MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members
Go to http://www.mdn.org/mpanews for the latest version.
Headline: A note from Phill (Entered: 12/09/2011)
I wanted to give you a one-week advance notice that next Friday, Dec. 16, will be the last issue of MPANews for the year. And, we might ship it to you a day or two early because I will be heading out of town for holiday break at the end of the week.
I do not expect next week’s issue to be particularly heavy. My reporters will be departing for the holidays and state government will be slowed down considerably until the start of the legislative session.
My Capitol Perspectives column will be another on the budget process — the increasing secrecy by which state budgets are developed. I’ve focused a bit on the budget because it promises to be a truly dreadful financial situation that legislators will face next session. Yes, I know we’ve been hearing those warnings for more than a few years. But I think that this time it’s for real.
We will resume MPANews with the start of the legislative session. It begins on Jan. 4, so we’ll have our first issue emailed out on Jan. 6, 2012. It might not be a particularly extensive issue because I expect only one or two of my student reporters will come in early for the start of the session.
There will be a couple of new features. One will be a news budget page that will give you advance notice of the stories we are pursuing. I’ve been using that for years for the Columbia Missourian. With the Missourian’s decision to de-emphasize statehouse coverage, I figured I ought to expand it to serve all of you. There’s actually a prototype running right now at http://www.mdn.org/newsbud. For now, it’s not much more than a demo.
Also, I’ll put MPAShare fully online — although I fear there may not be much interest in that service to let you trade among yourselves stories and notes. Only a few of you have tried it out. So, I sense I might have developed an application for which there’s not much need — a not uncommon experience for computer programmers!
Headline: Missouri’s education department pursues waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law (Entered: 12/05/2011)
Missouri’s Education Board has given the Department of Education authority to seek public comments on the request for a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind.
The U.S. Department of Education can grant authority for a state to use different reporting requirements for educational performance of students.
“This would be an opportunity for the state to put forward a better plan — Missouri’s plan — to fulfill federal requirements,” Margie Vandeven, the state department’s assistant commissioner, said in a department news release.
Areas in which the state would seek a waiver include measuring preparation for college or careers by students.
The department set a Jan. 5 deadline for public comment.
* Get the department’s waiver application (http://dese.mo.gov/qs/esea-waiver.html).
Headline: Missouri governor vs. auditor budget lawsuit continues (Entered: 12/06/2011)
A Cole County circuit court on Tuesday (Dec. 6) rejected Gov. Jay Nixon’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the governor’s withholding of state appropriations to agencies, mostly education.
The lawsuit, filed by the state auditor, challenges the governor’s authority to withhold $150 million to reserve funds for future expected expenses for natural disaster relief — largely from the Joplin tornado in May.
The state auditor, Tom Schweich, argues the Missouri Constitution allows the governor to withhold only when state tax collections actually fall below original projections.
Nixon argues that the governor has broad powers to balance the state’s budget.
The two offices immediately issued statements of reaction to the court decision.
Republican Schweich said his office was pleased. Democrat Nixon called the decision merely a procedural ruling.
Headline: Missouri receives $5.3 million in federal disaster relief funds (Entered: 12/07/2011)
By Stephanie Ebbs
The Federal Emergency Management Agency notified the governor on Wednesday (Dec. 7) that Missouri received a grant of more than $5,329,801 to aid the long-term recovery from natural disasters.
“I’ve made it clear that the state of Missouri has a long-term commitment of being there to see that the needs of Missourians who suffered from these disasters are met,” Gov. Nixon said. “This $5 million grant will help Missourians with their long-term recovery and help strengthen our communities as they come back.”
According to a press release, the Missouri Department of Economic Development will use the money to help survivors obtain resources and create a recovery plan.
The money can be used to provide services until May 2013.
Headline: Nixon’s administration attacked for working to implement a part of federal health care plan in Missouri (Entered: 12/06/2011)
The administration’s efforts to work on possible federal health care implementation in Missouri without legislative approval came under bipartisan attack by legislators at an interim House Budget Committee hearing Tuesday (Dec. 6).
The administration has received a $26 million federal grant to set up the infrastructure for a health insurance exchange system that would regulate insurance policies. The administration applied for the grant without legislative authorization or knowledge.
Lawmakers charged they have been denied all the information they have requested about the basis by which the administration was able to get around the legislature.
The federal grant was awarded to a state quasi-governmental body that claims it can spend outside funds without legislative approval.
Legislators, however, urged the state’s Department of Insurance and its outside health insurance consultant to work with the legislature on efforts toward a health insurance exchange. The health insurance exchange would establish standardized policies to facilitate comparison shopping by consumers.
Under the federal law, if the state does not establish such an insurance exchange, the federal government will operate one of its own in the state.
Headline: A Missouri Senator is trying to change law for child sex abuse (Entered: 12/05/2011)
By Rebecca Woolf (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Cell: 317-828-5131) – Please remove contact info. if published.)
In light of the Penn State scandal, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said he wants to add a line to Missouri’s child abuse law.
That single sentence would extend the responsibility of reporting child sex abuse to all Missouri residents.
“These are pretty heinous crimes, and when somebody witnesses that, I think we ought to require people to report that to law enforcement and those people should be punished,” Schmitt said.
In the Penn State case, a graduate assistant on the staff of football coach Joe Paterno said that several years back he saw an assistant coach sexually abusing a boy in the shower. The assistant says he reported what he saw to his father.
Joy Oesterly, the executive director of the child abuse advocacy group Missouri Kids First, said she supports the law but still doesn’t think all incidents will be reported to the authorities.
* Get the full text story (http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/REPORT.HTM).
* Get the radio stories (http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/ABUSE2.HTM).
Headline: Missouri lawmakers considering new ways to fund budget-strained veterans homes (Entered: 12/07/2011)
By Elizabeth Hagedorn (Email: email@example.com, Cell: 314-913-0639) – Please remove contact info. if published.)
The Missouri Veterans Commission reports it will run out of its veterans home funding by July 2013 and that it needs $13.3 million to fill that gap.
At an Appropriations for Public Safety and Corrections Committee hearing on Wednesday (Dec. 7), Missouri Veterans Commission Executive Director Larry Kay told committee members there’s no single solution to filling the funding gap.
Kay proposed three options: getting more general revenue from the state, finding an alternative funding source or raising the fees to veterans living in the homes.
Committee Chairman Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, expressed that the last thing his committee wanted to do was put the burden on the veterans themselves.
“I think it’s fair to say that the members on this committee are overwhelmingly opposed to any increase in costs to the veterans,” said Kelly.
Other funding options discussed include generating funds from scratch lottery tickets, raising the entry fee to casino boats by $1 and giving slot-machine gamblers the option of donating spare change on their earnings to the Missouri Veterans Commission.
* Get the radio story (http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/VETHOME.HTM)
Headline: Missouri horse owners applaud lifting ban on horse meat inspections (Entered: 12/08/2011)
By Tong Gao (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Cell: 573-864-3323) – Please remove contact info. if published.)
In November, Congress lifted a ban on the inspection of horse meat for human consumption. Lifting that ban has opened an opportunity for Missouri horse ranchers and renewed an ongoing debate about treatment of horses.
Equine specialist Jim Dudley has been a part of the horse industry for 60 years, doing breeding, trading and offering riding lessons. He owns 50 horses and said on average that he has to get rid of five horses every year.
Before 2006, Dudley disposed of his horses by selling them to an auction and got about $1,000 for each horse. Now it costs $5,000.
After Congress banned funding for horse meat inspections in 2006, slaughterhouses in the U.S. went out of business, and the value of horses declined significantly.
Missouri Farm Bureau director Kelly Smith said lifting the ban is a victory for many horse owners who wanted to get rid of the ban on horse slaughter.
Smith said the horse industry is important to the state’s economy. According to a 2010 survey, there are 200,000 horses in Missouri.
Although some animal right activists are opposed to horse slaughter because they say it’s inhumane, one animal rights group, PETA, has become an unexpected supporter. PETA Director Lindsay Rajt says PETA doesn’t want horse slaughterers in the U.S., but the group is in favor of lifting the ban because it found people did not euthanize horses after the ban in 2006.
“Instead, they were just taking them down to auctions, and then having these horses shift to Canada or Mexico, where they will still be slaughtered,” Rajt said.
The USDA refused to talk to an MDN reporter, but a spokesman noted in a prepared statement that “if a facility opens, the Food Safety and Inspection Service will be prepared to carry out its statutory mandate to ensure industry compliance with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.”
Headline: State senator proposes new college credit transfer system (Entered: 12/08/2011)
By Mengti Xu (Email: email@example.com, Cell: 573-289-8229) – Please remove contact info. if published.)
Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce introduced a bill establishing a new system for transferring college class credits to try to make the time spent in college as short and efficient as possible.
Pearce said the problem is when students take some courses in community colleges and then apply to four-year universities, some course credits cannot be transferred.
“Yes, you’ve wasted time; you’ve wasted money,” Pearce said. “And what happens is, if it takes too long some people do end up dropping out?”
The bill would require the creation of an index of at least 25 introductory courses that would be transferable from community colleges to four-year universities.
Pearce said the new system would also give students more information they need before they apply to four-year universities.
“So there is no surprises when they leave that two-year institution and they go to enroll,” Pearce said. “They will know beforehand which courses will transfer and which courses will not.”
Pearce said the system will financially help college students because the longer they stay and the more money they spend, the less likely they are to graduate. They’ll also have piled up more debt by the time they leave school.
There would also be a reverse transfer in the system to allow students to get an associate’s degree if they accumulate enough hours through a combination of two-year and four-year institutions.
Private higher education institutions would not be required to participate, but they could.
The bill is expected to be discussed in the next legislative session.
Get the radio story. ( http://www.mdn.org/2011/STORIES/CREDIT.HTM )
Headline: Capitol Perspectives: Consensus Revenue Estimates (Entered: 12/09/2011)
By Phill Brooks
For all the squawking coming out of Missouri’s statehouse about the budget, there’s an area of remarkable bipartisan cooperation called the consensus revenue estimate.
It’s been around since the early 1990s, and it has worked remarkably well in bringing a more rational process to put together the state’s budget each year.
It’s a process by which legislative budget leaders and the administration reach an agreement on the expected state revenue before the legislature begins voting on the budget.
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, helped formalize the process when he was House Budget Committee chairman. He calls it “the single most important accomplishment” of his long legislative career.
Earlier this month, the administration and legislative budget staff began discussions for the budget year that will begin July 1, 2012.
The consensus revenue estimate actually is a formal agreement signed by the state budget director, the House Budget Committee chair and the Senate Appropriations Committee chair.
Agreement on how much the state will have to spend limits the legislative debates to budget priorities — how to divide up the money — rather than debating economic predictions.
Before the consensus revenue estimate approach, there could be vast differences in revenue estimates by the administration, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was not always clear whether those different estimates reflected legitimate disagreements about the state’s expected economic growth or just excuses for padding or cutting the budget.
If, for example, members of a legislative chamber wanted to cast politically popular votes to boost funding to local schools above the governor’s estimate, it easily could be justified by arguing the state would collect more taxes than the governor predicted.
And lawmakers did not have to worry about balancing the budget because the governor has broad powers to cut spending when revenues fall below estimates.
That kind of thing did happen, and on a regular basis, before the consensus revenue estimate approach came into being.
The most extreme example I saw involved what was called “the pipeline” during the administration of Warren Hearnes.
Back then, tax collection figures from the Department of Revenue were not public. Instead, the public revenue figures were based on how much money the revenue department transferred to the State Treasurer.
Critics charged that not every dollar collected by the revenue department was being promptly transferred to the state treasurer.
When the administration wanted to justify a tight budget, it could just clog this “pipeline” between the revenue department and state treasurer by transferring to the state treasurer only some of the taxes that had been collected. The rest would be kept in the revenue department’s low-interest bank accounts — to the delight, of course, of the favored banks.
In other years, say an election year, the pipeline could be opened and those clogged funds transferred to the state treasurer. That would make it look like the state’s economy was on the upswing and justify a higher revenue estimate for the next year’s budget.
That kind of scheme no longer is possible. Government records and revenue collections now are public. And the consensus revenue estimate process helps assure legislators’ attention is focused on what they actually can control — spending — rather than arguments about predictions.
For the legislative session that will begin in January, the consensus revenue estimate is going to play a huge role. Legislative leaders repeatedly have been warning that the state will face some major budget cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Part of the problem is a sluggish economy. State tax collections have grown only about 2 percent so far this budget year. Further, special federal economic recovery aid to states comes to an end. It’s a problem nationwide. And Missouri actually is in better shape than many other states.
Compounding the problem is that, as part of the agreement in taking that federal assistance, Missouri is restricted in cutting Medicaid. Medicaid is one of the state’s most expensive and growing programs, and it provides health care coverage for the lower income. Even worse, the level of federal matching funds for the state’s Medicaid expenses will be reduced next fall.
As the Senate Appropriations chairman noted earlier this month, that leaves education as a potential target for cuts. The appropriations for education are huge single lines in the budget. That makes it easier to make a large cut there rather than identifying hundreds or thousands of smaller cuts in smaller budget lines to reach the same amount of reduction.
Further, both local schools and higher education have other ways to get money that are not available to other government programs such as prisons, law enforcement and welfare. Local schools can seek voter approval to raise school taxes. Colleges and universities can raise student fees and tuition charges.
As always, let me know (at firstname.lastname@example.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.
(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 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.)