Whether you are hosting the family Christmas, or traveling across the country to be with loved ones, I hope you have time this holiday season to enjoy the company of those closest to you. While we never want to overlook the true meaning and significance of the Christmas holiday, it’s also the time of the year when we reconnect with our loved ones; enjoy watching the excitement in our children’s eyes as they open presents; and simply relax for a few moments as we put our worries aside and appreciate the many blessings we have been given. Yes, the merry-christmas-cardnew gadgets and toys can be nice, but Christmas is really a time to thank God for all that he has given us. While the commercialized version of Christmas sometimes clouds the holiday’s true meaning, I hope all of you will remember it is much more than just a day to give and receive gifts.
I hope this Christmas is filled with joy and warmth for you and your family. I wish you safe travels if you are visiting loved ones and wish the same for those who may be coming to stay with you. At the same time as we prepare for this greatest of holidays, I also ask us to remember there are many Missourians who are not as fortunate. They won’t have the luxury of the companionship of family and friends, a warm fire with stockings hung on the mantle, or even a simple meal. I ask you to keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this holiday season. We are all so very blessed to have the many riches that we do. Please take the time this Christmas to give thanks for all that you have regardless of how plentiful or meager it may be.
Thank you again for your support and may you all have a Merry Christmas.
Unemployment Reaches Six-Year Low
The holiday season brought with it the gift of good news as we saw our state unemployment rate drop to its lowest level more than six years. The Missouri Department of Economic Development released data this week showing the jobless rate in Missouri is now down to 5.6 percent from 5.9 percent in October. This figure is significantly better than last year’s rate at this time of 6.1 percent, and actually represents the lowest unemployment rate our state has seen since May 2008. This is great news as we continue to work to put Missourians back to work and to stimulate our economy.
Legislative Committee Begins Investigation into Ferguson Unrest
While the State Capitol is now trimmed with Christmas decorations and the sounds of Christmas music can often be heard through the halls, there is still serious work taking place in our seat of government. Last week the Joint Committee on Government Accountability met in Jefferson City to begin its investigation into the way the unrest in Ferguson was handled by the governor.
As we all saw as we watched the news, the protests in Ferguson turned violent as protestors began looting and setting fires. Now, as a community tries to rebuild from the destruction, it is time to gain answers; in particular as to why the governor did not use National Guard troops to prevent the chaos.
The first meeting of the committee was more organizational in nature and the deeper investigation will commence in the coming days. However, what we know so far is that the committee plans to conduct a robust investigation into the response, or lack thereof, of the Missouri National Guard in Ferguson. Second, state employees will be afforded whistleblower protection should they have information they feel needs to reach the committee. And, third, the committee has the authority to subpoena information and receive testimony under oath should the Executive branch be non-cooperative.
All of these things will contribute to what I hope will be a comprehensive and productive investigation that will give Missourians the answers they deserve regarding what we saw transpire in Ferguson. As the committee continues its work, I will keep you updated on their findings.
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 email@example.com .
Researching Christmas through the lens of American History has been interesting and enjoyable for me. During Colonial times, the Day of Christmas was somewhat contentious. There were some that wanted to carry on this tradition as was celebrated in Great Britain. To others, that was reason enough not to commemorate it. The first U.S. Congress–the exact one that petitioned Washington to set a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin’,” worked on December 25th, 1789. In the 1830′s, some state legislatures began to change this trend by enacting laws to designate this holiday. It wasn’t until 1870, though, that President Grant compelled Congress to set the date of December 25th as Christmas Day. After the turn of the century, the Missouri Legislature followed and enacted section 9.010, which states, with a number of other dates, “The first day of January,…and the twenty-fifth of December, are declared and established public holidays…” Recently, in 2013, the General Assembly passed section 9.015, which reads, “No state or local governmental entity, public building, public park, public school, or public setting or place shall ban or otherwise restrict the practice, mention, celebration, or discussion of any federal holiday.” May you have a blessed and Merry Christmas!
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”–Isaiah 9:6
(St. Louis) (AP) – Missouri Congressman Jason Smith has written to President Barack Obama to push for the completion of a Missouri Bootheel region levee after concerns were raised about the project.
The $165 million New Madrid Floodway would close a quarter-mile-long gap in the southern end of a network of levees to protect rich Missouri agricultural land from frequent flooding from the Mississippi River. Smith’s letter was sent Wednesday, one day after community leaders said the project would cause greater flooding concerns in Cairo, Illinois, and other predominantly black communities in the region, the Southeast Missourian reports.
In another letter to Obama, nearly 100 environmental groups renewed their longstanding concern that the project would threaten wetlands and habitat for fish and wildlife. That letter suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency use its authority to veto the project through a rarely used provision in the Clean Water Act.
Smith, however, urged the president to “resist any requests” to use an EPA veto. He said the people of Southeast Missouri have spent 60 years waiting for the floodway project and “do not appreciate being held hostage by a radical environmentalist agenda.”
Smith also said he reviewed many of the letters written to the president Tuesday and said many expressing their opposition were from the Kansas City, Missouri, area and did not live in the affected region.
As for the concerns the project will increase flooding dangers in Southern Illinois, Smith said this belief is “unfounded and not based in science.” He also expressed concern that interference by the president would “derail” the project.
“The Corps of Engineers has repeatedly determined that this project creates no additional risk of flooding to upstream or downstream communities,” he wrote.
A final environmental impact statement must be formulated before a decision is made whether to proceed.
By PETER ORSI and PAUL HAVEN
(Havana) (AP) – To many exiles and their allies, President Raul Castro is a brutal dictator who locks up dissenters in gulag-like jails, snuffs out political discourse and condemns his people to socialist poverty.
Cuba’s supporters see the government as heroic, its sins justified by the behavior of its giant enemy to the north, and offset by the fact it provides health care and education that most developing countries could only dream of.
As often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
President Barack Obama said on Friday that he began his historic call with Castro earlier in the week by delivering a 15-minute lecture on human rights and political freedom, adding: “This is still a regime that oppresses its people.”
Even so, he said that US policy had failed to change Cuba for more than a half century and it was time to try something new.
Human rights activists welcomed the overhaul of US-Cuba relations, but added that the Communist government has much to answer for, including a denial of freedom of speech, the banning of independent labor unions and a lack of fair and competitive elections.
“I believe that President Obama is making the right decision, but that does not mean that our serious human rights concerns with regard to Cuba have gone away,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. He said the abuses were “part of state policy, systematic and widespread.”
Castro has defended the single-party political system, saying open elections would be tantamount to “legalizing the party or parties of imperialism on our soil.”
Accusations of human rights abuses have dogged the Cuban government since the beginning, starting with summary trials and executions after the 1959 revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose regime committed its own abuses, including torture, executions and persecution of the press.
In the years that followed, priests, gay people and others considered socially dangerous were sent to labor camps in the countryside, and political opponents were jailed or forced into exile.
The panorama has undoubtedly shifted in recent years, particularly since Fidel Castro handed power to his brother in 2006.
In 2010, Raul Castro negotiated a deal with the Roman Catholic Church and Spain to free the last of 75 political dissidents who had been rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to long jail terms, and he has allowed more church freedom on the island, building on the opening worked out between Fidel and Pope John Paul II.
Amnesty International counts five Cuban inmates as “prisoners of conscience,” down sharply from years past, though Marselha Goncalves Margerin, the group’s advocacy director for the Americas, said Amnesty has campaigned for others that don’t meet its strict definition.
“Cuba has always used the excuse of the U.S. embargo and restrictions to crack down on dissidents,” she said. “Once this is removed, we do hope this will generate human rights changes.”
As part of this week’s deal with the United States, Castro agreed to free 53 people the White House describes as dissidents, though their identities have not been released. It was not clear if any of those on Amnesty’s list were among them.
Elizardo Sanchez, one of the only independent human rights activists tolerated on the island, said he has been getting calls from inmates asking him if he has a list and whether they’re on it, but he’s had to say he doesn’t know. There’s been no evidence of any mass release, he said.
Sanchez also welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, despite what he described as a sharp increase in acts of harassment and intimidation.
While the government has moved away from sentencing dissidents to long jail terms, he said that short-term detentions have spiked under Raul Castro, from 2,074 in 2010 to 8,410 through the first 11 months of this year. Cuban authorities dismiss his findings as a fiction, and consider the dissidents to be paid stooges of Washington.
While the Castro government has not budged on the issue of a one-party state, Vivanco says that Cuba’s rights problems aren’t in the same league as a country such as North Korea, and says there has been movement on some key issues such as freedom of travel that was tightly controlled under Fidel Castro.
Prominent dissidents such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez have been allowed to travel under the reforms, using their trips to speak out against government policy.
The younger Castro has opened the island to some private enterprise, and allowed Cubans to own cellphones and computers. Rights for the LGBT community have also advanced under Raul Castro, whose daughter is the island’s most prominent advocate for gay rights. The government’s free universal health care system now pays for gender reassignment surgery, and gay pride parades are an annual fixture.
Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida International University, acknowledged progress on some issues like freedom of religion, but added that Raul Castro largely shared the attitudes of his brother.
“Since Raul took over, repressive strategies have become more subtle, not necessarily less brutal,” he said.
Elizardo Sanchez warned against believing that an improving relationship between Washington and Havana would change much on the human rights front.
“I don’t think there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the normalization of relations between the countries and the necessary implementation of reforms by the Cuban government,” he said.
Obama concurred, saying he did not expect improvements overnight.
By HYUNG-JIN KIM
(Seoul) (AP) – North Korea on Saturday proposed a joint investigation with the U.S. into the hacking attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, warning of “serious” consequences if Washington rejects a probe that it believes would prove Pyongyang had nothing to do with the cyberattack.
The proposal was seen by analysts as a typical ploy by the North to try to show that it is sincere, even though it knows the U.S. would never accept its offer for a joint investigation.
U.S. officials blame North Korea for the hacking, citing the tools used in the Sony attack and previous hacks linked to the North, and have vowed to respond. The break-in resulted in the disclosure of tens of thousands of confidential Sony emails and business files, and escalated to threats of terror attacks against U.S. movie theaters that caused Sony to cancel the Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On Saturday, an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang proposed the joint investigation with the U.S., saying the North knows how to prove it’s not responsible for the hacking. He also said Washington was slandering Pyongyang by spreading unfounded rumors.
“The U.S. should bear in mind that it will face serious consequences in case it rejects our proposal for joint investigation and presses for what it called countermeasures while finding fault with” North Korea, the spokesman said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.
“We have a way to prove that we have nothing to do with the case without resorting to torture, as the CIA does,” he said, adding that the U.S. lacks any specific evidence tying North Korea to the hacking.
The White House had no immediate comment Saturday.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, called the North’s proposal a “typical” tactic the country has taken in similar disputes with rival countries. In 2010, North Korea proposed a joint investigation after a South Korean-led international team concluded that the North was behind a torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors, though Pyongyang denied its involvement. South Korea rejected the North’s offer for the joint probe.
“They are now talking about a joint investigation because they think there is no conclusive evidence,” Koh said. “But the U.S. won’t accede to a joint investigation for the crime.”
On Friday, President Barack Obama declared that Sony “made a mistake” in shelving the satirical film about a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader, and pledged that the U.S. would respond “in a place and manner and time that we choose” to the hacking attack on Sony that led to the movie’s withdrawal.
“I wish they had spoken to me first. … We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship,” Obama said at a year-end news conference, speaking of executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Sony said it had had no choice but to cancel distribution of the movie because theaters were refusing to show it.
U.S. options for acting against North Korea are limited. The U.S. already has severe trade sanctions in place, and there is no appetite for military action. Even if investigators could identify and prosecute the individual hackers believed responsible, there’s no guarantee that any located are overseas would ever see a U.S. courtroom. Hacking back at North Korean targets by U.S. government experts could encourage further attacks against American targets.
North Korea and the U.S. remain in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The rivals also are locked in an international standoff over the North’s nuclear and missile programs and its alleged human rights abuses.
Earlier Saturday, North Korea angrily denounced a move by the United Nations to bring its human rights record before the Security Council and renewed its threat to further bolster its nuclear deterrent against what it called a hostile policy by the U.S. to topple its ruling regime.
Pyongyang “vehemently and categorically rejects” the resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly that could open the door for its leaders, including Kim Jong Un, to be hauled before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, according to a Foreign Ministry statement carried by KCNA.
The Security Council is due to meet Monday to discuss Pyongyang’s human rights situation for the first time.
The meeting caps almost a year of international pressure, and even though ally China could use its veto power to block any action against the North, the nonbinding resolution has broad support in the General Assembly and has drawn unusually strong and vitriolic protests from Pyongyang.
By MARY CLARE JALONICK
(Washington) (AP) – Health officials are warning consumers to avoid prepackaged caramel apples because they are linked to four deaths and more than two dozen illnesses in 10 states.
Caramel apples are most popular around Halloween, and the outbreak started just before then, in mid-October. But the commercially produced variety can have a shelf life of a month or more, and some may still be on store shelves.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it knows of 28 cases in which people were sickened with the same strains of the bacterial illness listeria, and at least 26 were hospitalized. Of those, five died. Listeriosis contributed to four of the deaths; a fifth person who died had a strain of listeria linked to the caramel apples, but health officials do not think listeriosis caused that person’s death.
The agency said that 83 percent of the ill people who were interviewed reported eating commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples before getting sick.
The CDC said the investigation into the deaths and illnesses is “rapidly evolving.” Christopher Braden, an epidemiologist at the CDC, said the agency is still trying to determine which brands are involved and how caramel apples may have become infected. He said there is no reason at this point to stop eating plain apples or other caramel products.
Two of the deaths were in Minnesota, and health officials in that state said those who fell ill there purchased the caramel apples from the stores Cub Foods, Kwik Trip, and Mike’s Discount Foods. Those stores carried Carnival brand and Kitchen Cravings brand caramel apples, none of which are still available for purchase, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. They said other brands and store locations may be impacted as the investigation continues.
The CDC said the other two deaths were in Texas and California. The agency said illnesses also occurred in Arizona, California, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. Missouri and New Mexico had the most illnesses, with five each.
It was unclear if listeriosis was the primary cause of the Texan’s death, said Christine Mann, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Listeria is a foodborne illness that is especially dangerous to pregnant women, newborn babies, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It rarely causes serious illness in healthy people and can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea.
Because it can be so serious for some people, outbreaks of listeria generally cause more deaths than other pathogens such as salmonella or E. coli. An outbreak of listeria linked to Colorado cantaloupe in 2011 caused 33 deaths.
The CDC said that the outbreak linked to the caramel apples began Oct. 17 and the last known illnesses started Nov. 27. The agency said illnesses that have occurred since early December may not have been reported yet. Those sickened have included infants and older children and others as old as 92.
Nine of the illnesses involved either a pregnant woman or an infant, the CDC said. Listeria is dangerous for pregnant women because the illness can be passed to an unborn baby even if the mother is not showing signs of illness. It can sicken a newborn or lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery or stillbirth. The CDC said no miscarriages or fetal losses were reported in this outbreak.
Unusually, three cases of meningitis linked to the listeria were reported in older children, the agency said. Those three children were not among the deaths, Braden said, but the CDC is “very concerned” that those cases occurred in otherwise healthy children. While listeria can infect newborns, “usually we would not see this kind of infection in healthy older children,” Braden said.
Braden said there may have been more illnesses in children because kids are more likely to eat caramel apples, or possibly because the apples were heavily contaminated.
He said anyone with commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples at home should throw them away, taking care to wrap them up well so animals or people going through trash don’t eat them.
(Little Rock) (AP) – A record number of students have been accepted into the Arkansas Rural Nursing Education Consortium.
The consortium is a group of eight community colleges that collaborate to provide students an opportunity for an associate degree in Registered Nursing.
This is the first year that the program has accepted 280 students. Classes start in January and will include course work as well as on-site clinical work in nursing homes, hospitals and clinics.
The program is fully approved by the Arkansas State Board of Nursing and the eight colleges that comprise the consortium typically graduates about 225 students each year.
The students earn an Associate Registered Nursing degree and are then eligible to take the examination that a student must pass in Arkansas in order to receive his or her nursing license.
(Kansas City) (AP) – A Missouri school district has apologized to the family of a blind student whose cane was replaced with a swimming pool noodle after he allegedly misbehaved on the bus.
Rachel Nafzinger tells WDAF-TV that school officials took the cane from her 8-year-old son, Dakota, on Monday. North Kansas City School District spokeswoman Michelle Cronk says the boy reportedly hit someone with his cane on the bus and that officials gave him the pool noodle as a substitute because he fidgets and needed something to hold.
The 8-year-old was born without eyes, a condition known as bilateral anophthalmia.
The district released a statement Wednesday that acknowledges making a mistake. His mother says school officials visited their home Wednesday morning, returned the cane and apologized to the family.
By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
(St. Louis) (AP) – In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, legal activists suggested that some of the raw anger in suburban St. Louis had its roots in an unlikely place – traffic court.
It was there, they said, that low-income drivers sometimes saw their lives upended by minor infractions that led to larger problems. If left unpaid, a $75 ticket for driving with expired tags could eventually bring an arrest warrant and even jail time.
So courts began an experimental amnesty program designed to give offenders a second chance by waiving those warrants. But the effort is attracting relatively few participants, despite a renewed emphasis on municipal court reform after Brown’s death last summer in Ferguson.
St. Louis County’s jumble of more than 80 municipal courts has been targeted by some public-interest lawyers who say the courts are virtual debtors prisons, extracting fines and fees from poor drivers and using the money to fund local governments, which in some cases serve just a few hundred residents.
“They make people poor, and they keep people poor,” said Thomas Harvey of the nonprofit legal clinic ArchCity Defenders, which is suing Ferguson and six other small cities, alleging they collect illegal court fees.
On Thursday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced a lawsuit targeting 13 St. Louis County municipal courts over financial reporting requirements. Later in the day, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay planned to announce a new effort to give municipal judges more discretion to consider violators’ ability to pay when handling traffic offenses.
Critics of the traffic courts describe prolonged legal nightmares that can begin with tickets for driving with a suspended license or without proof of required inspections, what Harvey called “crimes of poverty.”
Defendants unable to pay those fines or hire an attorney to negotiate a plea deal may then miss their court dates or fail to sign up for payment plans. Judges issue failure-to-appear warrants, which can lead to larger fines and court costs and even jail time on top of the original penalties, not to mention time missed from work or school.
Robert Lamont Douglas, 39, was recently issued five citations in the village of Bel-Ridge for traffic violations that included driving without insurance and failing to register his car.
“The main question was, `Am I wanted or do I have drugs in the car?’” Douglas said. “I was singled out because I was black. The assumption is I must have warrants, drugs or guns.”
A 2013 report by Koster’s office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as frequently as white motorists but were also less likely to find contraband among black drivers.
The amnesty program in the city of St. Louis allows defendants who face arrest for failing to appear in municipal court to reschedule those hearings without penalty. But it has attracted fewer than 4,000 participants out of 75,000 who are eligible, despite an aggressive outreach campaign.
“It’s a matter of trust,” said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chairman of the state’s Ferguson Commission, on the low amnesty participation rates. “It’s something that has to be rebuilt over time.”
The story is similar in St. Louis County, where just a few hundred people have opted for an amnesty program that requires a $100 payment to wipe out traffic-court arrest warrants. Both efforts continue through the end of the year.
In Ferguson, the city no longer issues failure-to-appear warrants and is dismissing the charge in pending cases. Elected officials in September voted to cap municipal court revenues at 15 percent of the city’s total revenue. They also eliminated a fee for towing cars and forgave warrants for nearly 600 defendants.
Municipal courts in St. Louis and St. Louis County collected nearly half of the $132 million in fines and fees paid statewide, despite the area being home to fewer than 1 in 4 Missourians, according to an October study by the nonprofit group Better Together.
More than $45 million – or 34 percent – of that amount came from the county’s municipal courts, even though their combined population represents just 11 percent of the statewide total.
Fourteen of those cities – including Vinita Terrace, population 277, and Bellerive, population 188 – depend on traffic-court fees and fines as their largest source of revenue, eclipsing sales and property taxes. Each lies in the predominantly black inner suburbs known as North County.
In Calverton Park, a seven-officer police force helped generate $484,000 in fines in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. That’s almost 65 percent of the annual revenue for a city with fewer than 1,300 residents, some 40 percent of whom are black.
Without revenue from fines and fees, the communities could not afford to operate, the study concluded. “The municipal courts in many areas of St Louis have lost the faith of their communities,” it said.
Among the recommended changes to Missouri’s municipal courts is a rule that would limit them to providing 10 percent of the revenue for local government, compared with the current limit of 30 percent – a threshold that is rarely enforced. The Missouri Municipal League says such a limit would bankrupt many of its smaller members.
Vestiges of a court system unaccustomed to outside scrutiny persist.
On Monday, court officials and St. Louis marshals ordered an Associated Press reporter to leave the municipal courthouse during an open court docket, despite state laws that generally allow for public access to legal proceedings with limited exceptions.
Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis mayor, later said the exclusion was a mistake.
(Centralia) (AP) – Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is planning to hold a summit to brainstorm ways to beef up the state’s cattle industry.
Nixon announced the summit during a Wednesday visit with Future Farmers of America members at Centralia High School. It’s meant to find ways to expand the industry and spur economic development in rural Missouri.
A statement from the governor’s office says Missouri is ranked second for its large numbers of beef cows, but 95 percent of the cattle are finished and processed in other states.
Industry stakeholders will meet Jan. 5 at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Cattle genetics experts from the university, national beef packers and cattlemen will speak at the summit.