Capitol Report, Nov. 4, 2011

In Legislative News, Missouri Press News On
- Updated

Headline:  Cap on medical malpractice damages comes under fire in Missouri Supreme Court [Entered: 11/02/2011]

By Alysha Love [Email: alysha.s.love@gmail.com, Cell: 417-425-6975 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

The right of those harmed by doctors to collect high-dollar damages came before the seven justices of the Missouri Supreme Court on Wednesday [Nov. 2].

When Ronald Sanders’ wife died of brain damage in 2005, he sued.

He sued doctors for wrongful death and medical malpractice. At the end of the trial, the jury awarded Sanders and his daughters nearly $1 million to pay back medical bills as well as $9.2 million in non-economic damages, those that aren’t related to medical or monetary costs.

There was just one problem: The doctor’s attorneys whipped out a state statute that caps the non-economic damages a jury can award in medical malpractice lawsuits. That statute knocked down Sanders’ non-economic awards to $1.2 million; his attorneys responded that the statute was unconstitutional. The case was appealed and cross-appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Judges in the state’s high court heard arguments from the attorneys on whether the legislature’s cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits violates the Missouri Constitution.

The legislature imposed those limits on non-economic damage awards in an effort to hold down the rise in medical malpractice insurance rates.

The attorneys focused on the arguments from the plaintiff’s appeal, which said that the reduced damages are unconstitutional because the statute capping the awards denies a legitimate trial by jury and violates the separation of powers between branches of the government.

* Get the full text story. [http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/SEPARATE.HTM]

* Get the radio story. [http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/SANDAHM.HTM]

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Headline:  Missouri’s receipt for disaster relief has topped $15 million with more to come [Entered: 11/03/2011]

By Matt Evans [Email: mletg2@mail.missouri.edu, Cell: 660-525-1313 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

Missouri’s top budget official warns there will be more to pay from the state’s budget for recovery of Joplin.

The state still owes the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its help in clearing debris and aiding Joplin after it was hit by a tornado last May, said State Budget Director Linda Luebbering.

The $15 million Missouri has paid for relief so far isn’t close to the final amount the state will eventually pay.

“Our obligation is much higher than that, we just don’t know what it is yet,” Luebbering said.

Luebbering said she’s unsure how the state will balance the budget.

“We’ve already done some expenditure restrictions — we announced those in June. That was for a combination of reasons, including revenue concerns. Where we end up ultimately is not yet determined,” Luebbering said.

The governor’s budget withholdings are the subject of a lawsuit filed by the state auditor who charges Jay Nixon did not have legal authority to withhold funding to state agencies in anticipation of natural disaster expenses.

* Get the radio story. [http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/DISFUND.HTM]

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Headline:  Judge hears disaster funding arguments in lawsuit between Missouri governor and auditor [Entered: 10/31/2011]

By Alysha Love [Email: alysha.s.love@gmail.com, Cell: 417-425-6975 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

Attorneys for Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich faced off in court Monday [Oct. 31] in the auditor’s challenge to Nixon’s spending cuts to the legislature’s budget.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem didn’t immediately rule on the case after hearing the arguments, The Associated Press reported.

Nixon’s attorneys said Nixon is authorized to make the cuts under a section of the state constitution. Schweich’s attorneys said the governor is allowed to reduce expenditures only when actual revenues fall below projections, the AP reported. Nixon’s attorneys said the cuts are temporary; Schweich’s said they’re permanent, the AP said.

Over the summer, Nixon pulled funding from the General Assembly’s approved budget and reallocated it for disaster relief in areas such as Joplin.

Schweich audited the action and contended that Nixon has no constitutional authority to withhold funds from the budget regardless of unforeseen emergencies. He then filed the lawsuit against Nixon on Aug. 26, charging that the governor violated the state constitution.

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Headline: State department refuses interview after one-third of its employees skip work [Entered: 11/03/2011]

By Rebecca May [Email: RJMN69@mail.missouri.edu, Cell: 314-369-2949 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

Officials of the Missouri Department of Social Services refused to talk with reporters on Tuesday after more than 30 percent of its employees in a St. Louis office called in sick to protest staffing problems.

Out of 110 social service workers, 40 called in sick at the St. Louis office due to under-staffing issues.

A spokesman for the department, Seth Bundy, said, “On Tuesday, we had more than 40 staff members at the Choteau office serving any and every client that came in for services. Our priority continues to be helping struggling families succeed by providing the resources they need as they work toward self-sufficiency.”

The department has been consolidating its various local offices. It handles a variety of programs such as food stamps, children services, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program provides aid for families who cannot afford electricity bills, and with winter approaching and lack of staff, this could pose a problem.

More than 200 Family Support Division positions have been unfilled since 2009, according to Fox News.

Over the weekend, groups from Springfield, Kansas City, St. Louis and Kirksville brought up issues occurring from reduced staff and budget cuts to advocacy groups on a video conference in Columbia.

* Get the radio story. [http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/SICKOUT.HTM]

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Headline:  New group to challenge Sinquefield’s income tax elimination petition [Entered: 11/01/2011]

By Scott Kanowsky [Email: scottkanowsky@gmail.com, Cell: 573-590-3048 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

A Missouri group is challenging a petition proposed by conservative billionaire Rex Sinquefield that would eliminate the state’s income tax and raise sales taxes.

Leaders from the Coalition for Missouri’s Future said the end of the state’s income tax would create increased hardships for Missourians and accused Sinquefield of protecting personal interests.

However, Travis Brown, a lobbyist in Jefferson City on behalf of a Sinquefield-funded group called Let Voters Decide, said the end of a statewide income tax would lead to roughly $3.5 billion in revenue for Missouri.

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Headline:  Poplar Bluff Police Department has seen a growing presence of heroin in southeast Missouri [Entered: 11/01/2011]

By Jessi Turnure [Email: jatmb7@mail.missouri.edu, Cell: 314-780-1078 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

As officials in Missouri rid the state of its methamphetamines, another — and some say more dangerous — drug has traveled to the forefront: heroin.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the number of meth labs in Missouri has decreased from 1,960 labs in 2010 to 1,112 this year. However, almost 2,000 state residents are now entering Missouri drug rehab for heroin addiction every year.

“We are seeing the same trend with this heroin as we did with the meth,” Detective Corey Mitchell of the Poplar Bluff Police Department said. “Every time we step up enforcement for one illicit drug and it declines, another illicit drug will take its place. It’s predominantly in the major metropolitan areas on the east and west coast, and it’s slowly working its way into the center of the United States.”

Mitchell said his department has seen 20 heroin cases this year and the age group varies from teenagers to adults in their 40s and 50s. This new heroin replaces the method of “shooting up” with easier forms such as inhalants or pills, which attract a younger demographic.

The effects of heroin remain in the body for one to three hours. After this time, an addict goes into a violent withdrawal period, vomiting and shaking for up to five hours. Mitchell said the fear of withdrawal side effects is why heroin has been in such high demand.

To stop this possible epidemic, Mitchell said his police department’s first step is public awareness, primarily the education of parents and teenagers. Mitchell said the department also has ongoing investigations and is working with the FBI to find users and make arrests.

According to Michael’s House Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, there are more than 1.2 million “occasional” heroin users in the United States and more than 200,000 people who could be classified as addicted to the drug.

“We’re trying to get rid of it before it takes a foothold on the community because it’s just not one person that suffers; it’s the whole community,” Mitchell said.

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Headline:  Republican House leader proposes photo ID at elections [Entered: 11/03/2011]

By Ashley Massow [Email: armgy5@mail.missouri.edu, Cell: 847-858-1906 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

Requirements of voters to show photo identification at the polls, new commissions to handle redistricting and changes in passing ballot initiatives and ballot language are all part of a proposed batch of changes to Missouri’s elections system from a top Republican in the statehouse. House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, proposed the package of election changes, which he is calling the Missouri Fair Elections Act.

The requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls is legislation that has already been passed by lawmakers, but recent language was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Schoeller’s proposal also includes creating new commissions to handle redistricting. There are currently two redistricting commissions made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Schoeller said for some time these two groups have not been able to agree, which sends redistricting decisions to appellate courts.

“The goal we’re trying to fulfill here is to create a commission where we don’t continually have to go to the courts to get a map drawn,” he said.

Schoeller said he plans to file his proposal as a bill in the regular session in January.

* Get the newspaper here [http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/FAIRELEC.HTM]

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Headline:  Wentzville GM plant expansion to generate 1,800 jobs [Entered: 11/03/2011]

By Jenner Smith [Email: JJSR4C@mail.missouri.edu, Cell: 913-220-5700 – Please remove contact info. if published.]

General Motors will expand its Wentzville plant, a move that the company says will double the plant’s employment over the next three years, GM announced Thursday.

GM plans to expand the Wentzville plant after closing down its plant in Shreveport, La.

Wentzville Mayor Paul Lambi said he believes the expansion will not only create jobs but have a major effect on the community.

“This could have a billion dollar impact over the next three years in the region,” Lambi said. “That’s why it’s such big news. It’s not specifically those assembly line jobs, it’s what they create.”

The plant will add a second shift of workers and begin building GM’s Colorado midsize pickup truck.

Ranae Tallon, personnel director for Wentzville GM, said the plant has waited nearly two years for the agreement.

“The momentum is still building. Then today with the announcement of the new product, people are excited, people are enthusiastic. We’re a happy plant,” Tallon said.

The expansion will take about 15 months to complete.

* Get the radio story [http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/GMWENTZ.HTM].

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Headline:  Capitol Perspectives: Hidden Government Officials [Entered: 11/04/2011]

By Phill Brooks

Despite the national trend toward transparency and openness in government since the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, here in Missouri there has been a recent trend in the opposite direction.

This trend was demonstrated recently when top Missouri government health officials would not take questions from reporters during the first days of the E. coli outbreak in St. Louis.

Just weeks earlier, the Missouri Department of Health took the same approach in responding to charges by the lieutenant governor that the health department was endangering the lives of the elderly by failing to promptly handle requests for in-home health services. Not one official with authority over the issue was available for questioning.

In both cases, only a public information officer was available.

I do not intend to single out the health department, because this actually represents a pattern that statehouse reporters have found within the entire executive branch.

Among those of us who cover Missouri’s statehouse, it would be a difficult task to name all the department directors because we so rarely interact with or even see them.

This affects our ability to report the news. For example, consider the new federal law on health insurance. It will impose major requirements on the state for health insurance regulation and Medicaid.

Despite the magnitude of this law’s impact on Missourians, we’ve heard almost nothing on the issue from the directors of the three departments involved — social services, health or insurance. One of my reporters could not even get a phone call returned from the official hired by the administration to coordinate the state’s implementation of the law by the agencies.

It’s not just the media being left in the dark. Members of a Senate interim committee on federal health care implementation expressed anger this fall when they learned the administration was about to implement a portion of the law without advising lawmakers.

A couple of years ago, when I began to sense a barrier to direct communication with agency officials in Jay Nixon’s administration, I assigned one of my reporters to do a feature story on the thoughts, ideas and policies Missouri department directors had about their public roles as policy leaders.

My reporter hit a complete roadblock. Not one of the top department directors appointed by the governor was available for comment. In every single case, my reporter told me his inquiry was intercepted by a department public information officer, or PIO, who blocked access to the director.

Regularly we are restricted to public information officers when we seek access to a department director, an expert in the department or an official with actual decision-making powers. Sometimes the PIO will even insist on a written email on the questions before consenting to an interview.

It was not always this way.

After Kit Bond became governor in 1973, his department directors were regular news-makers. They initiated policy and took public leadership roles in promoting and advancing those policies.

Bond’s Department of Corrections director, George Camp, became a public face for prison reform. His Department of Revenue director, Jim Spradling, spoke frequently on tax issues and almost always was available when reporters called.

Al Sikes, Bond’s Department of Consumer Affairs director, pursued a very active public role in advancing the administration’s consumer protection package.

During the administrations of several governors, the health department’s epidemiologist, Dr. Denny Donnell, was a regular and key source for statehouse reporters to get background and understanding on complicated medical issues involving infectious diseases. He would spend so much time to make sure we understood that I sometimes felt like his student.

From governors such as Bond, Warren Hearnes, Joe Teasdale and Mel Carnahan, I never sensed a concern that department directors might steal the governor’s publicity thunder.

But now, department directors seem silenced. One public information officer privately confided that clearance has to be obtained from the governor’s office just to talk with a reporter about a major agency issue.

An administration official once defended this tight control of information as the new approach in government and politics for handling the media. The old days of direct access were gone, I was told. It’s a way to assure consistency in the message.

But my former journalism students who have moved on to statehouse reporting jobs in other states express surprise to me about how open and accessible they find public officials in their states compared to Missouri.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email.

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[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN (Missouri Digital News) and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

Past columns are available at http://www.mdn.org/mpacol.]

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