The Missouri General Assembly has completed its ninth week of session and are now focusing more time and attention to floor debate. This week the House debated and passed numerous bills on the House floor on topics such as motor vehicle registration, eminent domain, unemployment taxes, and tort reform. The Missouri Senate perfected several non-controversial bills and had limited activity this week on any major issues. In fact, the Senate did not work late this week and adjourned on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. There are approximately 10 working weeks remaining in the 2021 legislative session, and many priority bills remain untouched. The legislature will return on Monday at 4 p.m. and will begin its annual spring break upon adjournment next Thursday, March 11.
DEADLINE PASSES FOR FILING BILLS
Members of the Senate and the House ended their filing of bills on Monday for the 2021 legislative session. The House filed 1,449 bills and 64 House Joint Resolutions (constitutional amendments). The Senate filed 630 bills and 29 Senate Joint Resolutions. That’s a total of 2,172 bills.
GOVERNOR RELEASES $280 MILLION HE HAD WITHHELD
On Monday, Governor Mike Parson announced he was releasing more than $280 million of FY21 general revenue he had restricted months ago. The Governor said due to the financial impact of COVID-19, the state previously had withheld about $438 million in FY 21 spending to balance its budget. However, due to the state’s stronger than projected financial position, Governor Parson released more than $38 million in general revenue in October 2020 and $119 million in January 2021. The remainder of the restrictions were released Monday. To view a full breakdown of those funds released Monday, click here.
UNEMPLOYMENT OVERPAYMENTS BILL MOVES TO SENATE
On Thursday, the House third read and passed HCS HB 1083, et al (Eggleston, R-Maysville), a bipartisan bill that would allow the Department of Labor to forgive non-fraudulent overpayments of unemployment benefits grants through the federal CARES Act or other federal programs designed to provide employment security relief. Reportedly, some 46,000 Missourians received overpayments averaging $4,000 and were told to repay them.
*Of special note to Missouri Press Association members:
Senate Bill 408 (Wieland, R-Imperial) modifies the notice requirements required to be made by the State Treasurer for purposes of disposing of unclaimed property and would allow the State Treasurer to use any method of notification to owners of the property. Currently, notice must be published in a newspaper of general circulation once a week for two successive weeks in each county within 240 days of receiving notice of property that is presumed to be abandoned. Newspaper notice could be eliminated under this legislation.
On March 2, the Senate General Laws Committee conducted a hearing on SB 408. Sen. Weiland said his bill would give the State Treasurer methods he deems appropriate for notifying unclaimed property owners. Matt Choinka, a member of the State Treasurer’s staff, said other methods of outreach would be possible instead of newspaper notice. Sen. Greg Razer (D-Kansas City) said he was not in favor of eliminating newspaper notice and asked if there was room to compromise. Choinka said the State Treasurer would probably be in favor of using newspaper notices in counties with aging populations or limited internet broadband, but he would want to allow other types of advertising. “So, no compromise?” Razer asked. Sen. Weiland, the bill’s sponsor, said he would be willing to compromise. Sen. Lauren Arthur (D-Kansas City) asked if the funds previously used for newspaper notices would be moved to online advertising. Choinka did not have a specific answer but said currently six newspapers take up 75 percent of the funding for unclaimed property notices. Sen. Rick Brattin (R-Harrisonville), former Cass County auditor, said he observed “absolutely ridiculous” charges by newspapers printing election ballots in his county. “I used to have to cut the checks,” Brattin said. He said he supports SB 408, “so taxpayers aren’t raked over the coals.”
Speaking in opposition to SB 408 was Gary Castor, managing editor with newspapers in Jefferson City, Fulton, and California. He said eliminating newspaper notices would have “a direct effect on our readers,” and such revenue helps support and sustain newspapers and their employees throughout the state. He said current law promotes transparency in government because a neutral, independent third party publishes the notices. He offered his 83-year-old father who lives in northwest Missouri as an example of a resident who depends on local newspapers. “He has no internet,” Castor said. Newspapers are delivered to readers’ doors, he noted. They would not remember to go to a website. “The approach in Senate Bill 408 does nothing to promote transparency,” Castor said. Sen. Eric Burlison (R-Republic) dismissed the “no internet” argument and said many people have “smart phones” that could access online notices. Burlison then suggested when Gutenberg’s printing press was unveiled, a community’s town criers were probably concerned about being eliminated.
Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, testified in opposition to SB 408, and mentioned that MPA has offered two compromises to the State Treasurer, the most recent requiring only one insertion of the unclaimed property names in newspapers located in counties of 100,000 or more population. The compromise would eliminate several hundred thousand dollars of publication costs. The State Treasurer has not accepted any compromise, to date. Maassen said newspaper notice should still be required. “We are not there yet to take it completely out of newspapers,” he said. The hearing concluded with Sen. Weiland saying he is willing to work with all interested parties. The committee took no action on the bill.
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 Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee held an executive session on March 1 where HB 177 was voted do pass by a vote of 12-0.
House Bill 201 (McGirl, R-Potosi) adds corrections officers to the list of persons (parole officers, federal pretrial officers, peace officers, judges, or a member of the person’s immediate family) whose motor vehicle and driver’s license records are to be kept confidential for security purposes by the Department of Revenue. On March 1 the House Rules-Legislative Oversight Committee voted HB 201 do pass by a vote of 8-0.
House Bill 323 (Hill, R-Lake St. Louis) prohibits any political subdivision or special district to automatically renew any contract without taking a definite action to renew the contract, and no contract shall be renewed earlier than three months prior to the expiration of the contract. On March 3, the House Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee voted Do Pass on HB 323 by a vote of 8-4.
House Bill 512 (Lovasco, R-O’Fallon) modifies provisions for expenditure of public funds on printed matter. No contribution or expenditure of public funds on printed matter shall be made directly by any officer, employee, director, board member, or agent of any state department, political subdivision, or special district to advocate for, support, oppose, or provide education on any ballot measure, any matter pending before the general assembly, or any candidate for public office. Also, HB 512 was amended by the House Downsizing State Government Committee to modify the notice requirements required to be made by the State Treasurer for purposes of disposing of unclaimed property and would allow the State Treasurer to use any method of notification to owners of the property. Currently, notice must be published in a newspaper of general circulation once a week for two successive weeks within 240 days of receiving notice of property that is presumed to be abandoned. Newspaper notice could be eliminated under this legislation. On March 3, the House Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee voted Do Pass on HB 512 by a vote of 8-4.
House Bill 515 (Baker, R-Neosho) prohibits the contribution or expenditure of public funds, including public resources or specified property, by any officer, board member, director, administrator, employee, or agent of any political subdivision to advocate, support, or oppose any ballot measure or candidate for public office. Individuals are also restricted from specified advocacy before the General Assembly when acting in an official capacity or during work hours. The bill does not prohibit these individuals from making public appearances or from issuing press releases concerning any such ballot measure. On March 3, the House Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee voted Do Pass on HB 515 by a vote of 7-5.
House Bill 738 (Rone, R-Portageville) makes numerous changes to election laws. The House Elections and Elected Officials Committee conducted a hearing on the bill March 3, then held an executive session on March 4, to expand the legislation as an omnibus elections bill. On March 4, the committee voted Do Pass on HCS HB 738 by a vote of 7-3. In its main provisions, the bill: (1) Prohibits changes to election laws in the six months preceding a presidential election; (2) Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, the bill requires the use of a paper ballot that will be counted by hand and repeals electronic voting system language with certain exceptions for voting equipment used for the disabled; (3) Allows candidates to select poll watchers at their own expense to monitor an election; (4) Requires absentee ballots to be counted after regular ballots when the polls are closed. Absentee ballots mailed to an election authority must be received by the close of polls, under current law, to be counted; (5) Requires identification to register to vote and to vote in person using an absentee ballot; (6) Modifies affidavit language concerning provisional ballots to clarify current voter identification requirements; (7) Requires election authorities to count ballots after they have been returned from each polling place in a locked box and requires that election authorities audit ballots to ensure the proper number are returned to the election authority; and (8) Repeals law which allowed mail in ballots during the COVID-19 crisis. The House Committee Substitute added numerous provisions to a lengthy bill.
House Bill 842 (Hill, R-Lake St. Louis). Beginning on Jan. 1, 2022 this bill requires the use of paper ballots marked by hand. Electronic touch-screen machines may be used to assist disabled voters until Jan. 1, 2024, and ballot marking devices may be used to assist disabled voters at any time. On March 3, the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee conducted a hearing on HB 842. Hand-marked paper ballots give a reliable paper trail, Rep. Hill said. Testimony in support of the bill was presented by residents from Boone County, DeKalb County, Lake St. Louis, Cuba, and St. Louis, Missouri’s Coalition of Secure and Transparent Elections, the Phelps County Clerk. No opposition testimony. Information only testimony was presented by Ron Staggs, a former computer programmer for Southwestern Bell and AT&T, who said smart phones can adjust elections software and vote counting at the polls; the Johnson County Clerk, Trish Vincent of the Secretary of State’s office, and the Livingston County Clerk. The committee took no action on the bill.
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 only 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. On March 2, the House Public Safety Committee voted Do Pass on HB 904 by a vote of 10-0.
House Bill 922 (Houx, R-Warrensburg) modifies the statute of limitations for personal injury claims from five years to two years. Substitute language was adopted including uninsured motorists to the statute and drops the statute of limitations from ten years to two years. The House Rules-Legislative Oversight Committee voted HCS for HB 922 do pass by a vote of 7-3.
House Bill 998 (DeGroot, R-Ellisville) establishes the “Police use of Force Transparency Act of 2021, requires all law enforcement agencies must, at least annually, collect and report local data to the National Use of Force Data Collection through the Law Enforcement Enterprise portal administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on use-of-force incidents involving peace officers. Additionally, the bill requires Law enforcement agencies must also report such data to the Attorney General. During committee discussion of the House Crime Prevention Committee on March 1, substitute language was adopted to require data be reported to the Department of Public Safety instead of the Attorney General. Once modified, the committee passed the bill by an 8-0 vote. On March 3, the House Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee voted Do Pass on HB 998 by a vote of 12-0.
House Bill 1030 (Taylor, R-Republic) creates the “Personal Privacy Protection Act”, creating provisions relating to the disclosure of personal information to public agencies. The bill prohibits public agencies from: (1) Requiring any person to provide a government agency with personal information or otherwise compel the release of such personal information, as defined in the bill; (2) Requiring any entity exempt from federal income taxation under Section 501(c) of the IRS Code to provide a public agency with personal information or otherwise compel the release of personal information; (3) Releasing, publicizing, or otherwise publicly disclosing personal information in possession of the public agency; or (4) Requiring any current or prospective contractor or grantee with the public agency to provide the public agency with a list of entities exempt from federal income taxation under Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code to which it has provided financial or nonfinancial support. The House Special Committee on Government Accountability conducted a hearing on the bill March 1. Rep. Taylor said HB 1030 does not take away any investigative or oversight authority of the Missouri Ethics Commission. Testifying in favor of the bill were People United for Privacy, the Institute for Free Speech, Alliance Defending Freedom, Americans for Prosperity, and The Philanthropy Roundtable. No opposition testimony was presented. The committee took no action on the bill.
House Bill 1065 (McGaugh, R-Carrollton) makes 26 changes to election statutes in Missouri. On March 3, the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee conducted a hearing on the bill. Rep. McGaugh, the sponsor, said the bill’s main points include: Establishes no-excuse absentee voting within three weeks before an election; Defines the clerk’s or election board’s office as a polling place; Defines that when a ballot is mailed and is returned to the office, it is considered “cast”; Requires a photo ID to vote; Eliminates the Presidential Preference Primary in Missouri, a savings of $9 million in election costs every four years; Persons gathering signatures for petitions cannot be within 50 feet of a polling place; All absentee ballot requests will be kept confidential; Date of birth would be confidential on voter rolls; Use of absentee ballot boxes; A bipartisan team in a residential care facility would direct and collect absentee ballots; And, eliminates residency requirements for election commissioners in larger counties and allows poll workers to work in other counties besides their county of residence. Testifying in favor of the bill were the Johnson County Clerk, Livingston County Clerk, Jefferson County Elections Clerk, Greene County Clerk, and The Secure Election Project. No testimony in opposition. The committee took no action on the bill.
House Bill 1091 (Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau) would create privileged communication protections for persons who report alleged criminal activities to a crime stoppers organization. On March 2, the House Public Safety Committee conducted a hearing on the bill. HB 1091 specifies that no person will be required to disclose, by testimony or otherwise, a privileged communication between a person who submits a report of alleged criminal activity to a crime stoppers organization and the person who accepts the report on behalf of the organization or to produce, under subpoena, any records, documentary evidence, opinions, or decisions related to the privileged communication, as specified in the bill. Any person arrested or charged with a criminal offense may petition the court for private inspection of the records of a privileged communication concerning the person made to a crime stoppers organization. The committee only received one written testimony in opposition to the bill. The committee took no action on the bill.
House Joint Resolution 26 (Falkner, R-St. Joseph). This constitutional amendment would require initiative petitions placed on the ballot by members of the public to be approved by two-thirds of the voters to take effect 30 days after the election. On March 3, the House Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee voted Do Pass on HJR 26 by a vote of 8-4.
Senate Bill 365 (Wieland, R-Imperial) allows a county assessor, upon request of a taxpayer, to send personal property tax lists and notices in electronic form. On March 3, the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee conducted a hearing on SB 365. Testimony in favor of the bill by the Missouri State Assessors Association and the Jefferson County Assessor. No testimony in opposition. Sen. Wieland asked if the committee would pass the bill “consent.” The committee took no action on SB 365.
Senate Bill 429 (Brown, R-Rolla) provides that a minimum fee of $5 may be charged by the Missouri State Highway Patrol for any request where there are allowable fees of less than $5. Such $5 fee shall be in place of any allowable fee of less than $5. The Superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol may increase the minimum fee by not more than $1 every other year following August 28, 2021. The minimum fee shall not exceed $10. Hearing held March 2 in the Senate Transportation Committee. Missouri State Highway Patrol and Missouri Insurance Coalition supported the bill, highlighting receiving information faster is good for the consumer and the insurance companies. No opposing testimony was provided during the hearing.
Senate Bill 434 (Washington, D-Kansas City) establishes the “Cronkite New Voices Act,” which provides that in both public high schools and public institutions of higher education a student journalist, as defined in the act, has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media. School districts and student-media advisors, as defined in the act, may regulate the number, length, frequency, and format of school sponsored media. School districts shall not engage in prior restraint of school-sponsored media except in the circumstances described in the bill, including: (1) Libelous or slanderous material; (2) Constitutes an invasion of privacy; (3) Violates federal or state law; (4) Is a threat of violence; (5) Advertises a product or service that is illegal or is not permitted to be sold to minors by law; (6) Violates the rights of others; (7) Is likely to incite students to commit an unlawful act or to violate school district policy or procedure; or (8) Is likely to materially and substantially disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school. Student journalists shall be responsible for determining the content of school-sponsored media, while student-media advisors are responsible for teaching and encouraging expression and the standards of English and journalism. No student-media advisor shall be subject to disciplinary actions described in the act for refusal to abridge or infringe upon freedom of expression. School districts shall adopt a written freedom of the press policy that includes reasonable provisions for the time, place, and manner of student expression. The policy may also restrict speech that is offensive or threatening.
On March 3, the Senate Progress and Development Committee conducted a hearing on SB 434. Sen. Washington, the bill’s sponsor, described her background as a journalism school graduate at the University of Missouri and her work at the Kansas City Star and The Business Journal. In filing the bill, Sen. Washington said she wants to help students and groom our young people for the future. Testifying in favor of the bill was Amara Harper, one of three editors of The Kirkwood Call, Kirkwood High School. She said her school is “lucky enough to have an administration that trusts student journalists to write what’s important to students and others.” Mitch Eden, journalism advisor at Kirkwood High School and former president of the Missouri Journalism Educators Association, said 14 states have passed such New Voices legislation and another 20 states have introduced such bills. He noted there has never been one lawsuit against any schools in the 14 states that have passed the legislation. He was asked how his high school program is dealing with social media as a news medium, and he said the important point is “Don’t be first, be right” when using social media. Amelia Hurley, another editor of The Kirkwood Call, said journalism has taught her life lessons, and that “schools need to have this bill enacted, especially because of breaking news that occurs at the school” and student journalists are sometimes on hand to report such news. Otto Fagen of the Missouri NEA said SB 434 comes with responsibility and that school districts should take up the measures in the bill. “There’s a consequence by not passing this bill,” Fagen said. The final testimony in favor of the bill was presented by Mark Maassen, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, who said student journalists are vital for the newspaper industry. The Senate committee also received 11 written testimonies in favor of the bill, including support from the Student Press Law Center. There was no testimony offered in opposition to the bill. The committee took no further action on SB 434.
Senate Bill 473 (Brown, R-Rolla) adds a provision to which the Missouri Real Estate Commission may cause a complaint to be filed with the Administrative Hearing Commission against any licensed or previously licensed real estate broker, salesperson, broker-salesperson, appraiser, or appraisal manager for advertisements or solicitations which include a name or team name that using the terms “realty”, “brokerage”, “company”, or any other terms that can be construed to advertise a real estate company other than the licensee or a licensed business entity with whom the licensee is associated. The Commission may consider the context of the advertisement or solicitation when determining whether there has been a violation of this act. Hearing held March 1 in the Senate Professional Registration Committee. The Missouri Realtors testified in support of the bill. There was no further testimony provided in-person.
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. On March 4, the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted Do Pass on SJR 4 by a vote of 4-1.
House Bill 657 (Trent, R-Springfield) adds individually identifiable customer usage and billing records for residential customers of a municipally owned utility, unless the records are requested by the customer or authorized for release by the customer, to the list of records that may be closed under the Sunshine Law. On Feb. 22, the House amended HB 657 with the following: Modifies provisions of the Sunshine Law by closing email addresses and telephone numbers submitted to a public governmental body by persons or entities for the sole purpose of receiving electronic or other communications limited to newsletters, notifications, advisories, and alerts. — 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. — Allows a public records custodian to act later than three days after a records request is made, if a published notice is provided at least 72 hours prior to the request for records that the public governmental body will be closed for an extended period outside of normal hours of operation. – Requires a public governmental body when meeting exclusively electronically, must state in its minutes why the body departed from normal meeting requirements; and meetings held in-person shall be conducted that allow physical in-person public attendance. HB 657, as amended, was third read and passed by the House on March 1 by a vote of 153-1. The bill now moves to the Senate.
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