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Responsible Reforms

Welfare reform is always a hard topic to tackle when it comes to crafting new, helpful legislation. Each person, even within the same political party, has their own views. This session the General Assembly worked hard to create a practical, yet agreeable piece of legislation called the “Strengthening Missouri Families Act”.  I feel this legislation helps provide safeguards for those who need assistance through one of our state’s welfare programs, while also encouraging recipients to take personal responsibility to ensure those programs do not become a way of life.

Senate Bill 24 restructures the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and parts of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As amended, SB 24 would reduce lifetime eligibility for TANF recipients from the current five years to three years and nine months. The Senate position was to limit the program to 36 months, but agreed to the compromise during conference.

Instead of signing up for the long-term monthly cash assistance program, this legislation calls for implementing a cash diversion program that grants eligible TANF recipients lump-sum cash grants for short-term needs, as well as job referrals or referrals to career centers, upon a showing of good cause. Showing good cause may include loss of employment, excluding a voluntary end of employment due to poor job performance; catastrophic illness; domestic violence; or other emergencies rendering a family member unable to care for the basic needs of their family. I think it is important to remember, with this bill, we are trying to encourage people to work and take pride in their achievements. I think we all agree with giving people a helping hand when they are really down and out and need help.

One of the most responsible items placed in this legislation is the provision that the person seeking benefits will be required to engage in work activities before becoming eligible. By encouraging those who are in need of assistance to work hard to help their family overcome the situation, they will be rewarded with integrity, responsibility and a better sense of self-worth. I feel the safeguards helped make this legislation something we could all agree on.

Senate Bill 24 requires TANF recipients to remain employed or continue seeking employment, or face the loss of half of their benefits for a maximum of 10 weeks. If they neglect to meet this requirement, they could forfeit all benefits. TANF recipients also have to be employed to be eligible for food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program allows states with a certain level of unemployment to seek a waiver of the work requirement for assistance. Missouri currently has this waiver, but starting, Jan. 1, 2016, this act removes the waiver and reinstates the work requirements.

I look forward to the governor signing this legislation. If he does not, I am confident there will be enough votes to override his veto, possibly before we end session on May 15.

As always, I appreciate it when groups from around Missouri and from our community back home come to visit me at the Capitol. If you would like to arrange a time to come and visit me in Jefferson City, or if you ever have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.

House and Senate Reach Agreement on Fiscal Year 2016 Budget (HBs 1 – 13)

After several long days of negotiations and discussion, the House and Senate finally worked out their differences and gave final approval to the Fiscal Year 2016 state operating budget. The bills now move to the governor’s desk a full two weeks ahead of the constitutionally-mandated budget deadline.

During the budget process, the Senate made significant changes to the House version of the state spending plan, including a lump-sum budgeting approach that included 4 to 6 percent cuts to health, mental health and social services programs. These changes drew the scrutiny of some on the House side and even lost the backing of leadership in the Senate as negotiations progressed. The final version of the budget approved by both chambers moves much closer to the original House spending plan, but does take some fiscally responsible steps to rein in the growth of the state’s social welfare programs. The final version of the budget does include the Senate’s plan to move Missouri’s Medicaid population to a system of managed care, but the transition will occur slowly and only after the plan has been reviewed.

The $26 billion spending plan that will take effect on July 1 of this year does include record levels of funding for elementary and secondary education. In total the state is now spending just under $5.8 billion on public K-12 schools, which represents more than 22.2 percent of total state spending. More than $3.2 billion of that funding is state general revenue, which represents more than 36 percent of the $8.85 billion state dollars over which the legislature has direct spending authority. The budget also includes significant boosts to several important education programs, and sizeable funding increases to the state’s public colleges and universities.

Some of the funding highlights contained in the FY 2016 budget include:

• An additional $84 million for the School Foundation Formula for K-12 public education;

• An increase of more than $2.4 million to the Parents as Teachers Program;

• Full funding for virtual education;

• Funding to create a state dyslexia coordinator;

• A $12 million increase for performance funding for Missouri’s public institutions of higher education;

• More than $5 million in new equity funding for Missouri’s two-year colleges;

• Funding to establish a state military advocate;

• A 3 percent funding increase to providers who care for elderly and developmentally disabled Missourians

• A 3 percent provider rate increase for autism projects; and

• Additional funding for MoHealthnet adult dental benefits.

House Sends Unemployment Reform Legislation to Governor (HB 150)

The governor will have the opportunity to sign legislation that supporters say will keep Missouri’s system of unemployment financially stable. House members gave final approval this to a bill that would link unemployment benefits to the rate of unemployment, and ensure the state keeps more money in the unemployment trust fund.

Supporters of the bill said it is meant to protect the state’s unemployment system from insolvency in the event there is another economic downturn. Missouri is the only state that has been forced to borrow money from the federal government to pay for unemployment benefits during each of the last five economic downturns. Borrowing federal dollars has the added negative impact of taking away a portion of a federal tax credit businesses normally receive.

The legislation is designed to make sure the state has enough money in its unemployment trust fund so that businesses don’t have to pay a penalty. Specifically, it would increase the minimum amount of money in the fund before employers’ contribution rates decrease. For example, Missouri businesses would see their contribution rates decrease by 12 percent if the fund has a balance greater than $870 million.

The bill also ties unemployment benefits to the average unemployment rate so that more benefits are available when unemployment is high. If the state were in a position of high unemployment (9 percent or higher) benefits would be available for 20 weeks. In periods of low unemployment (lower than 6 percent) benefits would be available for 13 weeks. Supporters noted that a similar system is already in place in states like Georgia and Florida. They call the change an important step toward ensuring Missouri can afford to help its citizens during times when they are without work.

The bill lost some support in the House after key changes were made in the Senate. Several House members who had supported the House version of the bill changed their votes to no because of a Senate amendment that would define severance pay as wages. Opponents said the change would make it even more difficult for unemployed Missourians to obtain the financial support they need to pay their bills and keep food on the table.

The governor now has the option to sign or veto the bill. The legislation received 88 yes votes in the House, which is 21 votes short of the number needed for a successful veto override.

Medical Malpractice Reform Legislation Receives Final Approval (SB 239)

The House and Senate this week approved a compromise version of legislation designed to contain ever-escalating medical costs and to keep medical professionals from fleeing the state.

The legislation would limit the amount an individual can receive for noneconomic damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit. In effect, it would reinstate the limits that were put in place in 2005 and then struck down in 2012 by the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled that a cap on noneconomic damages violates the constitutional right to a jury trial. However, the compromise version of the bill increases the damage limits from where they were originally.

A version of the plan that was approved by the House in March restored the limits to the original level of $350,000. The compromise version of the legislation would cap most noneconomic awards at $400,000. For catastrophic injuries such as paralysis or even death, the bill would cap noneconomic damages at $700,000. The bill also includes a provision to increase the caps by 1.7 percent annually.

Supporters say putting the caps back in place is a necessary step to limit the cost of medical malpractice insurance for physicians. They say keeping costs down is vital to efforts to prevent doctors from leaving Missouri for other states with reasonable limits in place. They also point to the fact the bill would limit only noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering, and not the amount an individual can receive for medical costs or lost wages.

While the House version of the bill had numerous critics, the compromise version received strong bipartisan support in both chambers. The bill now moves to the governor’s desk where he can either sign or veto it. The bill received 125 votes in the House. A successful veto override requires only 109 votes.

Municipal Court Reform Bill Receives House Approval (SB 5)

The members of the Missouri House also took action this week to protect Missourians from some municipalities that have exhibited what House Speaker Diehl called “predatory practices” to raise revenue through excessive traffic tickets. The bill approved by the House is designed to shut down “speed traps” by limiting the amount of revenue municipalities can generate from traffic violations.

The plan that now has to move back to the Senate for another round of approval would limit the amount of revenue municipalities can generate from traffic tickets to 20 percent, which is down from the current limit of 30 percent. The bill further limits municipalities in St. Louis County, which has been plagued by excessive traffic violations, so that only 15 percent of their total revenue can be derived from traffic tickets.

The House version of the bill inserts additional protections for Missourians by ending the process of courts issuing failure to appear charges against defendants for missing court dates on minor traffic violations. The bill also would prevent courts from ordering jail time for individuals who fail to pay traffic fines. In addition, the bill now includes provisions to ensure accountability from municipalities in St. Louis County by requiring they meet minimum standards – police services, balanced budget, insurance, etc. – or face dissolution.

The bill drew strong bipartisan support as members from both parties said it will ensure municipalities act in the best interests of their citizens rather than treat them as sources of revenue.

As always, it is an honor to serve the good folks of the 153rd District. If you would like to discuss any issue, please call 573-751-1066 or you can e-mail me at steve.cookson@house.mo.gov .

(Mountain Home) – A traffic stop in Mountain Home Wednesday has led to the arrest of a Gainesville, Missouri man on drug charges.

30-year-old Travis Rhodes was arrested Wednesday evening, April 22, for drug offenses after a vehicle he was a passenger in was pulled over for an equipment violation. A deputy conducted the stop on Highway 62 East at approximately 10:18 PM, and reportedly obtained consent to search the vehicle, which was owned by relatives of Rhodes. During this search, the deputy reportedly found two rocks of suspected methamphetamine and various drug paraphernalia, including scales, packaging, acetone, and a large quantity of matches, all of which was seized and taken into evidence.

Rhodes faces charges of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to deliver and possession of drug paraphernalia, both felonies. He was released the next day on $5,000 bond with an appearance in circuit court set for May 7.

(Hartville) – The Wright County Sheriff says both his office and the Wright County commission have been getting a number of recent complaints of vehicles heading to and from the area landfill losing trash, and he’s asking area residents to be cautious.

If your trash is loose, Sheriff Glenn Adler says it’s a good idea to have a tarp over your load, even when the trash is dumped, as sometimes trash is left in the container and doesn’t empty out, and can later blow out on roadways.

Sheriff Adler added that he has contacted the landfill to discuss this problem in an attempt to educate haulers coming into the landfill, as well as the Missouri State Highway Patrol to watch for vehicles loosing trash.

The Missouri state statute on littering says:

A person commits the crime of littering if he throws or places, or causes to be thrown or placed, any glass, glass bottles, wire, nails, tacks, hedge, cans, garbage, trash, refuse, or rubbish of any kind, nature or description on the right-of-way of any public road or state highway or on or in any of the waters in this state or on the banks of any stream, or on any land or water owned, operated or leased by the state, any board, department, agency or commission thereof or on any land or water owned, operated or leased by the federal government or on any private real property owned by another without his consent.

Littering is a class A misdemeanor in the state of Missouri.

(Melbourne) – Yellow boxes with green displays are beginning to appear in the common areas around Ozarka College’s Melbourne campus. These are alert beacons that will be used in the case of an emergency to notify people in common areas of a significant event. When activated through the College’s emergency alert system, the beacon will produce an alert message, flash and emit an alarm similar to a fire alarm.

Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) are also being installed to increase the survival rate for heart attack victims.

Dawn Smith, Ozarka College Allied Health Instructor, is providing training for all employees for CPR certification and use of AEDs. Alert beacons and AEDs will be installed on all four Ozarka College campus locations over the next couple of weeks. These devices were purchased as a part of a comprehensive health and safety initiative with grant funds awarded by the Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas.

McCaskill (provided)

McCaskill discusses sexual violence in the military with Russell Strand. (provided)

(Washington) – Russell Strand, the Chief of the Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division of the Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill met this past week to discuss strategies to combat sexual violence.

“Mr. Strand and Fort Leonard Wood’s contributions to how the military responds to sexual assault are enormous and unique. It’s this type of victim-centered approach that can help improve prosecutions and increase victims’ confidence in the system.” said McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Mr. Strand and I also discussed the challenges that remain—including how we continue increasing survivors’ trust that when they do report they will be taken seriously and free from retaliation.”

Mr. Strand leads the division at Fort Leonard Wood that is responsible for training military criminal investigators who investigate allegations of sexual assault in the military. Strand developed the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview, a technique that incorporates best practices in forensic interviews and critical incident stress debriefings, which allows survivors to be interviewed effectively without forcing them relive their assault.

A 2014 Pentagon report showed that reforms implemented in 2013 have resulted in demonstrable progress, reducing the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact in the military and increasing reporting of such crimes by survivors.

by Andrew DeMillo, AP

(Memphis) – A Memphis woman has been given her late father’s Purple Heart and other medals from his Army service in Vietnam after they sat forgotten in vaults in Arkansas for more than a decade.

Angela Allen on Friday claimed from the state auditor’s office the medals that belonged to her father – Ernest Johnson. The auditor’s office manages thousands of unclaimed safe deposit boxes from banks around the state and tracked Allen down after finding the medals in its vault near the state Capitol.

Allen said she knew her dad was awarded the medals, but had never laid eyes on them and assumed they’d been lost over the years. Her father had stashed them in a safe deposit box at an east Arkansas bank, along with coins he had collected.

(Little Rock) (AP) – A Pulaski County jail deputy has been arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle drugs, tobacco, candy and money to inmates.

The deputy faces charges of using a communication device to facilitate crimes, criminal attempt to furnish prohibited articles that include marijuana and methamphetamines, furnishing prohibited articles, and unauthorized use of another’s property. He was being held in protective custody Friday pending a hearing before a judge.

A sheriff’s report said other jailers intercepted a phone call Thursday indicating that contraband would be left in the deputy’s vehicle in the jail’s parking lot. Investigators monitored the parking lot and stopped the deputy after he retrieved one package containing money, candy and tobacco. A second package containing hidden marijuana and meth was also recovered.

The sheriff’s office says the deputy resigned immediately.

FILE - In this March 15, 2015 file photo, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch speaks during a news conference n Clayton, Mo. Attorneys for several civil rights groups will ask a St. Louis judge Friday, April 24, 2015 to appoint a special prosecutor to probe what they claim was prosecutorial misconduct by McCulloch during grand jury proceedings involving the Ferguson shooting death of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

FILE – In this March 15, 2015 file photo, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch speaks during a news conference n Clayton, Mo. Attorneys for several civil rights groups will ask a St. Louis judge Friday, April 24, 2015 to appoint a special prosecutor to probe what they claim was prosecutorial misconduct by McCulloch during grand jury proceedings involving the Ferguson shooting death of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

(Clayton) (AP) – A Missouri judge gave strong indications Friday that he might toss a lawsuit by four activists seeking an independent investigation of a prosecutor’s handling of grand jury proceedings in the Michael Brown shooting case.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge Joseph Walsh III heard 90 minutes of arguments before deciding to resume the hearing on May 29. But he told the activists’ attorneys that an outside investigation may be unnecessary, since the U.S. Justice Department reached the same conclusion as the county grand jury that declined to prosecute Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old.

The activists want Walsh to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate what they claim was misconduct on county prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s part.

Maggie Ellinger-Locke, an attorney for the activists, insisted that McCulloch acted in “bad faith” and “intended to prevent all of the evidence (from being presented) to the grand jury” out of a desire to not have Wilson charged. She noted that Wilson was allowed to tell the grand jury his version of his and Brown’s encounter last summer. Potential defendants seldom are allowed to testify during the secret proceedings, she said.

Peter Krane, the county counselor representing McCulloch’s office, urged the judge to throw the lawsuit out. He said the activists failed to show McCulloch committed any willful or fraudulent violations of his duties or neglected his responsibilities.

He argued that the lawsuit amounts to an attempt by the activists to impose their judgment over that of the prosecutor, who has discretion in deciding what evidence to introduce during grand jury proceedings, how it’s presented and who testifies.

“The prosecutor is free and should be allowed to adjust and consider the best course based on the circumstances,” Krane said.

The grand jury’s decision in November to not indict Wilson, who is white, touched off angry protests in Ferguson similar to the unrest that occurred in the St. Louis suburb immediately after Brown’s August death.

The death of Brown, who was black, also led to demonstrations in other cities and spawned a national movement seeking changes in how police deal with minorities.

Wilson resigned in November. The Justice Department later cleared him in the shooting but released a scathing report that cited racial bias and racial profiling in the Ferguson Police Department and in a profit-driven municipal court system that frequently targeted blacks.

Judge Walsh pointed to the Justice Department findings when responding to arguments in the activists’ case Friday.

“What better special prosecutor do we have than all the wealth and power of the United States Department of Justice?” Walsh asked. “I don’t know why I can’t rely on this as a substitute for a special prosecutor.”

Walsh questioned whether McCulloch, under the county’s charter, could be impeached or recalled from office – options that would make the lawsuit’s efforts to ultimately oust the prosecutor moot. Attorneys for the county and the activists said they had no immediate answer. The judge gave them until the next court date to do research and submit written arguments.

The hearing on Friday came a day after Brown’s parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Ferguson, Wilson and Ferguson’s former police chief. Attorneys for the family promised the case would bring to light new forensic evidence and raise doubts about the police version of events.

(St. Louis) (AP) – Passenger traffic is on the rise at Lambert Airport in St. Louis.

Airport officials say nearly 2.8 million passengers were served in the first three months of 2015, up 2 percent over the same period a year ago. Departures increased 1.5 percent and cargo flight activity rose 9.5 percent.

Ten airlines fly in and out of Lambert, serving 64 non-stop destinations.