MPA Capitol Report 3/8/2024

In Legislative News, Legislative Reports, Legislative Resources, Missouri Press News On
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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.
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DO NOT PUBLISH: A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS

The Missouri News Network has coverage this week of bills that would impact college hazing and a proposal to add an investigative unit to the Secretary of State’s office to focus on election fraud. There is a national look at what states, including Missouri, are doing to change voting rules prior to the 2024 general election.

If you have thoughts or questions, contact Mark Horvit at horvitm@missouri.edu or Fred Anklam at anklamf@missouri.edu.

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MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK WEEK OF MARCH 4

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THURSDAY

House bill would protect 911 callers in hazing incidents

BY MADELINE SHANNON

missouri news network

JEFFERSON CITY — Pausing to take a breath, Sarah Love, a University of Missouri senior, held back tears as she recounted the story of Danny Santulli, a former MU student.

Santulli, who was starting his freshman year of college in fall 2021, was a pledge for the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, commonly referred to as Fiji. As part of the initiation process, he and several other freshmen were allegedly forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol, which led to Santulli losing his ability to walk, talk and see.

“If this law existed on Oct. 19, 2021, Danny could have very well been here, enjoying his last two years of college today,” Love said.

Love’s testimony was offered in support of House Bill 1443, which would guarantee immunity from prosecution to anyone who is the first to call 911 or campus security when someone is in need of medical assistance due to a hazing incident.

HB 1443, if passed in its current form, would also require the person calling for medical assistance to give their name, stay on-site with the injured person and fully cooperate with law enforcement and medical personnel.

The bill received a public hearing in the state House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee on Thursday.

HB 1443 emerged out of a desire to ensure that anyone who is injured because of hazing while joining a fraternity gets medical help without fear of prosecution, said Rep. Travis Smith, R-Douglas County, the bill’s sponsor.

“Because of hazing laws right now that we have, the way they have it set up, no one called 911,” Smith said of the incident involving Santulli. “Today, unfortunately, because no one called 911, this young man is incapacitated and will need life-long care.”

Some legislators voiced concern that the protection from prosecution wouldn’t apply to others involved once someone else calls emergency services. They discussed changes that could be made to the bill to ensure protections to anyone who tries to help someone injured as a result of hazing.

“Two people are there that started this, one of them is the one that makes the phone call, the other one does CPR,” said Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Whitewater. “The one that made the phone call is the one that gets the exemption out, the one that does CPR to try to save his life does not. We could probably find a better way to do that.”

Santulli sustained brain damage as a result of the incident. His blood alcohol content level was 0.486%, six times the legal driving limit, which led to cardiac arrest and damaged his occipital cortex. He went home to recover with his parents in Minnesota.

University officials shut down Fiji in the aftermath of the hazing incident. Eleven people were charged, ranging from alcohol-related misdemeanors to felony hazing. Several accepted plea deals, pleading guilty to lesser charges and serving short shock detention periods in jail.

The Santulli family settled civil lawsuits with 23 defendants. MU disciplined 13 unnamed students, including suspensions and expulsions, according to previous Missourian reporting.

“As the mother of three college-age men, I understand this is a major issue,” said Rep. Jo Doll, D-St. Louis. “It’s really important to give kids the ability to call 911 without being afraid of the consequences to them.”

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WEDNESDAY

Anti-red flag bill faces criticism amid increasing gun violence

BY AIDAN PITTMAN

JEFFERSON CITY — Opposition was voiced to a new anti-red flag bill in regards to gun rights during its public hearing by the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee Wednesday.

Senate bill 998, sponsored by Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, would establish the “Anti-Red Flag Gun Seizure Act” by declaring federal and judicial orders issuing the confiscation of guns and ammunition to be a violation of rights.

“Some anti-Second Amendment groups have weaponized the red flag laws to silence their opponents,” Hoskins said while presenting the bill. “We’ve seen the federal government weaponize the Department of Justice against political opponents, so it is happening. We don’t want that to happen in Missouri.”

Hoskins also said the Second Amendment is needed to protect the First Amendment.

Witness testimony favoring the bill began with Susan Myers, the Missouri state director for Women for Gun Rights. Myers said red flag laws have led to women being more vulnerable to domestic violence when they have their guns taken away, something she says the bill would prevent.

William Bland, a board member for the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, called red flag laws unconstitutional and ineffective.

“If a person is believed to be a danger to themselves or others, taking away their firearms does not remove that danger,” Bland said.

Testimony against the bill then followed first with Kristin Bowen, a volunteer for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America from Columbia.

“Missouri already has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, and our legislature has spent the past two decades gutting our common sense public safety laws,” Bowen said.

Bowen cited a 59% increase in gun deaths in the state from 2012 to 2021 versus a 39% increase nationwide.

“Constant heartbreak cannot and should not be our reality in Missouri,” Bowen said. “Instead of taking steps backward, our state needs to be taking steps forward by passing laws that would keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals and provide our communities with support that they need to adopt local solutions to gun violence.”

After the hearing, Bowen further defended the purpose of red flag laws.

“Extremist protection orders are a measure that has been proven … to save lives,” Bowen said. “We know that they work and that there’s a process in place when they’re implemented appropriately to protect families and loved ones when someone is at risk of harming their themselves or others.”

Jacque Bardgett, a lobbyist who was present on behalf of the city of St. Louis and Mayor Tishaura Jones, then appeared stating Jones’ opposition to the bill.

Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, additionally voiced his own dislike for the bill during the hearing, pointing to the recent shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl victory parade.

“This is a real thing we’re talking about … this about the fact that this is a true crisis,” Williams said. “This is not about winning the day, this is not about winning the election cycle. This is about winning for families and moms and survivors that will never get an opportunity to see their loved ones again.”

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TUESDAY

Senate debate over state holiday devolves into shouting match

BY EZRA BITTERMAN

missouri news network

JEFFERSON CITY — Tuesday’s Senate action became a convoluted mess as a debate over ceremonial holidays quickly turned into an argument on transgender healthcare.

Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, introduced a bill creating “Chris Sifford” Day. Sifford was a longtime staffer for former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, before both died in a plane crash. Numerous amendments were attached to the bill by other senators, adding other ceremonial holidays.

Few senators were even present for the lengthy debate over what holidays to add and whether Missouri’s unofficial moniker “the Show-Me State” needs to be enshrined in law. Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, even watched some of the proceedings in the gallery among the public.

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, criticized the number of commemorative holidays the state has. There are over 100 ceremonial holidays in state law. Most of these are unknown to all but a few people, such as Jan. 16, which is set as Albert Pujols Day to honor the Cardinal legend.

A wound between Democrats and Republicans was reopened when Hoskins filed an amendment to add a sunset date to the holidays introduced by Razer.

Last year, a bill blocking doctors from administering gender-affirming care was only able to get through a Democrat filibuster with a 2027 sunset date added to the law. Hoskins filed a bill this session to remove that sunset date.

Razer opposed the amendment, saying he felt that Hoskins can’t, in good conscience, propose the sunset of a holiday when he can’t keep a promise on a sunset deal made last year. Hoskins retorted that he never agreed not to file a law removing the sunset on the transgender legislation at some point in the future.

After continuing back and forth, the debate reached a climax when Hoskins said, “We want to talk little kids having their private parts cut off?” in a reference to medical procedures for gender transition.

Razer responded, “How many times did you say that ridiculous lie last year?”

Then, after screaming at each other for a few seconds, the Senate Pro-Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, banged his gavel and called the chamber to order.

The bill was put aside, ending what was meant to be a procedural debate on ceremonial holidays that became a fiery referendum on gender policy.

Tuesday’s floor histrionics underscored the lack of progress in approving bills in the Senate this session as it nears the halfway point. The Senate still needs to debate exceedingly controversial topics such as education reform, the budget and Planned Parenthood funding.

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Driven by the 2024 election, states around the U.S. push to change voting laws

BY EMMALINE LUETKEMEYER

missouri news network

State lawmakers concerned about the integrity of elections ahead of the 2024 presidential vote are proposing and enacting an unprecedented number of laws to restrict — and, in some cases, expand — voting rights and ballot access.

In the shadow of the 2020 presidential election, states enacted more “restrictive” and “expansive” laws related to voting in 2021 and 2023 individually than in any other years in the last decade, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Because of this, voters in 27 states will face new requirements that weren’t in place when they voted in 2020.

From outlawing guns in polling places to proposing “mugshot bills,” states across the country continue to consider new legislation that modifies the voting process, and imposes new regulations on ballot counting, absentee and early voting, polling places and election workers.

“Generally among legislators at the state and national level, concerns about voter fraud have become more pronounced,” said David Kimball, a political science professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Kimball said this sort of legislation has increased since the 2020 election, after former President Donald Trump made unfounded accusations that electronic voting equipment was making mistakes.

For example, at least 13 bills to regulate or ban electronic ballot tabulators were introduced in eight states this year, including Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire and West Virginia, according to Voting Rights Lab data.

Pending legislation in Missouri proposes that all ballots should be cast on paper and hand counted.

At least two Missouri Senate bills would outlaw the use of automatic tabulating equipment and voting machines, except those needed for accessibility purposes. More than 90% of U.S. election jurisdictions use ballot tabulators, according to the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center.

Ballot-counting scanners are widely used in states like Missouri even though people still vote on paper ballots, Kimball said. Counties will hand-count a random sample of ballots to ensure it matches up with the machines.

“It’s not like they’re relying entirely on the scanners,” Kimball said. “In big, big counties with hundreds of thousands of voters and ballots counted by hand, it’s going to take time and can be very frustrating and prone to errors.”

No excuses and ballot drop-off

How advanced voting and absentee ballots are handled is a hot-button topic.

Mail-in, advanced and absentee voting are under scrutiny in many states, including Florida, Kansas and Missouri.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, where voters can request and cast an absentee or mail-in ballot with no excuse or reason necessary.

In Missouri, at least two proposed house bills would allow “no-excuse” absentee voting. Absentee ballot requests in Missouri list six reasons for absentee voting, including religious practice, incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability, absence from election jurisdiction or working certain jobs.

Florida allows “no excuse” absentee voting, but Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, tried to change that. Ingoglia proposed SB 1752, which would allow voters to cast mail-in ballots only if they couldn’t vote in person because they were out of town during an election, hospitalized or in jail.

Ballot drop-off in several states is subject to change, too.

One Kansas bill, nicknamed the “mugshot bill,” sparked controversy during its February hearing. HB 2572 mandates personal delivery of a ballot and requires individuals to have their pictures taken and their information recorded when delivering advance voting ballots on behalf of others.

In Florida, Republicans proposed a SAC 6 bill that would limit the number of ballot drop-off locations during early voting periods across the state.

Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis previously banned official ballot drop-off boxes that aren’t physically guarded at all times when they’re available, which made it more expensive for county election administrators and reduced the number of drop-off locations.

Separately, Florida Republicans required voters to request a new ballot before every election. Before the change, a voter could receive a mail-in ballot by making a single request every four years. Far more Democrats in Florida cast ballots by mail and during early voting periods, while Republicans tend to show up on Election Day.

A new polling place atmosphere

Polling places and election workers around the country are facing new rules, too.

New Mexico’s Senate recently passed a bill, SB 5, that makes bringing a loaded or unloaded gun within 100 feet of a polling place’s door while voting takes place a misdemeanor.

SB 5 specifies that law enforcement and concealed carry permit holders are two exceptions. Some conservatives and rural Democrats opposed the bill, and it passed the state House by a single vote.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until March 6 to sign the bill, which she is expected to do.

In Missouri, SB 926 would expand the regulation of exit polling, sampling and electioneering to apply not only to polling places on Election Day, but during the absentee voting period as well.

The bill would also create the offense of “tampering with an election official,” which includes harassing, intimidating or deceiving an election official or their family members. Committing the offense could result in imprisonment and a $2,500 to $10,000 fine.

“On the safety side, this is something I think has become an increasing concern since 2020: threats to election workers,” Kimball said, adding, “that’s spurred, I think, some legislators to propose measures to increase safety.”

Following false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, counties across the United States experienced a surge in threats directed towards election workers, according to multiple reports and studies. This increase in threats led to an exodus of election personnel.

To alleviate staffing gaps at polling stations, Kansas considered a bill to broaden the pool of eligible poll workers. Kansas HB 2616 would expand eligibility to include active military members, their spouses or dependents and full-time college students regardless of residency or registered voter status.

“The best way to improve voter confidence is to have them be a poll worker,” Kansas Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth, said. “When you actually see how the process works and all the safeguards that are in place, it really does make you think there is no way to corrupt this. The more people we can get to participate the better.”

Virginia state lawmakers recently voted to rejoin a national membership organization that helps maintain voter rolls.

The nonpartisan Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, ensures up-to-date rolls and helps voters register when they move, said Virginia Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.

At present, 24 states and the District of Columbia are ERIC members. There was a recent exodus of Republican-led member states fueled by “right-wing misinformation,” VanValkenburg said.

Virginia withdrew from ERIC in May 2023, citing other states departing and “increasing concerns regarding stewardship, maintenance, privacy and confidentiality of voter information,” among other reasons, according to a letter from the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections. Nine states had left ERIC by October 2023, including Missouri, according to VanValkenburg.

But state leaders reconsidered.

“You can look at a number of comments from election officials across the country, including election officials in states that left ERIC, that show that there’s really no replacement,” VanValkenburg said.

Changing access to the polls

At least 240 bills that would change early voting availability in 41 states were introduced, and some enacted, since January 2023, according to Voting Rights Lab data.

For example, as a response to the poll worker staffing shortage, Kansas HB 2512 would mandate at least four hours of early voting on the Saturday before the election starting this year and then take away the Monday in-person early voting period starting in 2025.

While this Kansas bill aims to cut the early voting period, bills in other states propose the opposite.

Under a Democratic governor and legislature in 2020, Virginia lawmakers expanded voting access. Measures included a 45-day early voting period, permanent absentee voter list, recognition of Election Day as a state holiday and same-day voter registration. Republican efforts to overturn some of these bills have been thwarted.

Texas HB 1217, which went into effect Sept. 1, 2023, aims to standardize voting hours for rural and urban communities by requiring all counties to offer extended early voting hours.

According to an analysis of the bill, inconsistent voting times between counties meant residents in rural counties had “less time to vote than if they lived in a metropolitan area.” Polling locations in most metropolitan areas already operated under extended early voting hours.

Additionally, Texans from rural parts of the state can expect to see more polling locations with longer hours this election cycle.

Nearly 90 counties, most of them rural, are a part of the state’s Countywide Polling Place Program, which allows residents from any precinct in the county to vote at any location. The program, which counties voluntarily opted into, allows counties to combine smaller precincts and consolidate voting locations since residents could vote throughout the county.

But under Texas SB 924, which also went into effect Sept. 1, 2023, combined precincts in counties participating in the program cannot contain more than 10,000 voters, making them need more polling locations to comply with the law.

Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization, reported that some smaller Texas counties will have to double their polling locations to comply with the new law, while bigger counties that already offer a large number of voting locations may not need to add any.

Kimball, the political science professor, said that while the overall increase in the volume of proposed legislation is a reaction to fears related to the voting process, needed improvements can still result.

“In general, there are very minuscule rates of voter fraud in the United States … So at least in terms of combating fraud, there aren’t any major problems there that need to be corrected…” Kimball said. “But there are always ideas for making registration procedures more efficient and maybe a little more accessible to people who face challenges.”

The collaboration is a project of the Center for Community News to elevate high-impact, university-led statehouse reporting. Reporters contributing to this story include Allie Haggar at the University of Kansas, Claire Grunewald at Fresh Take Florida at the University of Florida, Emily Richardson at Virginia Commonwealth University Capitol News Service, Brody Foster at the University of New Mexico News Port, and Morgan Severson and Amelia Kimball at the University of Texas at Austin.

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MONDAY

Bill seeks to ramp up election security in Missouri

BY DMITRY MARTIROSOV

missouri news network

JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal by a Missouri senator running for the state’s top election post would create a new office charged with investigating claims of election fraud.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, would create the Office of Election Crimes and Security, a new division within the secretary of state’s office that would be tasked with overseeing and conducting investigations into alleged violations of election laws.

The measure would create a minimum of three new positions — a director and at least two investigators — in addition to a voter fraud hotline.

During a public hearing Monday in the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee, Hoskins said his vision for the new office would resemble an “audit task force.”

“If there was anything that they saw (that was) nefarious, whether it’s before the election, on election day or after the election, they could immediately go and investigate,” Hoskins said.

The proposal would require the new office to submit an annual report to the governor and leaders of both the House and Senate before Jan. 15, detailing investigations of alleged violations that occurred during the previous calendar year. It would also provide the attorney general statewide authority to investigate any voter fraud allegations.

The attorney general would have concurrent jurisdiction along with local prosecuting authorities, according to the proposal.

Sharon Geuea Jones, a lobbyist representing the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said that part of the bill is giving her pause.

“We feel that criminal violations should always start with the local prosecutor’s office,” Jones said. “Those offices are elected by their local constituencies to do that work.”

Others testifying in opposition to the bill said the new office proposed by Hoskins would be better served if it was housed in an independent, nonpartisan environment. Missouri’s secretary of state office is headed by political figures that are elected statewide.

“I know election integrity has been a big topic of conversation,” Hoskins said. “And many times we hear ‘Hey, there’s no election fraud in Missouri.’ Well, I’m here to give just a few examples.”

Hoskins, who filed Feb. 27 to run for secretary of state, cited data from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in the District of Columbia, regarding instances of election fraud in Missouri.

He mentioned three cases, including one involving Danny Williams, a Boone County resident who pleaded guilty to three counts of forgery after falsifying 114 signatures on 40 ballot petitions in 2014.

A possible challenge to Hoskins’ proposal is the Missouri Elections Integrity Unit, a division within the secretary of state’s office allowing individuals to file a complaint regarding allegations of election fraud. The division bears similarities to Hoskins’ proposal.

Deputy Secretary of State Trish Vincent said the division isn’t putting out an annual report but added records related to election fraud investigations are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law and that people request them all the time.

“The way we have it now, we are able to do what’s necessary,” Vincent said, adding that the division investigates every complaint they get.

Hoskins, who is term-limited, is among at least five other Republicans who are either running or have expressed their intent to run for Missouri secretary of state.

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Sen. Mike Moon attempts to eliminate corporate income tax again

BY QUINN S COFFMAN

missouri news network

JEFFERSON CITY — Two bills heard Monday seek to cut income taxes for corporations in Missouri.

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, sponsored the more aggressive of the two bills, which would reduce the income tax rate for corporations — currently at 4% — over five years until it is fully eliminated.

The second bill that was heard would introduce a system of cuts that could eventually reduce the rate to 2.25%.

“Some will ask well, why should we give back money to business owners?” Moon said. “There are business owners … who I think realize that when money is allowed to stay in your hands, you can do several different things, whether you spend it, you invest it, you save it, all that results in increased revenues to the state.”

Moon said that the high volume of tax credits offered by Missouri shows the state has room to lower taxes.

Corporate tax cuts, sometimes categorized as part of “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economics, are intended to draw more businesses into a state or to allow businesses to expand their operations. Moon argued this would be true of his bill as well, allowing the lost revenue to be recollected as the state prospers overall.

Reducing corporate income taxes has been a pillar of the Missouri Republican party for years, with Moon having presented versions of this bill in the last few sessions.

Missouri Republicans have been successful in recent years reducing a variety of taxes, including during Gov. Mike Parson’s 2022 special session, which focused on individual income taxes.

Moon said that his Senate colleagues are interested in further cuts, but that it’s uncertain if it will be prioritized on the Senate floor.

Otto Fajen, representing the Missouri National Education Association, spoke in opposition to both bills. His concerns were focused on the possible impact of these cuts on other legislation attempting to improve working conditions for teachers in Missouri.

“We’re just concerned that any progress that the legislature might want to make on recruitment, retention or teacher salaries could be undermined by a cut of this magnitude,” Fajen said.

Fiscal estimations attached to Moon’s bill show that it could eliminate over $176 million in corporate taxes in its first year. By 2029, with corporate income taxes fully abolished, the bill would keep nearly $900 million in income taxes from being collected from corporations.

Fajen was also concerned with how the bill would affect funding for local municipalities. Fiscal notes show that over $30 million could be lost to these municipalities by 2030 as well.

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