Capitol Report, March 25, 2011

In Legislative News, Missouri Press News On
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+ Audio report from Alysha Love for the week of March 21. Report previews top issues for the chambers as they return from legislative spring break. [Entered: 03/25/2011]

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+ safety could plummet with inadequate funding, transportation department says [Entered: 03/22/2011]

The Missouri Department of Transportation has used up all its federal funds for roads, bridges and highways and is searching for money to make up for a budget that has been halved.

The Transportation Department’s previous highway budget was $1.2 billion, but it has been cut to an estimated $662 million. The department reported traffic-related fatalities are down by 12 percent from last year, but said a cut of nearly half its budget could affect this statistic.

Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission Chairman Grace Nichols said she is seeking additional aid for the lack of highway funds.

Nichols said she’s still searching for a funding source, “whether it’s legislation or whether it is turning to the private industry for help or looking very hard at our entire organization and see if there are ways to cut spending,” she said.

The transportation department has already cut a total of 300 employees to adjust to the slimmer budget, she said, but other measures will be taken also.

Former Commission Chairman Bill McKenna said one of those measures will be less upkeep of the safety amenities that he credits with keeping the death toll down. In 2009, the department reported road-related fatalities dropped from 1,250 to 830.

“That’s 400 people that got home to their families that evening that may not have without these safety things going on,” McKenna said.

McKenna also said the federal money was used for safety precautions, such as reflective striping on roads and rumble strips.

He said if additional money is not provided, state roads will begin to deteriorate.

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+ The state auditor charges agencies are not properly tracking federal funds. [Entered: 03/24/2011]

State Auditor Tom Schweich said Thursday (March 24) that several state agencies have failed to properly track how they are using federal funds.

Although his audit did not disclose any specific wrong-doing, Schweich said the possibility for problems could not be ruled out.

“It’s more than shoddy paperwork,” Schweich said at a news conference announcing his audit’s findings. “Because when there’s inadequate documentation, which is what I would prefer to call it, you don’t know if there’s waste, fraud or abuse because there’s not adequate documentation.”

Schweich’s audit sampled a variety of programs that got one-time federal stimulus funds along with regular, annual federal support.

Each year, the state gets billions of dollars for programs that cover welfare, health care, education and highways.

+ Arizona shooter to be transferred to Springfield for mental evaluation [Entered: 03/22/2011]

Federal Judge Larry Burns issued an order Monday (March 21) that accused Tuscon shooter Jared Loughner be transferred to a Springfield, Mo., facility for mental evaluation by April 29.

Loughner is charged with 49 counts, including the murders of a federal judge and five others as well as the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

Burns announced the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, which is part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is the most accommodating mental health unit to evaluate Loughner on whether he was sane at the time of the shooting and if he is sound enough to stand trial.

Loughner’s public defender, Judy Clarke, issued a court filing that said moving Loughner could make his mental state worse, as he would have no contact with his defense during his stay in Missouri.

A spokeswoman for the Springfield facility said the facility’s mental health unit treats roughly 300 of the 1,100 inmates who are housed at the facility or transferred there.

State Rep. Charlie Denison, R-Springfield, said transferring federal prisoners to the Springfield facility is not unusual.

“It is a hospital as well as a prison where a lot of those prisoners are ill … and the evaluation of prisoners is done there quite often,” he said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Loughner’s possible transfer.

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+ Lawmakers contemplate ending teacher tenure in Missouri [Entered: 03/23/2011]

Missouri’s lawmakers introduced a bill that would eliminate teacher tenure and change the way teachers are evaluated and paid.

Currently, it takes a Missouri teacher five years to gain tenure, which is longer than any other state.

Once a teacher is given tenure, he or she cannot be removed from a school district without a legitimate reason for termination. According to teachers and administrators, teacher tenure provides greater protection for teachers.

Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, sponsored the bill that would ultimately eliminate teacher tenure in Missouri.

Dieckhaus and the bill’s supporters said this bill would prevent districts from having to keep ineffective teachers in their schools because of tenure.

According to Todd Fuller, the spokesperson for Missouri State Teacher’s Association, the five-year period before a teacher gains tenure is crucial. He says during this period administrators evaluate teachers and then determine whether  they should be given tenure.

“What happens in that process or during that time is teachers have already, No. 1, decided if want to stay in that particular district or, No. 2, they and the administration have decided if that district is a good fit for that particular teacher,” he said.

Another major change under this bill would be the way teachers are evaluated. Student performance would determine 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, and the teacher’s pay would change accordingly.

Russell Smithson from Warrensburg has been a third grade teacher for 12 years. He said basing pay on student scores stifles teacher collaboration.

“If their pay is going to be based off of that, Susie down the hall is not going to share with Jim across the hall what she’s doing in her classroom that works really well,” Smithson said.

Missouri lawmakers expect to continue this debate over education reform throughout the legislative session.

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+ Missouri to receive federal funds for February snowstorm [Entered: 03/23/2011]

President Barack Obama signed a declaration Wednesday (March 23) declaring Missouri’s February snowstorm a major disaster.

The declaration makes federal funding available to local governments to help finance costs within the 59 counties hit by the storm. The amount of aid Missouri will receive is unknown, though the state’s original request was for $14 million.

The funding came one day after Obama approved $64 million in aid to cover the costs incurred during Illinois’ winter storm.

+. Louis police officers file suit against coming ballot measures  [Entered: 03/24/2011]

Leaders of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association filed a lawsuit Thursday (March 24) alleging that the ballot measures asking voters to transfer control of the St. Louis Police to the city are deceptive.

The suit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, said the measures include misleading language that inflates the estimated savings to the city.

“There’s just no clear answers. They’re dealing with fuzzy math here,” said Jeff Roorda, a spokesman for the association. “It’s a power grab by the folks across the street in city hall to try to control the police department.”

In the meantime, lawmakers are considering their own bills to transfer police control to St. Louis for the first time since the Civil War. Missouri’s House of Representatives passed the bill last month despite opponents’ objections.

“People here in the city of St. Louis want local control and are going to continue fighting for local control until they get it,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.

Although not promising a veto, Gov. Jay Nixon has said he’s not convinced about the measure’s benefits, if it clears the legislature.

The bill in the legislature does not include transferring control of Kansas City police from the state to that city, but the ballot measures do, Nasheed said.

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+ Missouri small businesses gain access to $27 million from federal lending program [Entered: 03/22/2011]

The U.S. Department of the Treasury and Gov. Jay Nixon announced on Tuesday (March 22) Missouri’s application for State Small Business Credit Initiative funds were approved.

Missouri will have access to nearly $27 million for small business lending loans beginning next month. The loan program is intended to create jobs and stimulate small business growth.

Nixon said funds will create more than $270 million in additional small business lending.

Missouri’s plan dedicates nearly $17 million to promote the formation and growth of high-tech businesses, with the remaining $10 million for industrial, agricultural and recreational programs.

David Ross, deputy district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Kansas City, said the funding program will stimulate Missouri’s economy and create jobs.

“It’s going to flow right back to small business and create jobs,” Ross said. “We’re all in favor of anything that is going to help us in that direction.”

Missouri businesses with fewer than 500 employees can begin applying for the loans on April 8.

The credit initiative program is part of President Barack Obama’s Small Business Jobs Act of 2010.

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+ Education reform supporters look to expand charter schools [Entered: 03/23/2011]

Chris Howard is 18-years-old and homeless.

His stepfather has shot and stabbed him, in addition to other abuses in the past. Howard lives at Youth In Need, a homeless shelter in St. Charles. He became a student at Shearwater High School in March, and said he now realizes how important his new charter school is for better education.

Charter schools are schools that receive public money, are sponsored by an outside organization and are attended by choice. They’re operated by outside organizations rather than the state, so the schools can set some of their own rules and regulations.

Shearwater High School is a charter school that helps homeless children get back into school. Its president, Stephanie Krauss, said homeless children that move from shelter to shelter have a hard time joining a school because of their ever-changing addresses.

Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, sponsored a bill that would allow charter schools to be started anywhere in the state and expand who is eligible to sponsor a charter school.

“Parents need options,” Jones said. “When we go to a restaurant and we don’t like the food, we use the choice of our dollar to go somewhere else. Why should we have to accept the education system as it is?”

Rep. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, also sponsored a bill that would allow charter schools to adjust graduation requirements for their specific schools.

Western Michigan University education professor Gary Miron has been studying school choice programs in Europe and the United States for more than two decades.

He said he’s an opponent to charter schools with negative results. Through his research, he’s found that most cases throughout the country have led to some schools not integrating students, which can lead to charter schools with only low-income or only high-income students.

Rep. Joe Aull, D-Marshall, said he’s also opposed to expanding charter schools outside the state’s major cities because many of the charter schools in Kansas City and St. Louis are not performing at an acceptable level.

“I just can’t see expanding them in a statewide movement until there’s strong evidence that charter schools are out-performing,” Aull said.

The charter school bills are expected to be debated throughout the legislative session.

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+ More texting while driving restrictions contested in the statehouse [Entered: 03/24/2011]

Jim Weible has seen the extreme consequences of texting while driving.

Earlier this year, a friend of the St. Louis County resident was driving and texting without wearing a seat belt. Weible’s friend, 21-year-old Bond Rho, was driving alone through north St. Louis County when he veered off the road, hit a pole and was thrown from the car. He was killed instantly.

“The fact that something like this could happen to a guy that young, a guy I had known that long, it made the statistics you see on the news a lot more real,” Weible said.

According to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, drivers take their eyes off the road for an average five seconds to send a text.

Driving at 55 mph, that’s traveling beyond the length of a football field without looking at the road.

Some legislators, including Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, said people need to make these kinds of personal decisions about what they do when they drive on their own.

Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, said he disagrees with Purgason and sponsored a bill to expand Missouri’s ban to include all drivers.

“My example is when I first started driving, after I passed the driving test, somebody gave me a miniature typewriter and told me to start typing on it while I drive the car, you would have thought I was crazy,” McKenna said.

McKenna said his bill is currently stuck in the state’s legislative process and that a similar bill is proposed in the House.

Since 2009, it has been illegal in Missouri for anyone under the age of 22 to text while driving. Captain Tim Hull, spokesperson for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the age restriction makes it difficult for officers to enforce the law.

But, Hull said, drivers who text typically make visible mistakes that get them pulled over by officers, such as veering into another lane of traffic or driving too slowly.

From August 2009 to December 2010, the Highway Patrol issued more than 80 tickets for texting while driving.

Under Missouri’s current law, Bond Rho’s texting was illegal, but one year later he would have been 22 and legally allowed to text while driving.

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