The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 1, 2013

Bill calls for Missouri schools to offer NRA course to first-graders

By Eli Yokley

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A cartoon character named “Eddie the Eagle” was a center of controversy in the state Capitol this week as lawmakers mulled school gun legislation in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting.

A Senate committee heard a bill sponsored by state Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, that would require Missouri schools to teach a gun safety course to first-graders. The bill asks educators to teach the “Eddie Eagle GunSafe” course — developed and paid for by the National Rifle Association — or an equivalent program.

Opponents of the bill — which comes amid the state’s conversation about extending the school year by one week to gain more instructional time — have criticized Brown’s proposal because it would take away classroom time from other subjects like math and science.

Brown, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said the program would be harmless and strengthen a student’s knowledge base about gun safety, particularly pointing to the program’s theme: “Stop, don’t touch, leave the area, tell an adult.”

“We teach citizenship and social skills,” he said. “We need to teach students how to respond.”

Brown’s legislation would also require teachers to take an eight-hour training course on how to respond to an armed intruder — a plan the Missouri Department of Higher Education projects to cost school districts more than $16 million.

Brown said he was not sure whether the legislation would pass, but felt he was doing the right thing in continuing the conversation about how to educate students about guns. Brown noted that he filed the legislation on Dec. 13, the day before the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six others in Newtown, Conn.

Economic legislation

On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would establish a tax-credit program for athletic organizations — like the Joplin Sports Authority — as a means to coax amateur athletic events to come to the state. The legislation — sponsored by state Sen. Eric Schmitt — would give organizers a $5 reimbursement for every ticket sold, with a statewide cap of $3 million a year.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said passage of the amateur athletics tax credits — as well as passage of a long-sought renewal of a set of benevolent tax credits — served as a symbol of the Senate’s willingness to move more quickly this year to pass economic legislation. Similar legislative proposals have been stalled in previous years by conservatives opposed to spending in tax policy.

But this year — as Gov. Jay Nixon has joined a bipartisan call to clean up the state’s tax code — senators were more willing to move, perhaps because of a push by Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin.

Richard kept the Senate in session late on Monday night after Nixon’s State of the State address to continue a debate on benevolent tax credits — a step in a new strategy to move legislation more quickly and efficiently through the upper chamber.

“It was good dialogue between both parties, and I thought this room worked really well like it did when I was a kid coming up here and watching,” Richard told a gaggle of reporters on the Senate floor Friday morning. “If we can keep that and the tradition of the Senate to have debate that actually works out problems, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Joplin TIF district

Richard may have to use that strategy again when lawmakers begin to consider the creation of a new state tax increment financing district for parts of Joplin as the city continues to recover from the May 2011 tornado. Richard has filed the legislation in the Senate, and a Senate committee is expected to hear the legislation this week.

In December, the Joplin City Council approved the designation of nearly 3,000 acres of the tornado zone for a TIF district, allowing the use of half of any new increase in local tax collections to go to recovery projects in the area.

Richard’s bill — which Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, has filed a similar version of in the House — would provide a supplement, allowing Joplin to receive half of any increase in the revenue from state sales and income taxes collected within the town’s disaster recovery TIF district.

Joplin’s delegation has unanimously signed on to Flanigan’s bill, with the exception of state Rep. Bill White, whose new district encompasses nearly all of the disaster area. White has filed his own legislation that would require the state TIF district to be approved by at least two-thirds of the TIF district’s voters.

“Rep. White is talking about going to a vote of the people — that’s not going to happen,” Richard said frankly. “They’ve already voted on the people that make the applications — which is their elected officials.”

Campaign contributions

Gov. Nixon conducted a series of public events last week to continue his push for expansion of the state’s Medicaid rolls, a top priority during his State of the State address. But another big push in the speech was a renewal of his call for campaign contribution limits on state committees.

Nixon has made that call every year since being elected in 2008, after a court throttled the voter-approved contribution limits that had been in place.

“Each time a wealthy individual or business or special interest sends a check for $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 to a candidate, the public’s trust erodes a little bit more,” Nixon said. “Eventually, if we continue on this path, there will be no trust left at all.”

But just hours before Nixon made that statement, his own campaign committee received a $10,000 check from World Wide Technology Holding Co., a technology firm currently seeking a bid to provide networking services to the state government. Later in the week, Nixon received $25,000 from a Medicare services vendor, and more than $16,000 from a law firm in St. Louis. In all, in the same month Nixon renewed his call for stricter contribution limits, his own campaign committee received more than $260,000 in large donations.

Republicans, still unsure of Nixon’s political future, took the opportunity to repeatedly criticize Nixon and accuse him of hypocrisy, despite their own general opposition to contribution limits. In a statement, Nixon’s campaign committee noted that during his years as attorney general, he argued in favor of contribution limits before the U.S. Supreme Court, and would continue to push for them to be restored — whether through legislative avenues or a ballot initiative.

“Nobody has fought harder for campaign finance reform than Gov. Nixon,” said campaign manager Oren Shur. “He will continue to fight for these limits to be restored.”

House Speaker Tim Jones told reporters he would not take options off the table in terms of ethics reform, but said contribution limits were certainly not one of his priorities. Republicans have typically opposed capping contribution limits.