The Missouri Senate, after canceling its sessions due to wintry weather conditions during the week of Feb. 15, worked overtime this week. An extensive bill dealing with law enforcement officers and protestors was debated eight hours on Monday, and finally was perfected by the Senate soon after 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday. Then on Tuesday into early Wednesday morning, senators debated a lengthy, highly controversial K-12 education bill that would expand where charter schools can be located. After about 12 hours of give-and-take, the bill was laid over for another day. On Wednesday, the Senate adjourned in the late afternoon for some needed rest.
MISSOURI COVID VACCINATIONS EXPANDING TO TEACHERS, OTHERS
Governor Mike Parson announced Thursday that Missouri will start administering vaccines beginning March 15 to K-12 teachers, childcare providers, grocery store workers, food and agriculture workers, government employees, and other critical infrastructure employees. DESE reports that about 95 percent of Missouri public schools are open to students in some form. Last week, many teachers had sent letters to the State Health Director asking to be moved up on the list of vaccine recipients.
MARCH 1 DEADLINE FOR FILING BILLS
Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are nearing the end of filing bills on March 1 for the 2021 legislative session. When they adjourned on Thursday, the House had filed 1,394 bills and the Senate had filed 587 bills.
COVID LIABILITY PROTECTIONS
The Senate dedicated floor time Tuesday afternoon to revisit SB 51, sponsored by Senator Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville) and SB 42, sponsored by Senator Bill White (R-Joplin). The bills establish provisions relating to civil actions arising from COVID-19 and create liability protections for healthcare entities, schools, churches, and manufacturers/distributors involved in shipping and/or handling pandemic related products. After brief discussion, the Senate passed the bill by a 20-13 vote, but failed to adopt the emergency clause. The bill now will be sent to the House for further consideration.
SOCIAL MEDIA CENSORSHIP
Three bills aimed to prevent social media companies from censoring users were heard Feb. 22 in the House General Laws Committee.
House Bill 932 (Billington, R-Poplar Bluff) specifies that if an interactive computer service provider restricts, censors, or suppresses content that is protected under the U.S. Constitution, the provider is liable in a civil action. The provisions of the bill only apply if the provider is immune from civil liability under federal law, is not considered a publisher, has over 1 million users, and is a provider of a social media site.
House Bill 482 (Coleman, R-Grain Valley) establishes the “Stop Social Media Censorship Act” prohibiting social media platforms with at least 75 million users from censoring political or religious content and allowing injured parties to seek damages unless the speech is found to be obscene, from a false impersonation, or enticing violence.
House Bill 783 (Trent, R-Springfield), requires platforms to clearly define prohibited content in a separate agreement from their terms of service and notify users when updating their standards. Platforms would not be able to remove old content based on new terms. The Attorney General would enforce the requirements of the bill. Special Forces of Liberty and a number of individuals testified in support of HB 482 stating similar legislation has been introduced in over 20 states.
NetChoice, Google, and ACLU-MO testified in opposition to all three bills. NetChoice pointed out that over a six-month period from July to December 2018, Facebook, Google, and Twitter took action on over 5 billion accounts and posts including the removal of pornography; undesirable content for children; abuse; terrorist recruitment; bullying; and other forms of verbal abuse. Removal of this content would have been prohibited under the legislation as well as the ability to block SPAM. It was further noted that in 1987, President Reagan repealed the equivalent of HB 482, the infamous “Fairness Doctrine,” a law requiring equal treatment of political parties by broadcasters. In his repeal, Reagan said, “This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Google made reference and support to the testimony provided by NetChoice .
ACLU-MO stated when a private entity sets rules for engagement on their own platform, agreed to by the users, and enforces the rules, it is not censorship. Furthermore, this type of liability for social media and online business platforms is explicitly prohibited under Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act which supersedes state law and declares that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”
Heartland Institute testified for information only on the three bills stating the legislation provides recourse when Missourians have been censored.
INITIATIVE PETITION BILLS
The House Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee held an executive session on February 25 where bills regarding changing the initiative petition process to amend the state’s constitution were voted out of the committee. House Joint Resolutions 20 and 22 were both voted do pass by a vote of 9-3.
HJR 20 – Upon voter approval, this proposed Constitutional amendment would require an amendment referred to the people by the General Assembly to achieve a majority vote for passage and an amendment referred to the people by initiative petition to achieve a two-thirds supermajority vote for passage. Amendments referred by the General Assembly will take effect 30 days after the election if approved.
HJR 22 – Upon voter approval, this proposed Constitutional amendment would require the sponsor(s) of initiative petitions proposing Constitutional amendments to collect signatures in every Congressional district and to submit any approved petition to the General Assembly for consideration in a manner similar to a bill. The signature of the Governor is not required.
If the General Assembly approves a petition without change, then the sponsor(s) may submit it to the Secretary of State to be placed on the ballot at the next general election. If the General Assembly amends or does not pass a petition, then the sponsor(s) may decide whether to place the amended version or the original unamended version on the ballot at the next general election. In cases where the General Assembly has approved a petition or when its amended version is submitted, a simple majority vote is required for passage. If a version not approved by the General Assembly is submitted, then a two-thirds majority vote is required. Time limits are specified in the amendment and sponsors will be able to submit petitions during either session of the General Assembly prior to the general election occurring every two years in November.
House Bill 165 (Richey, R-Excelsior Springs) and House Bill 196 (Ellebracht, D-Liberty) are bills that would establish recall procedures for county commissioners in counties of the first classification. The bills would set recall petition requirements including the number of signatures required (10 percent of registered voters in the county) for a recall election to be conducted. HB 165 requires 60 percent of qualified voters voting on the question must vote for removal, otherwise the commissioner shall continue to serve. On Feb. 24, the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee conducted a joint hearing on the legislation. No testimony was presented. The committee took no action on the bills.
House Bill 177 (Ellebracht, D-Liberty) allows closure of meetings of a public governmental body when the discussion topic includes evacuation and lockdown procedures for a building owned or leased by the public governmental body or software or surveillance companies that secure access to such buildings, the public disclosure of which would threaten public safety. The House Special Committee on Homeland Security held an executive session on February 24 where HB 177 was voted do pass.
House Bill 323 (Hill, R-Lake St. Louis) prohibits the renewal of contracts earlier than three months prior to the expiration of any existing contract. The renewal of one contract shall not automatically entail agreement to a new contract. Definite action such as a vote shall be required to renew a contract and violations of the bill shall render contracts void and of no effect. The House Downsizing State Government Committee held an executive session on February 24 where House Committee Substitute for HB 323 was voted do pass. The substitute includes a provision penalizing public bodies for extending contracts if not within a 3-month window and prohibiting school district executives from obtaining employment with vendors who did business with the school district while they were an employee.
House Bill 333 (Simmons, R-Washington) amends statutory regulations of the initiative petition process. The bill changes the format of petition signature sheets and requires a $500 refundable filing fee for each initiative or referendum petition. The bill allows the Secretary of State’s Petition Publications Fund to pay for any refunds. The bill specifies that any court ordered changes to a ballot title results in the invalidation of signatures collected prior to the order. The House Rules Administrative Oversight Committee held an executive session on February 25 where HB 333 was vote do pass by a vote of 9-3.
House Bill 381 (McGaugh, R-Carrollton) requires a condensed county financial statement to be published in local newspapers in all counties of the first, second, third, or fourth classification. The bill language includes the name and current gross annual salary of each elected or appointed county official whose salary is set by the county salary commission. On Feb. 24, the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee conducted a hearing on HB 381. Testifying in support of the bill were Mark Maassen of the Missouri Press Association, the Livingston County Clerk, the Dent County Presiding Commissioner, the Texas County Clerk, and the County Commissioners Association of Missouri. No testimony in opposition. The committee took no action on the bill.
House Bill 512 (Lovasco, R-O’Fallon) requires the Secretary of State (SOS) to investigate violations of election statutes relating to the use of public funds for political advertising purposes on printed materials. Any person may file a complaint against a state department or its director for violations. The SOS has 30 days to dismiss the complaint or start an investigation and notify the complainant of the decision. If the SOS, or any person whose complaint is denied, wishes to proceed then they may file a petition in the Circuit Court of Cole County against the agency or political subdivision. Procedures for filing are specified in the bill. If the Court finds a violation, then civil penalties of 10 times the amount of an expenditure or $10,000, whichever is greater, may be imposed on a department or political subdivision. Directors and administrators may be personally liable for up to $1,000 in civil penalties. Injunctive relief and court costs shall also be imposed as specified in the bill. Publications in compliance with federal election laws and the full text of proposed ballot measures may be printed as specified in the bill. The House Downsizing State Government Committee held an executive session on February 24 where HCS for HB 512 was voted do pass.
House Bill 515 (Baker, R-Neosho) changes the law relating to the prohibition on expenditure of public funds to support or oppose candidates and certain measures. The House Downsizing State Government Committee held an executive session on February 24 where HCS for HB 515 was voted do pass.
House Bill 904 (Ruth, R-Festus) would authorize the State Highway Patrol to charge a minimum fee of $5 for records requests under Chapter 43 or Chapter 610, RSMo, where there are allowable fees of less than $5 for such records requests. Also, the superintendent of the Highway Patrol may increase the minimum fee by $1 every other year, but up to $10. If a person requesting records fails to remit all fees within 30 days of the Highway Patrol requesting payment of the fees, the records request will be considered withdrawn. The House Public Safety Committee conducted a hearing on HB 904 on Feb. 23. Rep. Ruth told the committee it currently costs $4.90 for the Highway Patrol to process a basic crash report. “The report must be found manually, copied, and mailed out,” she said. She compared Missouri’s crash records fee with neighboring states including $5 in Kansas, $10 in Arkansas, and $13 in Nebraska. Iowa does not charge for such reports, she said. Rep. Ruth noted written testimony in opposition to the bill was offered by Jean Maneke on behalf of Missouri Press Association. Rep. Ruth said the bill “does not impact sunshine requests.” Testimony in favor of the bill was presented by the State Highway Patrol, saying the legislation is “just a customer service effort” to improve electronic monitoring for persons involved in crashes. The Missouri Insurance Coalition also testified in support, noting customer claims would be expedited more quickly with system improvements. The committee took no action on HB 904.
House Bill 998 (DeGroot, R-Chesterfield) establishes the Police Use-of-Force Transparency Act of 2021, requiring each law enforcement agency in the state annually to submit local data, as defined, about use-of-force incidents involving police officers to the FBI and to the state’s attorney general. Rep. DeGroot said the bill is expected to be amended to require the data be submitted to the Department of Public Safety. The Department would make the data available to the public, and the data would be considered an open record under the Sunshine Law. HB 998 was heard by the House Crime Prevention Committee on Feb. 22. Testimony in favor of the bill was presented by Cicero Action, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, and the Fraternal Order of Police. Witnesses said the bill would improve the image of law enforcement in a time when many citizens do not trust law enforcement, and several police departments across the state are already providing such data to the FBI. Language of HB 998 previously was amended on the House floor to HB 59 which is awaiting a House vote before moving to the Senate. The committee took no action on the HB 998.
House Joint Resolution 42 (Griesheimer, R-Washington). Upon voter approval, this proposed state constitutional amendment would limit service in the General Assembly for members elected on or after Nov. 8, 2022, to 12 years total in any proportion between the Senate and the House of Representatives. On Feb. 24, the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee amended the bill from 12 years to 16 years in the Senate and/or the House, and voted Do Pass on HJR 42, as amended, by a vote of 8-2.
House Joint Resolution 47 (Bailey, R-Eureka). Upon voter approval, this resolution proposes amending the Missouri constitution to change the state board of education (SBE) from being appointed by the Governor to a board elected at the same time as the next presidential election. One member will be elected from each congressional district by the voters of the congressional district and one member will be elected by the voters of the state. Vacancies may be filled by the Governor as outlined in the bill. On Feb. 23, the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee conducted a hearing on HJR 47. No public testimony in favor of the resolution. Opposition testimony presented by the Missouri State Teachers Association saying the SBE should be kept as non-partisan as possible. Information only testimony by Dr. Mary Byrne who said if the resolution becomes law, money would pour into campaigns resulting in campaign contribution influences in SBE elections. The committee took no action on the bill.
Senate Bill 153 (Koenig, R-Manchester) and Senate Bill 97 (Hoskins, R-Warrensburg). On Feb. 25, the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted Do Pass on SB 153 & 97, known as Wayfair legislation, which would modify taxation provisions and include requiring sales and use taxes to be collected by vendors on Internet/online purchases. The two bills were combined, and the amended bill requires the lowering of tax rates to neutralize the added sales and use taxes that would flow into the state’s revenue. SB 153 & 97 was voted Do Pass on 4-3 vote.
Senate Bill 282 (Hegeman, R-Cosby) modifies various provisions relating to elections. Specifically, the bill allows no excuses absentee voting, repeals the mail in voting subsection that expired in 2020 and creates a new provisional ballot for voters that do not have proper voter identification. The sponsors intent with the legislation is to ensure Missourians are able to practice their right to vote. Hearing held February 24 in the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee. The Director of St. Louis County Elections, MO Association of County Clerks and Elections Authority, Director of Elections for St. Charles County, County Clerk for Greene County, County Clerk for Boone County, and Opportunity Solution Project provided supporting testimony. AARP, American Civil Liberties Union of MO, Planned Parenthood, MO Voter Protection Coalition, and Jewish Communities Relations Council opposed the bill. The MO Secretary of State provided informational testimony stating he is currently working with the sponsor to draft substitute language relating to voting fraud.
Senate Bill 367 (Hoskins, R-Warrensburg) creates the “Show Missouri Film and Digital Media Act” and reauthorizes a tax credit for certain expenses related to the production of qualified film production projects in this state. Hearing held February 23 in the Senate Economic Development Committee. The Missouri Motion Media Association, Polarity Inc., City of Independence, City of St. Louis Convention and Visitors Bureau, AT&T Missouri and Affiliates, City of Kansas City, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Hallmark Cards, Missouri Studio Mechanics Association, and several private filmmakers joined together to support the legislation. No opposing testimony was provided.
Senate Joint Resolution 2 (Onder, R-Lake St. Louis) aims to protect the Missouri Constitution from amendments pushed by out-of-state special interests. Specifically, it modifies the process by which an initiative petition is placed on the ballot by changing the requirements to include that 15% of all signatures must be from voters in each congressional district. During committee discussion in an executive session of the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee on February 24, substitute language was adopted to raise the threshold to 60% in order to change the constitution. Once modified, the committee passed the bill by a 6-1 vote.
Senate Joint Resolution 4 (Koenig, R-Manchester). This constitutional amendment, if approved by the voters, prohibits the General Assembly from setting an income tax rate exceeding 5.9 percent. The amendment also would allow sales tax to be collected on digital subscriptions, licenses for digital products, and online purchases of tangible personal property. SJR 4 was heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 25. No public testimony was presented. The committee took no action on the bill.
House Bill 59 (Schnelting, R-St. Charles) was third read and passed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 22 by a vote of 149-0. HB 59 creates the offense of unlawful posting of personally identifying information over the internet if a person knowingly posts the name, home address, Social Security number, and other personal information of any law enforcement officer with the intent to cause great bodily harm or death to the officer. Penalties are levied. An amendment to the bill also establishes the Police Use-of-Force Transparency Act of 2021, requiring each law enforcement agency in the state annually to submit local data about use-of-force incidents involving police officers to the FBI and to the state’s attorney general. The attorney general shall make the data available to the public, and the data will be considered an open record under the Sunshine Law.
House Bill 334 (Simmons, R-Washington) makes changes to absentee voting, establishes voter photo identification requirements at the polls and the use of provisional ballots, and repeals notice by the secretary of state in print, broadcast television, radio and other media explaining personal identification requirements for voting. On Feb. 23, HB 334 was third read and passed by the House on a vote of 109-46. The bill now goes to the Senate.
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