(Ferguson) (AP) – Ferguson Mayor James Knowles says one police department employee was fired and two others are on administrative leave over racist emails uncovered in a Justice Department investigation into the city’s law enforcement practices.
Knowles’ comments at a press conference Wednesday were the first response from city leaders to the federal investigation that found systemic racial bias in law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Knowles read a brief statement but did not take questions. Police Chief Tom Jackson did not attend.
The Justice Department report said police work was focused on generating revenue from black residents from fines and fees, rather than protecting the community.
In a separate report released at the same time, the Justice Department cleared Darren Wilson, the white former officer who fatally shot Mike Brown in August.
by Summer Ballentine, AP
(Jefferson City) (AP) – A Missouri House panel has added money for K-12 schools and higher education to next year’s budget, including restoring $12 million for colleges and universities that Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon had recommended but which had been left out of previous proposals.
A House budget committee – the last stop for budget proposals before they head to the full House – approved a series of spending bills Tuesday night, including the additional education money and restrictions on funds for commissioners and the governor to fly on state planes.
Missouri’s 2016 budget year starts July 1.
An earlier draft of the legislative budget plan had dropped Nixon’s recommended $12 million increase for higher education.
But House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Flanigan, a Republican from Carthage, received committee approval Tuesday to amend that back into the spending measures. Typically, the committee requires amendments increasing spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere. No cut was paired with the $12 million more for higher education, and Flanigan said the money was “taken off the bottom line.”
Representatives also found an additional $4.2 million for basic K-12 school aid by cutting dues for the state’s membership to a testing group aligned with the national Common Core education standards.
Those standards have become divisive in national politics, drawing criticism from parents, conservatives and others who say they were adopted by states without enough local input.
A Cole County Circuit Court judge last week ruled Missouri’s membership to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium for Common Core was unconstitutional, prompting promises from House leaders to strip funding from the budget for membership to that testing group.
Other budget changes made by the committee include banning state money from being used to fly conservation and transportation commissioners around the state for meetings, as well as scaling back the amount of money available to pay for Nixon to fly on state planes.
Democrat Rep. Genise Montecillo, of St. Louis, criticized the use of taxpayer money for Nixon’s flights, particularly a trip to St. Louis on Thanksgiving week.
A grand jury, also that week, decided not to indict former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of black 18-year-old Michael Brown. Montecillo questioned whether Nixon made himself available to local leaders while he was in the area, although Nixon’s spokesman Scott Holste said the governor spent much of that time at a police command post near Ferguson.
Other notable changes include a provision that would prevent state colleges and universities from giving scholarships or in-state tuition to students with “an unlawful immigration status.”
by Marie French, AP
(Jefferson City) (AP) – While the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether premium health care insurance subsidies could be used in states that did not set up their own exchange, one Republican lawmaker told a Missouri Senate panel Wednesday that the state should bar such subsidies on its own.
Congressional action is needed to fully dismantle the Affordable Care Act, but the bill would be a first step, Sen. Bob Onder said. The Lake St. Louis Republican also said President Barack Obama’s administration was acting “lawlessly” in continuing to offer subsidies in states, including Missouri, which are using the federal government’s website.
“Obamacare has been and continues to be a major drag on the economy,” Onder said.
The bill bars insurers in Missouri from accepting subsidies from the federal government, while the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether people in every state can get tax subsidies to reduce the cost of health insurance premiums even if their state did not set up an independent health care exchange.
Opponents say that under the language in the federal health overhaul, only people living in states that created their own insurance exchanges qualify for those subsidies. The administration says doing away with the subsidies in roughly three-dozen states would set off a so-called death spiral for the health care law – declining enrollment, a growing proportion of less healthy people and premium increases by insurers.
Representatives from health care insurance companies Aetna and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield told those gathered at the Senate hearing they opposed the bill because it could create a situation where there were two sets of laws.
“We just need to let the court decide,” said David Smith, director of governmental affairs for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Missouri.
Groups who oppose the bill said it would take away health care from middle-class Missouri residents and make it more difficult or impossible for them to find other coverage.
Advocates said 217,000 Missouri residents purchased health care on the exchange with the help of a federal subsidy in 2015 and 70 percent of those residents, or 152,000, would not be able to afford other coverage, according to a RAND study.
“I don’t know how we could call that freedom, taking away preventive care and life saving health care when they need it,” Missouri Health Care For All director Jen Bersdale said.
by Marie French, AP
(Jefferson City) (AP) – The Missouri House gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill to reinstate limits on how much juries can award in noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases against health care providers.
Supporters said the limits, approved 101-53, are needed to make sure doctors do not leave the state because of increasing insurance costs. Bill sponsor Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said without caps the state would have fewer specialists and that higher insurance costs for doctors would inevitably be passed on to patients.
The bill caps noneconomic damages, including pain and suffering, at $350,000. The cap would not limit economic damages such as lost wages or medical bills resulting from the wrongdoing.
The state previously had caps that were overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2012. The bill creates a statutory cause of action for medical malpractice cases, which Burlison said would keep the new cap in line with the court’s ruling.
Burlison said more lawsuits, especially frivolous ones, would be filed without caps.
“When there’s no limit on what the jury could award you, it’s like the lottery system,” Burlison said, adding that more people would file lawsuits in hopes of getting a big payout.
Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, said if that argument was correct then there would have been a spike in the number of lawsuits after the August 2012 Supreme Court decision. However, there was not an increase in filed lawsuits, according to the latest report from Missouri’s Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration, which includes data through 2013.
Burlison said it may take more time for the number and size of awards to begin to increase and the effects to be felt in the medical malpractice insurance market.
Opponents said the bill harms people who have been hurt by negligent doctors. Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, said the bill places a limit on the value of an individual’s life and that she trusted juries to make the right decision in awarding damages.
“I believe in the sanctity of human life,” Solon said. “I believe you cannot place a price tag on the life of anyone.”
The House must give final approval to the measure before it goes to the Senate.
(Little Rock) (AP) – A Senate panel has advanced legislation requiring Arkansas to seek federal approval to freeze enrollment in the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion, despite state officials saying such a move isn’t possible.
The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill requiring the state to seek federal approval by the end of the year to halt enrollment in the “private option.” Under the private option, Arkansas is using federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.
The Legislature voted last month to reauthorize the program another year.
State officials have said the federal government has told them freezing enrollment in the program isn’t possible, but supporters of the bill say they still want the state to make a formal request.
(Pierce City) (AP) – Students in two southwest Missouri school districts will no longer attend school on Mondays starting next school year.
Students in Miller and Pierce City will have four-day school weeks and Stockton also is considering a Tuesday through Friday schedule.
The Miller school board approved the change on Monday and Pierce City officially accepted the shorter week on Feb. 18.
The 153-day year will include longer days so students will have the same amount of instructional time.
Pierce City Superintendent Russ Moreland wrote in a letter to the community that he understands that people are concerned that shortening the week will impact child care, and that making the decision was not easy for the board.
“The district further realizes that this decision is not supported by everyone in our community and respects the different opinions and thoughts by all patrons,” wrote Moreland following the vote. “We simply feel at this time that moving in this direction provides numerous benefits to the district both in the short and long term.”
The Springfield News-Leader reports the leaders of the school districts say the shorter week will help save money, better engage students and retain quality teachers.
“Utilizing every minute of instructional time is important and keeping students on task and engaged will be important. The teachers have expressed excitement for the opportunity to allow students additional time to complete projects and have deep discussions and lessons during one complete instructional time,” said Miller Superintendent Tracey Hankins.
Miller officials believe that the district will save up to $175,000, and that their need to pay for substitutes will be reduced because training can be scheduled when students are not in school.
In the late 2000s, Missouri passed a law that allowed four-day weeks and gave districts more flexibility in how they structure their calendars. The school year still must include at least 1,044 hours.
(St. Louis) (AP) – Another round of winter weather is hammering parts of Missouri – again.
Freezing rain and snow were falling in several areas of the state, with southern Missouri taking the worst of it. Several school districts called off classes as freezing rain fell Wednesday in the Springfield area.
Snow was falling in St. Louis and in southeast Missouri. Forecasters were calling for up to 8 inches of snow in some southern Missouri counties. Roads were slippery by midday Wednesday, with several accidents reported.
The wintry weather should be short-lived. Most areas of the state are expected to see temperatures in the 50s by the weekend.
(Little Rock) (AP) – A federal judge says she won’t allow same-sex marriages in Arkansas while the issue is pending before an appeals court.
Lawyers claim gay couples are suffering continuing harm by not being allowed to marry. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker struck down Arkansas’ ban against same-sex marriages in November but issued a stay pending an appeal. The same-sex couples asked Baker to lift the stay, but the judge said Wednesday court rules won’t let her.
In a brief order, Baker said lifting the stay could change the status quo while the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers Arkansas’ appeal. She also said that, even without the prohibition, she would keep the stay in place because the 8th Circuit refused to vacate a stay in a similar case from Missouri.
(Little Rock) (AP) – Arkansas House members want to force a constitutional convention to take up a federal balanced budget amendment.
The body voted 54-32 Wednesday to join with other states calling for a constitutional convention. The convention application would be submitted once 38 states have joined the compact.
Republican Rep. Nate Bell of Mena said his proposal is needed because the nation faces a debt crisis. Supporters say two states have already joined and the legislation is pending before several others.
Opponents worry that the convention could waste taxpayer money or result in unwanted changes to the U.S. Constitution.
The bill now heads to the Senate.
(West Plains) – Howell County Public Water Supply District #2 has issued a boil water order.
The order affects Junction Hill Route 2 system patrons west of BB Highway. Those residents need to boil their water until further notice. The advisory does not include patrons in the area southwest of West Plains or patrons of the Brandsville system.
The order was issued due to maintenance being done to repair a line leak.
Customers should vigorously boil water for three minutes prior to use for cooking or drinking. Water does not need to be boiled for bathing. Customers can also add one teaspoon of bleach to each gallon of water to use for cleaning or disinfecting.