MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members
This report is written by Missouri School of Journalism students for publication by MPA member newspapers in print and online.
DO NOT PUBLISH: A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS
The Missouri News Network has coverage this week of speeches by an Israeli consul general and the Missouri Chief Justice as well as legislative action on transportation, evictions and the Regulatory Sandbox Act
MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK WEEK OF FEB. 5
Rift between MoDOT, legislature renewed at transportation hearing
missouri news network
JEFFERSON CITY — In an effort to change how the state’s transportation system is governed, a House committee discussed legislation Thursday that would amend how appointments to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission are made or whether to do away with the commission altogether.
The bills underscore the fraught relationship between legislators and the commission over a pay raise MoDOT sought to give employees in 2021 without legislative approval.
Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, sponsored four pieces of legislation that were scheduled to be discussed in the House Transportation Accountability Committee on Thursday, although the committee only got through two of them. Riggs’ other bills, some having to do with the state’s Highways and Transportation Commission, will have public hearings at a future meeting.
The two bills Riggs sponsored that did receive a public hearing Thursday — HJR 98 and HJR 109 — would either eliminate the commission or give the legislature the power to veto MoDOT’s spending plan, prompting pushback from some members of the House Transportation Committee.
“This bill, along with some others, are giving me severe heartburn,” said Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City. “If you want this piece of legislation, you need to go re-work it and come up with a way of reforming transportation , not just highways in this state. I think that’s ridiculous.”
Some of Riggs’ other legislation targeting the Highways and Transportation Commission would make changes to how members of the commission are selected.
The six-member Highways and Transportation Commission governs the state’s Department of Transportation, and the efforts to overhaul MoDOT’s governance this year is a continuation of bad blood between the legislature and MoDOT.
A 2021 lawsuit about MoDOT paying employees higher wages without legislative appropriation after the state approved a 10-cent gas tax increase resulted in political infighting over transportation. MoDOT argued that it needed the pay raises to stymie a significant loss of personnel.
MoDOT is funded by appropriations controlled by the legislature and by funds generated by state gasoline and other transportation-related taxes that are not subject to legislative action. The proposed use of those funds prompted the dispute between legislators and the department.
While not all members of the House Transportation Accountability Committee agreed with the provisions of Riggs’ joint resolutions, there is some consensus among the members of the committee that some change is necessary.
“Most of us feel like MoDOT’s not very responsive to our constituents’ concerns,” said Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, the committee chair and sponsor of another bill proposing changes to the Transportation and Highways Commission. “No one is actually faulting MoDOT for the (employee) shortage because we all understand it. What we do see, however, is a seeming priority on things that aren’t necessary.”
Riggs’ frustration about transportation issues in his district was apparent in Thursday’s committee meeting, in which he said he wasn’t targeting his legislation toward employees of the department.
“They do their jobs every day without fanfare or recognition,” Riggs said. “I do not have any issues personally with the members of the commission. My issues are with the nature of the process, its lack of accountability and consistency.”
Riggs advocated for having the department overseen directly by the legislature and doing away completely with the commission, in an effort to increase accountability in governing the department. The commission was not without its defenders, however.
“We’ve got to live with this system and we got to make it better, but destroying it is the total wrong answer,” Adams said.
The Missouri Transportation Commission was created by the legislature in 1921. Members are appointed by the governor and no more than three of the six members can be of one political party.
“The State Highway Commission, being bipartisan, submits that a highway program should be considered without regard to political affiliation or to party politics,” the commission states on its website.
Presidential caucus has some Republicans worried about accessibility
BY KATIE TARANTO AND SIGI RIS
missouri news network
Some Boone County Republicans — as well as some state and party officials — are voicing concerns about the party’s March 2 presidential caucus, the first of its kind in Missouri since 2012.
Voters face a confusing landscape as the state’s major political parties are being forced to find new ways of nominating presidential candidates after the legislature voted in 2022 to eliminate funding for a presidential preference primary.
The Missouri Republican Party will conduct its selection process through in-person caucuses in each county March 2. Attendance is mandatory to participate, and voters must sign a pledge stating their loyalty to the Republican party.
Democrats can get a mail-in ballot or vote in person March 23. Libertarians will hold a party conference Feb. 24 in St. Louis to send delegates to a national convention where the presidential nominee choice will be made.
At a Boone County Pachyderms meeting in January, some voters aired their frustrations with the state’s Republican caucus system. One voter said her mother, who lives in a nursing home and has always voted, feels disenfranchised because she will not be able to participate due to the caucus’ in-person nature. She said that she is worried for older Republicans who may not be able to attend the caucus.
Another voter who did not have access to a smart phone said he felt abandoned by the Republican Party. He expressed frustration at the party for encouraging online pre-registration, and said the caucus did not make sense to him.
Because the Republican caucus requires attendance and takes place on just one day — as opposed to early and mail-in options that most elections offer — some voters will be left out, Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said.
“Those guardrails of the election system that a lot of people are used to — the requirements that things are accessible, the requirements that there’s an absentee component to things — none of that is part of this process,” Lennon said. “The caucus system is, by default, a more exclusionary process.”
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft raised concerns that the system will prevent Missourians stationed overseas on military duty from participating in the Republican presidential nominating process. He criticized the state’s political parties for failing to inform voters about the changes sooner.
“I was really worried that there didn’t seem to be a good understanding by the people of the state that we were moving away from the presidential primary, and how they could participate,” Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft said the state’s political parties “have turned a corner on” providing information for him to distribute to voters. He said he went from asking party officials for information, to “nagging” them.
Missouri legislators voted to cut funding for presidential preference primaries in 2022 as part of a larger election bill that passed without support from any Democratic lawmakers. The bill, House Bill 1878, made sweeping changes to the way elections are run in the state, including the addition of a photo identification requirement to vote.
Many legislators who supported the presidential preference primary’s removal did so in hopes of reducing state spending. State Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, said the original system would have cost the state $11 million. Now, election costs will be taken on by the state’s political parties.
“It doesn’t necessarily save money, it just shifts the cost away from the state and to the political parties within the state,” said MU College Republicans Executive Director Trey Faucheux at the Boone County Pachyderms Club meeting.
Since H.B. 1878’s passage, there have been signs that Republicans were having second thoughts about eliminating the primary. There were several unsuccessful attempts in the state legislature last year to revive Missouri’s presidential preference primary. One bill was introduced by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, who’s now running for a U.S. congressional seat that includes part of Columbia. At least three bills to reinstate the presidential primary have been introduced in this legislative session.
“This is what we’re stuck with, basically,” Faucheux told Pachyderms members. “We hope that the legislature will come back and reinstate the primary at some point in the near future.”
Lennon, Boone County’s top elections official, thinks that will happen.
“If I was a betting woman, I would say that this process will be reverted back to a presidential preference election by the time we get to 2028,” Lennon said.
Missouri’s presidential preference primary is costly because it’s held on a separate day from the elections to pick nominees for other races on the ballot, such as U.S. Senate, Congress and state officers. Primary day for those offices is in August, well past the date when presidential nominees are decided.
Lennon suggests holding the presidential primary on the same day as Missouri municipal elections, which occur in the spring.
“In my absolutely perfect world, I would consolidate the March presidential preference election with the April,” Lennon said. “There is no reason why we can’t do that, but the parties like to have individual ballots.”
Lennon said in this ideal situation, she would prefer non-party style ballots where voters may choose from a comprehensive list of every candidate. She said that this proposal wouldn’t increase costs and could potentially increase voter turnout.
Ashcroft said fiscal concerns weren’t the only reason for eliminating the presidential primary.
“There were a lot of reasons (for the change), I think money was one of them,” Ashcroft said. “I think people were concerned about Democrats voting in Republican primaries, and Republicans voting in Democratic primaries. It happens on all sides.”
However, Lennon pointed out that unaffiliated voters may participate in multiple presidential contests because they are taking place on separate days.
Missouri Republican caucus
Modeled after the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, the Missouri Republican caucus will feature volunteers and paid staffers advocating on behalf of presidential candidates. Volunteers and staffers will give oral presentations to participants, who will then divide themselves into groups based on their preferred candidate.
If any group has less than 15% of the total votes in the room, the group and it’s candidate are eliminated. Eliminated voters may join another candidate’s group, and votes are then recounted.
After votes are taken, the caucus will discuss the Republican party platform. Voters may introduce amendments to the party platform, and if an amendment receives a majority of participants’ support, it will move on to the Congressional district convention for further consideration in April.
Boone County’s GOP caucus will be held at 10 a.m. March 2 at the Family Worship Center, 4925 E. Bonne Femme Church Road in Columbia. Doors will open at 9 a.m.
Missouri Democratic Primary
The Missouri Democratic Party is opting for a primary election with mail-in votes encouraged and in-person voting available at limited locations on the morning of March 23. Mail-in ballots can be requested through March 12 on the party’s website or by phone. Missouri Democrats Executive Director Matthew Patterson contends his party’s process will enfranchise more people than the caucus system the Missouri Republicans opted for.
“The old style caucus … excludes people from the system and from being able to have their voices heard,” said Patterson.
The Democrats will accept mail-in ballots until 10 a.m. March 23. The Boone County Democratic Party will host in-person voting from 8 a.m. to noon March 23 at Columbia’s Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 Ash St. The party will begin counting ballots March 23 and plans to announce its winner by March 28.
Libertarian Party process
The Libertarian Party will run a third-party presidential candidate this year, as well. Candidates for president and vice president will be chosen by Libertarian delegates at the party’s national convention in Washington D.C. in May.
Randy Langkraehr, vice chair of the Missouri Libertarian Party, said that changes to the Republican presidential selection process have had no influence on the strategy of his party.
“At the state level, we have done absolutely nothing about this,” Langkraehr said. “We do not want to try to infiltrate, and we don’t want to try to be Republican. We don’t want to be Democrats. We want to be Libertarian.”
Langkraehr encouraged Missourians to contact the party and apply to be delegates for Missouri’s state party convention, which will take place 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Holiday Inn Earth City in St. Louis.
There, party delegates will choose from amongst themselves who to send to the national convention, where delegates will choose a presidential candidate.
Reporters Camden Doherty and Quinn Coffman contributed to this story.
Protester arrested after altercation with Ashcroft
BY QUINN S COFFMAN
missouri news network
JEFFERSON CITY — Police said Wednesday a protester was detained following a Tuesday physical altercation between the man and Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.
A protester was detained on the scene downtown, police stated in a news release. No charges have been filed by either Jefferson City Police or Ashcroft. Protesters say Ashcroft instigated the incident.
Photographs by a Missourian photographer show Ashcroft moving through a group of protesters who were blocking the entrance of Revel Catering, a place where a reception was being held for Israeli Consul General Maor Elbaz-Starinsky. As Ashcroft approaches the door, he gets in a physical altercation with a protester.
Protesters demonstrated in the Capitol earlier in the day as Elbaz-Starinsky spoke to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly on the House floor.
According to an incident report released by police, Ashcroft was attempting to enter the building where the reception was taking place before the “disturbance.”
Staff for the Secretary of State said that Ashcroft was accosted by a man from the crowd and that a “scuffle” ensued.
Police officers who had been monitoring the demonstration broke up the two men and arrested the protester, placing him on the ground in handcuffs.
Ashcroft spokesperson JoDonn Chaney said Ashcroft told him that the crowd had been “docile” and that he had been surprised by the incident.
Police said their investigation of the incident is ongoing. The Missourian is not naming the protester because he has not been charged.
Missouri Chief Justice Russell emphasizes mental health in annual address
BY AIDAN PITTMAN
missouri news network
JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell spoke on mental health issues affecting the justice system during the annual State of the Judiciary address to the state legislature on Wednesday.
Russell has served as chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court since 2023 and previously held the position from 2013 to 2015. She spoke about how the mental issues of inmates cannot be treated effectively while in jail, causing deeper issues for those individuals and their communities.
“The longer inmates with mental health problems remain detained – without treatment or without being tried for a crime, let alone convicted — the worse they get,” Russell said.
For tackling these issues, Russell expressed the need for state and local governments to work together with the nonprofit and private sectors.
“Only by sharing our best ideas and pooling our limited resources can we make a positive difference,” Russell said. “All areas of the state are in dire need of mental health services for defendants. Together, we can build networks to help keep those in need of mental health services out of our courts and jails so that they can live safely and successfully in all of our local communities.”
Russell pointed out how mental health and security problems are present within juvenile detention.
“Having more high-risk, high-need youth staying longer in detention impacts the overall safety, security and rehabilitative focus of our entire juvenile justice system,” Russell said.
Russell thanked the legislature for considering a budget request that she said would “better serve youth in detention.”
She also praised measures taken to address mental health issues the justice system faces thus far, including pretrial service programs which she said she wishes to see made available to defendants in counties that currently do not offer them.
Earlier in her speech, Russell emphasized the need for increased juror compensation, which currently stands at $6 per day and an additional 7 cents for each mile jurors travel from home.
“Judges are embarrassed to tell jurors these rates,” Russell said. “We are grateful for your consideration of how to best compensate your local citizens for performing this important constitutional duty.”
Russell additionally shouted out Judges Kelly Broniec and Ginger Gooch, both of whom were appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court last fall, giving it a female majority for the first time in the state’s history.
“We are all grateful for Governor Parson’s appointments under the Missouri Plan,” Russell said, “and for his recognition that, sometimes, the best man for a job is actually a woman.”
Protests accompany Capitol speech by Israeli consul general
BY MADELINE SHANNON AND AIDAN PITTMAN
Missouri news network
JEFFERSON CITY — An appearance by Israeli Consul General Maor Elbaz-Starinsky in the state Capitol on Tuesday prompted demonstrations by Palestinian supporters and contentious exchanges later in the day during a committee hearing.
Elbaz-Starinsky stressed the close ties between Missouri and Israel in his address to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly.
He delivered his comments despite being interrupted for several minutes by pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the House gallery.
In his remarks, Elbaz-Starinsky stressed that Israel has been a force for good against evil and said his nation has come to the aid of Ukraine in its war with Russia and Turkey following devastating earthquakes.
Israel declared war following an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that left hundreds of Israelis dead and more held hostage. In the almost four months since, Israeli military forces have killed thousands in Gaza in pursuit of their goal of eliminating Hamas.
The Israeli consul general delivered his speech hours before the House Special Committee on Public Policy was scheduled to consider a resolution touting the relationship between Israel and the United States. The Senate Rules Committee was also considering a similar resolution urging continued support for Israel in the country’s fight against Hamas.
Supporters of Israel and Palestinians crammed the hearing rooms and hallways outside throughout the day.
“Securing our nation has been a persistent challenge for Israel marked by ongoing conflict, including the recent intense and brutal war with Hamas terrorists who murdered, raped, mutilated, maimed and tortured more than 1,200 Israelis and are keeping hundreds of others,” Elbaz-Starinsky said during the address to both chambers of the legislature.
Elbaz-Starinsky was interrupted by a group of pro-Palestinian protestors in the upper gallery of the House chamber, who held up keffiyehs (traditional Arabic scarves) and chanted about declaring a cease-fire and Palestinian casualties of the Israel-Hamas War. They were escorted from the House chamber before Elbaz-Starinsky resumed his speech to applause from members of the House and Senate.
“This is a war between evil and good, darkness and light, and if somebody can’t tell which is which, they are part of the problem,” Elbaz-Starinsky said about the demonstrators.
That view was strongly contested by pro-Palestinian activists present in the Capitol on Tuesday. In a statement handed out before Elbaz-Starinsky’s address, members of the pro-Palestinian group Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation characterized Missouri’s relationship with Israel as a “partnership that’s enabled and underwritten Israel’s apartheid/Jim-Crow-style treatment of the Palestinian people” and called for a permanent ceasefire.
“For Missouri officials to say we celebrate, we honor Israel, it just seems really immoral and out of step with the rest of the world,” said Jeff Stack, coordinator for the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation. “It’s really sad and sick that we have lawmakers upholding these measures — really, it’s a PR blitzkrieg by Israel.”
Stack also called for the return of Israeli hostages, the release of Palestinian prisoners and that the Missouri government take a stronger stance for peace in the region.
Separate hearings in both the House and Senate were held for resolutions supportive of Israel, with the House Special Committee on Public Policy hearing HCR 30 sponsored by Speaker Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis.
The Senate Committee on Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics heard SCR 24 and SCR 25, resolutions authored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, and Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, respectively. The hearing became contentious with heated exchanges between witnesses and the senators.
Rasha Abousalem, a humanitarian aid worker and an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri, spoke against the resolutions and criticized Missouri lawmakers’ support for them as Palestinian casualties continue.
“Hundreds of Palestinians today will be murdered, maimed and orphaned by the Israeli government while you sit down safely at your dinner tables tonight with your beloved families,” Abousalem said to the committee. “You have introduced this bill blindly supporting Israel amid its ongoing genocide against imprisoned populations in Gaza.”
Committee member Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, noting that he had children attending MU, asked Abousalem what courses she taught because “I want to make damn sure that they don’t ever take one of your classes.”
After her testimony, Abousalem also criticized Elbaz-Starinsky’s comments during his speech on the Israel-Hamas war being a matter of good versus evil.
“This is the narrative that they continuously resort to,” Abousalem said. “This is a false narrative. A lot of the people that are in opposition to these resolutions are actually from the Jewish community … which is very telling of where the American people stand versus where our elected officials stand.”
End to eviction moratoriums debated at Senate hearing
BY EZRA BITTERMAN
missouri news network
JEFFERSON CITY — Municipalities could be prevented from enacting eviction moratoriums under a bill identical to one proposed last legislative session.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County acted in line with the federal government to enforce a pause in all eviction proceedings.
In early 2021, Gov. Mike Parson authorized $324 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid toward households in need of rent and utility assistance.
Under the proposed bill, only the state government would have the authority to put a stoppage on evictions.
“This is essentially a property rights issue, a landlord should not be forced to retain tenets without compensation against their will,” said bill sponsor Sen. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, at an Emerging Issues Committee hearing Tuesday. “It’s unnecessary because there is a separate provision in law under the governor’s emergency power where housing needs can be provided on a temporary basis.”
Trina Ragain voiced opposition to the bill while representing Empower Missouri, an affordable housing advocacy group.
“I think there are solutions out there that allow us to both meet the needs of the landlords while also ensuring we don’t more than double homelessness during a time of crisis here in the state,” she said.
Psychedelic treatment for veterans
A Senate bill would give veterans access to the psychedelic drug psilocybin in a clinical context was also heard at the hearing. Similar bills were filed in the House and Senate last session.
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic mushroom that has shown promise in treating patients with serious anxiety and depression.
The bill proposes that the Department of Health and Senior Services should provide $2 million in grants for research on the efficacy of the drug. It also commissions the department to collaborate with a Missouri university to conduct a psilocybin trial.
Mark Quinn, a veteran, highlighted the crises of veteran mental health and how programs like this can help.
“I suffered from post-traumatic stress twice in my career. Lucky for me, I had good counseling and a good mentor, and that got me through it,” Quinn said. “Unluckily for six soldiers in my last three commands, they committed suicide because they did not have treatments like these (alternative drugs and counseling) available to them. And I firmly believe that if they did, they’d be alive.”
Others at the hearing spoke about how they have had to travel outside of the country with veterans to access psychedelic treatment, and when the treatment was received it had a life-changing impact.
Regulatory Sandbox Act gets House OK again
BY QUINN S. COFFMAN
missouri news network
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House of Representatives gave initial approval Monday to the Regulatory Sandbox Act, a bill that would waive certain regulations for businesses offering innovative products for consumers.
The bill would empower a new Regulatory Relief Office to admit businesses into the “sandbox” program. If accepted, businesses would have a two-year window in which they could request regulations on their products be waived.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield, said he hopes to reduce red tape for those promoting inventive products in Missouri. He has promoted similar legislation in two previous legislative sessions.
“We’re trying to create and encourage innovators and entrepreneurs to bring new products and services to market. And this is just another tool in the toolbox that they’ll have to do that here now,” Riley said.
Before the final vote, the House voted to accept an amendment offered by House Democrats to require the Regulatory Relief Office to confirm that submitted products are not destructive to Missouri’s environment.
The amendment was championed by the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmentalist organization.
“We’re most concerned about (the bill’s) potential to be abused to undermine our environmental rules,” said Michael Berg, political director for the organization’s Missouri chapter.
Riley said he’s optimistic on passage this session, because his past attempts made it far in the legislative process before faltering.
“I’m hopeful. We’ve been so close the last two years,” he said.
Senators in committee also heard a parallel bill Monday, with the same goal of creating an office to waive regulation on innovative products. These bills would need to be reconciled before any version can be signed into law.
The Senate version contains an additional provision not in the House bill, adding language to support small businesses in winning Missouri state contracts.