Capitol Reports, September 28, 2012

In Legislative News, Missouri Press News On
- Updated

MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members
Go to http://www.mdn.org/mpanews for the latest version.

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Headline:  Missouri residents may see their electric bills increase. [Entered: 09/27/2012]

By Lauren Bale

Ameren Missouri has asked the Missouri Public Service Commission for permission to increase its rates.

Residents will have to pay $14 more per month if the Commission approves the request.

The utility company attorney, Jim Lowery, said at a Thursday, Sept. 27, hearing in Jefferson City that the company has been denied “reasonable opportunity to earn.”

Public Counsel attorney Lewis Mills opposes the rate increase. He said Ameren can get away with increasing rates only because the company has no competitors.

“The only reason they can increase the cost of doing business by 10 percent in a year’s time is because they are a regulated company. Competitive companies would not be able to get away with that,” Mills said.

Diana Vuylsteke, an attorney representing Missouri Industrial Energy Consumers, said Ameren has requested greater funds than it needs.

“In the present case the evidence shows that Ameren overstates its revenue requirement by 170 million dollars, or 45 percent,” she said.

Lowery said the rate increase would help fund new technology to improve reliability.

The commission will make a decision on Ameren’s request after the hearings end on Oct. 12.

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Headline:  Proposition E will put health care exchanges on the November ballot [Entered: 09/26/2012]

By Wes Duplantier

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has already affirmed the constitutionality of the federal health care law, Missouri voters will get to cast ballots in November on another of the law’s key components — insurance exchanges.

Proposition E on the ballot would prohibit Gov. Jay Nixon or any state agency from setting up a health insurance exchange without the approval of the legislature or the state’s voters.

A health insurance exchange is a web-based marketplace for consumers to compare insurance plans. The exchanges are a central part of the federal law, passed in 2009, because they are intended to help individuals and small businesses purchase insurance at an affordable rate to comply with the part of the law that mandates most people own health insurance.

Nixon has said that his administration would not move to set up an insurance exchange by decree. But conservatives say they want to make sure the Democratic governor is barred from doing so if he wins a second term, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in a 5-4 decision on June 28.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, however, makes it nearly certain that the requirement for health care exchanges will take effect unless congressional Republicans repeal the law. If the state does not set up an exchange, the federal government will do it.

That has groups who supported the law, such as Missouri Health Care for All, saying that Missouri should simply prepare its own exchange.

“Prop E is really just an attempt to continue to use health care reform for political gain because there’s really going to be no practical effect because health reform, the Affordable Care Act, is the law of the land,” said MHCA President Susan Talve, a St. Louis rabbi, in a telephone interview.

* Get the print story.[ http://www.mdn.org/2012/STORIES/EXCHANGE.HTM ]
* Get the bill, SB 464 [ http://www.mdn.org/cgi-bin/bills/billhttp.exe?FORM=SB&NUMF4&YEAR 12 ]
* Get the Proposition E ballot language [ http://www.mdn.org/2012/ELECT/BALLOT.HTM ]

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Headline:  St. Louis city schools are asking state education officials to reinstate accreditation [Entered: 09/26/2012]

By Alexander Mallin

The Special Administrative Board in charge of St. Louis Public Schools is asking the State Board of Education for provisional accreditation.

The state board requires school districts to meet six out of 14 academic standards to reinstate provisional accreditation, and St. Louis Public Schools surpassed that number as of the 2012 year and now has seven.

The St. Louis Public School district lost its accreditation in 2007. A state-mandated board, known as the Special Administrative Board, was put in control of the district.

Despite meeting the number of standards required for provisional accreditation, Sarah Potter, communications director of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the district still may not qualify.

“The department and the board said that one year is not enough to change classification,” Potter said. “The Missouri School Improvement Program moves on cycles, and they’ve been five year cycles, and we have been looking at five years of data when making these classification decisions.”

Since the district just passed this year, it will have to plead its case on Oct. 16 that the improvements are not temporary.

Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, said the district should get its accreditation.

“I don’t know why if they have met the requirement to be provisionally accredited, why they wouldn’t be,” Nasheed said. “We need to do away with mediocre. St. Louis public schools need to meet full accreditation.”

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Headline:  Audit finds Department of Economic Development should have acted more diligently on Mamtek [Entered: 09/25/2012]

By Taylor Beck

State Auditor Tom Schweich said in an audit released Tuesday, Sept. 25, that the Department of Economic Development could have done more to prevent the Mamtek scandal.

Schweich said the department’s Division of Business and Community Services failed to perform adequate due diligence for an artificial sweetener plant in Moberly, which was supposed to create 600 jobs. Schweich said due diligence is a set of common practices used to evaluate a business’ credibility.

“You look diligently at whether they (Mamtek) have these capabilities. Mamtek was going to produce sucralose. They claimed they had a plant in China, they had patents and had money in the bank,” Schweich said.

But, Schweich’s audit found the department “did not ensure due diligence procedures were adequately designed, performed, and documented to protect the interests of all parties, and the company was forced into bankruptcy in January 2012.”

The department stated in a response in the audit that it “performed substantial due diligence related to the Mamtek project.”

Last week Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced criminal charges against former Mamtek U.S. CEO Bruce Cole, who was arrested in California.

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Headline:  Former CEO of Mamtek fights extradition from California [Entered: 09/27/2012]

By Matt Evans

The former CEO of Mamtek U.S. is fighting extradition to Missouri in Orange County, Calif., Court.

Bruce Cole faces felony stealing charges and security fraud charges following the failure of the planned sucralose plant in Moberly. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced the charges against Cole last week.

Cole is being held on a $500,000 bond.

Without Cole’s consent, California Gov. Jerry Brown must request an extradition to Missouri. Cole is due in court on Oct. 3.

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Headline:  Army holds suicide stand-down [Entered: 09/27/2012]

By Jamie Ries

The U.S. Army held a suicide stand-down over the weekend.

Spokesman Troy Rolan of the Army said the National Guard and the Army Reserve are part of the suicide intervention program that will help reduce the number of suicides.

He said the army will hold personal discussion groups that will cover depression and suicide.

State Chaplain Gary Gilmore of the Missouri National Guard said members need a time out from their physical duties and a time in for self reflection.

Training, Gilmore said, can save lives by showing members they are not alone.

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Headline:  Akin reverses position on earmarks as Newt Gingrich comes to Missouri for fundraising boost. [Entered: 09/24/2012]

By Jordan Shapiro

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican challenger for the post held by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, has changed his position on earmarks.

Akin has defendes earmarks, even after many Republicans in Congress called for a moratorium on the practice of attaching funding for local projects onto legislation.

The National Journal now is reporting that Akin has agreed to a ban on earmarks should he defeat McCaskill. The report alleges the six-term Congressman shifted his position to receive the support of a SuperPAC controlled by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a critic of earmarks.

Rick Tyler, an Akin campaign aide, told the National Journal on Friday, Sept. 21, that the congressman has agreed to a ban on earmarks. Tyler previously worked for former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who is stumping for Akin’s campaign.

Akin’s official House website, however, says that Akin supports earmarks and has made several funding requests during his tenure. The website also lists all Akin’s earmark requests from 2010 to 2011.

“The fact is that without the appropriations process, distant bureaucrats would be deciding whether local projects are worth funding,” Akin’s website says.

The change in his position draws Akin closer to his opponent’s view on earmarks. McCaskill has supported a ban on earmarks in the past.

“During his 12 years in Congress, Todd Akin repeatedly funneled taxpayer dollars to his campaign donors, which is exactly the kind of Washington behavior that led Claire to fight for an earmark ban,” said Erik Dorey, a McCaskill campaign spokesman.

The Missouri Democratic Party filed an ethics complaint against Akin Wednesday, Sept. 26, accusing the congressman of changing his position only to received funds from DeMint’s SuperPAC. Both Akin and the SuperPAC deny there was any deal.

Tuesday, Sept. 25, was the last day for the St. Louis congressman to heed the calls of fellow Republicans to exit the U.S. Senate contest.

Since the deadline for him to withdraw has passed, Republicans are shifting to support the congressman. Gingrich joined Akin in St. Louis Monday, Sept. 24, at a $500-a-plate lunch fundraiser.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, Rep.-Mo., announced he was also supporting Akin, even though he had previously called on him to leave the contest.

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Headline:  Government Gag Orders [Entered: 09/28/2012]

By Phill Brooks

A statehouse colleague of mine recently wrote about being blocked from access to a tax expert in the state Revenue Department for a story she was pursuing.

Virginia Young, the statehouse bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote about how she could not get access to a department expert to explain a tax issue directly affecting St. Louis County. Instead, she was restricted to a department spokesperson who ferried information and questions back and forth to others in the department.

I share her frustrations, as do many of us in the press corps who have found our efforts to contact agency experts diverted to “public information officers” who have limited or no knowledge about the issues for which we are seeking information.

Virginia wrote nostalgically about a prior administration when she could directly contact Revenue Department Director Duane Benton who would put her into contact with a tax expert in his department.

Like Virginia, I fondly remember how Benton helped us better understand tax laws and policies. It was an open-door approach to reporters taken by many in state government in past administrations.

Mental Health Department Director Harold Robb, a physician in mental health care, spent hours helping me better understand the complexities of mental health and public policy.

State Epidemiologist Denny Donnell, another physician, was a near teacher to many of us in explaining the details of communicable diseases. The attorney general’s consumer protection director, Harvey Tettlebaum, expanded my understanding of the legal aspects of consumer law. Corrections Director George Camp and Penitentiary Warden Don Wyrick never turned down a phone call.

You didn’t need a “public information officer” to get access to these officials.

These are just a few of the experts and agency officials in state government who spent considerable personal time helping reporters understand the complexities of their fields.

Back then, I had a clear sense these sources felt that the more informed we reporters could be, the more enlightened the Missouri public would be from the stories we produced.

Now, however, we increasingly are finding ourselves blocked from access to these technical experts and administrators. And the public pays a real price in understanding what is happening in their state government.

A good example arose a year ago with an E. coli outbreak in the St. Louis region. My reporters tried to talk with a medical expert in the state Health Department to give us the scientific and medical background about what was happening.

But we were denied access to Health Department experts. Instead, all communication with Missouri’s Health Department was restricted to a non-medical spokesperson. It got worse. That spokesperson told us the bacteria strain was one of the most resistant to antibiotics.

Wow — the superbug hits St. Louis. That’s the logical conclusion from the spokesperson’s statement. But it was completely wrong.

Fortunately, we did not run with that story. Instead, we persisted in seeking a medical expert. We abandoned trying to talk with experts in the Missouri Health Department and went to the St. Louis County Health Department.

From St. Louis County’s health department a physician told us it was just the opposite of what the state’s public information officer had described. Instead, this was a bacteria strain in which the best course of treatment was to not give antibiotics.

I’ve labeled this column “government gag orders” because what I am describing has become a persistent pattern in state government. And, as Virginia wrote, it’s coming from “Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration of tightly controlled and centralized information.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that government experts and mid-level administrators seek to avoid reporters. Just the opposite. I’ve had middle-level government workers express fear about their jobs if the administration learned they had talked to me without approval from their supervisors.

My experience over the decades has been that the technical experts within state government have a tremendous desire to help reporters understand the complexities of their fields. I’ve found they have a real hunger to help educate us so that we are more able to inform the general public.

As Virginia concluded, “there’s no substitute for being able to interview the bureaucrat who actually knows the information.”

I could not have expressed it better.

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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 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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