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(Jefferson City) (AP) – The Missouri secretary of state is pushing a bill that would allow the state to keep human trafficking victims’ addresses secret.

Secretary of State Jason Kander on Tuesday announced legislation that would expand the Safe at Home program to cover those victims.

The program gives confidential addresses to survivors of domestic violence, rape and some other crimes. The aim is to prevent the victims’ assailants from tracking where they live and potentially harming them again.

Sex trafficking survivor and advocate Katie Rhoades says her pimp threatened her with violence before she escaped. She says the legislation could help other survivors who later worry about their own safety.

North Carolina, Washington, Oregon and Maryland have similar programs for human trafficking victims.

(Little Rock) (AP) – The Arkansas Department of Workforce Services says Arkansas’ unemployment rate declined two-tenths of a percentage point in December, from 5.9 percent in November to 5.7 percent.

The agency reported Tuesday Arkansas’ civilian labor force added 8,500 jobs during the month. That’s the result of 9,700 more people being employed and 1,200 fewer unemployed Arkansans.

Communications Director Becky Heflin says December’s increase in the number of Arkansans working marked the fourth consecutive month of employment gains for the state.

The Department of Workforce Services says that since December 2013, Arkansas’ nonfarm payroll employment has increased by 22,600. Eight major industry sectors have added jobs, while two sectors posted minor declines.

Meanwhile, the U.S. jobless rate declined two-tenths of a percentage point, from 5.8 percent in November to 5.6 percent last month.

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

(Little Rock) (AP) – A House panel has advanced Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s middle class tax cut package after restoring a portion of a capital gains tax break it would have repealed.

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee on Tuesday endorsed Hutchinson’s proposal to cut taxes by 1 percent for those making between $21,000 and $75,000 a year. The Senate approved the measure last week and it now heads to the full House.

The panel backed the measure after scaling back its proposal to repeal a capital gains tax break lawmakers approved two years ago. Restoring a portion of the break adds about $9.7 million to the cost of the legislation.

Hutchinson, a Republican who was sworn in earlier this month, campaigned on the middle class income tax proposal last year.

(ORN)

(ORN)

(Mountain Home) – The Baxter County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating the death of a 28-year-old man.

Deputies were called to a home in the 4100 block of Highway 177 South Sunday morning around 9:40 AM. The callers stated they had found their son, 28 year old Mason Seay, deceased in his bedroom from unknown causes.

Sheriff John Montgomery says that there is no indication of foul play at this time, and the body was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Little Rock to determine the cause and manner of death.

(Jefferson City) – Opening debate on priority legislation in the Missouri Senate is slated to start this week. Some of the bills to be debated in the near future include Senate Bills 12, 24, and 11, which related to agriculture, public assistance, and ethics reform, respectively.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, says these bills are ready for discussion and debate this week:

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Senate Minority Floor Leader Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis, adds the first attempts at Medicaid expansion could be made this year, at least for veterans:

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More information on the Missouri Senate can be found at senate.mo.gov.

(Thayer) – Ozark Self Reliant Living University’s 4th Annual Disaster Preparedness Seminar will be held this coming weekend.

OSLU organizer Mike Slack spoke with Ozark Radio News and talked about the event:

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Slack also talked about some of the topics that will be covered at both events:

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If you would like more information on the event, you can call 417-264-2435.

(Melbourne) – A new scholarship opportunity is now available to adult education students in north-central Arkansas.

The GED Walmart Scholarship will cover official GED testing fees, in full, if the student meets the required criteria, which includes being an adult education student (30 hour minimum), an Arkansas resident, and not earn more than 200 percent of the Federal poverty level. A student who has only one person in the family can make as much as $23,340 a year. As always required, the student must take and pass the section of the GED Ready test in which they are testing prior to official testing.

Students are encouraged to complete the scholarship application through the Baxter County Adult Education Center, as a signature from a certified Adult Education instructor is required prior to submitting application for the GED Walmart Scholarship.

Students who are awarded the scholarship may take the GED test free of charge at Baxter County Adult Education Center.

For additional information about free GED classes or use of the GED Walmart Scholarship, please call the Baxter County Adult Education Center at 870-425-7974.

(Little Rock) (AP) – Attorneys representing same-sex couples in Arkansas are objecting to the state’s request for new oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the state’s gay marriage ban.

Cheryl Maples and Jack Wagoner on Tuesday petitioned the Arkansas Supreme Court to deny the state’s motion submitted on Friday. They say the state’s request is unusual and that their clients cannot afford further delay.

A Pulaski County judge in May struck down a voter-approved 2004 constitutional amendment and earlier state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Justices held oral arguments in November but haven’t issued a ruling.

A federal judge struck down the ban in a separate case in November that is also being appealed.

by Marie French, AP

(Jefferson City) (AP) – Exempting financial institutions from a Missouri law governing advertising, merchandising and related lawsuits would leave individuals little recourse if they are mistreated, a state consumer protection official told lawmakers Monday.

The bill would exempt banks, credit unions and other lenders from civil lawsuits or action by the attorney general under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act. The financial institutions say the exemption is needed to address a recent increase in lawsuits against them.

But Joe Bindbeutel, director of the attorney general’s consumer protection division, told a House committee that the change would mean banks would have little reason to work with his office to resolve consumer complaints. That would mean consumers would have little recourse if their home was unlawfully foreclosed on or car improperly repossessed, he said.

“Our goal is to see individual consumers get restitution,” he said. “Most of the people that complain to us do not have access to other restitutions.”

The law prohibits fraud, deceptive advertising and omissions of fact in selling any merchandise and lays out a civil course of action for individuals when they are financially harmed. It also authorizes the state attorney general to take action against financial institutions if a state regulator refers a complaint to the office.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, creates a specific exemption for banks, credit unions and other financial institutions from both private civil and class actions and legal enforcement by the attorney general.

Missouri Credit Union Association lobbyist David Kent said that without a change, there could be a chilling effect on loans in Missouri.

Kent also said consumers have other legal protections, including federal laws. He said minor errors in forms or notices of a car being repossessed following a failure to keep up with payments could result in attorney’s fees and punitive damages adding up to “egregious” lawsuit awards.

“There are remedies already available for these types of violations,” Kent said. “It’s so broad in the way it’s interpreted. We’re not sure where it’s going to stop, and that’s what scares us to death.”

But Bindbeutel said regulators have little authority or resources to intervene in individual disputes. He noted that his office often resolved disputes without any lawsuit being filed and enjoyed a good relationship with banks and other institutions. However, without the authority to enforce the state law, he said it was unlikely lenders would be as willing to work out solutions for consumers.

Amy McLard, who also represents the Missouri Credit Union Association, said the group wants to address the concerns from the attorney general’s office about their enforcement ability.

House Banking Committee Chair Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, asked Bindbeutel whether consumers would be hurt if the law was not changed, suggesting that lenders would simply pass on any increased costs to consumers.

Bindbeutel said he thinks it would be tough pass to on the costs because the financial industry is extremely competitive.

Crawford said she wanted to address questions from committee members before acting on the bill and could not say when she would call for a vote on it.

by Summer Ballentine, AP

(Jefferson City) (AP) – Missouri spent $376,000 to fly commissioners to meetings across the state when hundreds of thousands of dollars could have been saved if they drove instead, according to a state audit released Monday.

Auditor Tom Schweich’s report noted the state paid too much for flights between 2012 and 2013, including the $376,000 spent on getting transportation and conservation commissioners to meetings.

The departments defended use of the planes in the audit report itself and said flights are necessary to transport members to meetings and other events.

Department of Transportation chief financial officer Roberta Broeker said commissioners live hours away from some meetings.

“You’re going to have to do something to make it just a little bit easier for them” to travel across the state to various locations, Broeker said.

The audit noted the transportation department plans to continue flying commissioners on state planes.

But Schweich said transportation and conservation were the only two departments that regularly flew commissioners. He recommended reimbursing them for mileage as a cheaper option.

“I drive everywhere,” Schweich said. “Other people can drive, too.”

Spouses, family members and former commissioners flew with commissioners on the planes, despite a state policy against that, the audit found. And although Schweich said departments are spending too much on chartered plane trips, overall use of the passenger fleet is low.

The state’s six passenger planes on average were used to full capacity only about 10 percent of the time between 2012 and 2013, according to the audit, and used about a third of the business days they were available.

Schweich said the fleet is needlessly large and suggested cutting down the number of planes to increase efficiency.

The audit follows the 2013 purchase of a $5.6 million passenger plane for state use. Lawmakers criticized Col. Ron Replogle of the Missouri Highway Patrol for its purchase. Replogle said it was necessary because of demand for use from state officials.

The governor’s office was the biggest user of the Highway Patrol-operated plane between 2012 and 2013, making up 208 of the 287 flights, according to the audit.

Gov. Jay Nixon said he plans to continue flying state planes and said they’re helpful “to make sure you can get to the areas of the state that you govern.”

The audit also called for the Highway Patrol and transportation and conservation departments to better coordinate and share flights.