. Nasheed has taken a leading role as an advocate for sex trafficking victims and survivors.
Outside the Capitol, the University of Missouri System Board of Curators’ only two African-American members have both resigned over the past two weeks. That leaves the system’s governing authority three members short and with no African-American representation, as it deals with the continuing fallout from last year’s student protests over racial issues and other matters at the Columbia campus.
Curator Yvonne Sparks, an executive with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, resigned Jan. 27, after only about two months on the board. Two days later, Curator David Steward, a St. Louis-area business owner who had been on the board since 2011, submitted his resignation. Both Sparks and Steward cited professional obligations as the reason for their departures and didn’t address the recent turmoil at the university. There is currently no African-American representation on the board.
Upon hearing of the resignations, Sen. Nasheed immediately walked to the Governor’s office, urging him to issue nominations to fill the vacancies so that Mizzou can begin to heal. “It is essential to its education mission that our state’s flagship university reflects the diversity of the students it serves.,” Sen. Nasheed said.
ON THE FLOOR
Senator Nasheed celebrated a legislative victory this week when Senate Bill 765, a bill she co-sponsored, was passed by the Senate. This law prohibits municipalities in the state from setting ticket quotas, a highly controversial municipal practice. Senator Nasheed identified and closed a loophole in the bill that would have allowed these practices to continue under certain circumstances. With Sen. Nasheed’s language in place, Missourians will no longer be targeted simply because a police department needs money.
On Thursday, the Senate took up Senate Joint Resolution 19 for perfection. This legislation would increase the number of members on Missouri’s Conservation Commission. The debate took nearly three hours of floor time before a compromise was reached to place a term limit on conservation commissioners.
On Wednesday, Senator Nasheed introduced an amendment that would expand Medicaid in the state of Missouri. “I will not rest until health care is available to all Missourians. This is a cost saving measure, as we all know an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Sen. Nasheed argued. The amendment was ultimately ruled out of order by the president pro-tem after a Majority Party Senator raised an objection.
BILLS AND COMMITTEES
With another busy week coming to a close, two of Sen. Nasheed’s bills were added to the consent calendar:
- Senate Bill 627 – Suicide Prevention – would require public colleges and universities to develop and implement policies to advise students and staff on suicide prevention programs available on campus or in the community. This legislation was voted out of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 3, with a 7 to 0 vote.
- Senate Bill 833 – Missouri Savings Promotion Act – would authorize banks and credit unions to incentivize savings by automatically entering their customers into a raffle when they deposit a certain amount of money into their savings accounts. Senate Bill 833 was unanimously voted out of the Senate Financial and Governmental Organizations and Elections Committee after both Credit Unions and Banks testified in support of this bill.
In order to be added to the consent calendar, the bill must have a zero fiscal note, meaning that there will be no financial impact to the state, and, more importantly, it must have no opposition. Both of these bills will be added to the consent calendar on Monday, ensuring that they will be voted on in the coming weeks.
Also this week, Senate Bill 726, Senator Nasheed’s deadly force bill, received a public hearing in the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. The bill would align Missouri’s statute with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling with regard to when police officers are justified in using deadly force. The hearing was conducted on Feb. 2. The committee will vote on the bill early next week.
Senator Nasheed filed one new bill this week as well:
- Senate Bill 1015 – Hands-Free Driving—would require all drivers to drive with their phones in “hands-free” mode. This would mean emailing, dialing and texting would be prohibited, to prevent distracted driving. The bill was filed on Tuesday, Feb.
Finally, Senator Nasheed has three bills that are scheduled to be heard:
- Senate Bill 628 – Body-Worn Cameras –would require Missouri’s largest law enforcement agencies to equip their officers with body worn-cameras when interacting with the public. “This hearing is an extremely important first step toward making this bill a reality,” Sen. Nasheed said. “Now more than ever before, we need to focus on repairing the relationship between communities and police. Body cameras will help to do that by cutting down on both police use of excessive force and frivolous complaints against officers,” she continued. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety Committee. The public hearing will be conducted on Feb. 17.
- Senate Bill 691 – Lost/Stolen Firearms – would require anyone who has a gun stolen in the City of St. Louis to report the theft allowing law enforcement to identify stolen weapons before they are sold to violent criminals on the street. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee. The public hearing will be conducted on Feb. 17.
- Senate Bill 977 – Anti-Shackling – would prohibit the use of restraints on children under the age of 17 during court hearings, except in certain instances. This legislation has been referred to the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. The public hearing will be conducted on Feb. 16.
This week the Senate Appropriations Committee began the four-month process of going through the details of the state budget, department by department.
First up was the Department of Mental Health, which had good news to report – the new Fulton State Hospital is on schedule and on budget. They anticipate an opening date of Fall 2018. While excessive medical overtime remained a topic, it was noted that recruiting and retaining employees remains a challenge.
Funding for SATOP (Substance Abuse Traffic Offender Program) and other treatment programs was questioned when it was brought up that a few not-for-profit programs participating were allegedly paying exorbitant fees to doctors. The result is that we may see budget language that would attempt to cap executive compensation at not-for-profit corporations.
The Department of Mental Health closed with additional good news and thanks. They reported that last year’s focused budget increase had completely eliminated any state waiting lists for mental health services. Missouri is now one of the only states that can serve those mental health needs immediately and without a wait list. The Department profusely thanked the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Department of Insurance reported that with the completion of the changes pursuant to
the Affordable Care Act, the health insurance ‘high risk pool’ was winding down its funding and operation. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, this “pooled group” was created for Missouri citizens that could not otherwise obtain insurance due to a high risk pre-existing health condition.
The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported the good news that they have also caught up their back-log of payments to those workers injured and receiving payments from the Second Injury Fund. The legislation to fix the Second Injury Fund was passed in 2013, as Senate Bill 1.
The budget of the Lottery Commission came under intense fire this week from Senate Appropriations members from southern Missouri. During budget hearings in 2015, the Lottery asked for funding for a pilot program of pull-tab game tickets. By the time of the hearing this week, the program had been fully implemented across several counties in southwest Missouri. The Lottery responded they had statutory authority to fully implement the program.
Lastly this week, and also under fire, was the Department of Transportation. During early 2015, the Department told the public, and the Senate Appropriations Committee, that they were not going to be able to raise enough revenue from fuel taxes alone to get any matching funds from federal highway assistance. Subsequently, market conditions improved and the Department now reports that it will be able to meet all the requirements for full federal match funding for at least the next five years.
A series of negative audit findings along with news of a planned-and-then-canceled optional religious information session dominated the remainder of the hearing. The audit findings included placing employees on two-month administrative leave with pay immediately before their dismissal (cost – $1.5 million). Relocation assistance was given at a higher rate than the rest of state government (cost – $622,147). This relocation assistance included one employee who was reimbursed $91,168. Portions of the $91,168 reimbursement included covering a $30,000 loss on the sale of the employee’s second residence and dual housing reimbursements for 18 months at a cost of $21,816.
The class was called “Islam 101”. It was meant to be for informational purposes, given by practitioners of Islam, and was going to be voluntary and during the lunch hour. It was canceled before it was held. It also was not the first religion spotlighted during a voluntary lunch seminar, that would be “Judaism 101” (held several times). Except the class was being organized by an agency of state government, the Department of Transportation. After intense questioning, the Department informed the Committee that it would not be an issue in the future.
CORRECTIONS BOSS DEFENDS EXECUTION PAY PRACTICES
Missouri Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi told the House Budget Committee on Feb. 1, it “would end the death penalty” in Missouri if the department complied with federal law by issuing required tax documents to the independent contractors who serve on the state’s execution team, the Missourinet reported.
Lombardi’s comments came in response to reports that the department has paid nearly $285,000 in cash to members of the state’s execution team since Nov. 2013 but failed to issue an IRS Form 1099 to any of them. The Internal Revenue Service requires employers to issue a 1099 to contract workers to establish a record that the workers have earned taxable income.
While BuzzFeed reported there doesn’t appear to be any exemption in federal law that allows the department to refuse to issue a 1099 to contract workers, Lombardi told the budget committee the practice of paying execution team members in cash and not generating tax records dates to the 1980s and+ is necessary to keep their identities secret.
“Because of the issue of anonymity, to give a 1099 to these individuals would in fact reveal who they were, and that would end the death penalty, essentially, because they wouldn’t do it,” Lombardi said, according to the Missourinet.
LAWSUIT CHALLENGES ST. LOUIS CITY PAYROLL TAX
A lawsuit has been filed in state circuit court challenging the City of St. Louis’ 0.5 percent payroll tax, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Feb. 1. The lawsuit contends the city lacks the authority under state law to impose the tax, which generated nearly $33 million in revenue last year. It also claims the tax is unfairly applied, with the city waiving it for some businesses that agree to locate or expand operations in St. Louis.
The payroll tax, which is paid by companies located in St. Louis, is separate from the 1 percent earnings tax paid by city residents and non-residents who work in the city. St. Louis’ earnings tax, however, is facing a legislative attack with a bill that would phase it out over 10 years pending in the Senate.