Legislators plan work for next session with pre-filed bills

Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City Missouri

Updating the legal definition of stalking.

Tort reform.

Requiring school districts to post "In God We Trust" in each school.

Concealed carry.

That's just a sampling of issues Missouri lawmakers could begin dealing with next month, according to a lengthy list of pre-filed bills.

If past success rates hold, only a small fraction stand a chance of receiving the governor's signature.

But lawmakers representing Southwest Missouri — all Republicans — said they will work to get their legislation passed.

All have acknowledged that larger issues may also take priority over their bills.

Lawmakers are waiting for the General Assembly to convene on Jan. 8 in order to have a better sense of how they can move toward getting their bills passed.

State Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, has a long list of pre-filed bills, including:

• A tort reform bill codifying details relating to punitive damages. Tort reform has been an ongoing priority for Republican lawmakers.

• Creation of the Missouri Water and Infrastructure Act, to allow water and sewer corporations to recover expenses and investment without the delays and costs involved in a full-blown regulatory rate case. The companies "may file a petition and proposed rate schedules with the Public Service Commission to create or change a water and sewer infrastructure rate adjustment that provides for the recovery of pretax revenues associated with eligible infrastructure projects."

The PSC would not be able to approve an infrastructure rate adjustment if the water or sewer corporation has not had a general rate case decided or dismissed in the previous three years.

• Create the ability for an electronic notary public.

The tort reform bill will be a priority of the governor's workforce focus, White said. Among other things, the bill states "that punitive damages shall only be awarded if the plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant intentionally harmed the plaintiff without just cause or acted with a deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others, and the plaintiff is awarded more than nominal damages."

He said the language would put into state statutes a standard that is already in case law.

"That's a priority of the Senate, a priority in the House and the governor is interested," While said. "Punitive damages don't affect just businesses; they affect everybody, and we've seen an abuse of claims.

Public safety

State Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, is a former chief of the Joplin Police Department and a former director of public safety for the state of Missouri. He said he has reconciled his previous hesitation about filing bills related to law enforcement.

"I tried to distance myself from public safety bills for fear of being seen as a one-trick pony," Roberts said, "but that's not realistic because many people are coming to me with those sorts of items."

Among his pre-filed bills:

• Adding the use of electronic devices to the state's definition of stalking.

• Creating a violent offender registry that would include any person on probation or parole for first- or second-degree murder.

• Modifying penalties for some traffic offenses.

• Adding provisions related to end-of-life care homes that extend hours of care.

Roberts said Missouri laws dealing with stalking do not adequately address the use of electronic devices or cameras that would track a person's movement.

"There is an opportunity to create an environment where public safety is done in a more reasonable manner. The kind of impediments that keep law enforcement officers from doing the right thing have always bothered me," Roberts said. "Now I'm in a position to do something about it. Anything that deals with bringing reason back to public safety and easing the conflict between the public and officers ... if I can deal with those things, I certainly intend to."

Victim panels

State Rep. Bob Bromley, R-Carl Junction, has just one pre-filed bill — a measure requiring a person who pleads guilty to DWI to attend a victim's panel.

Because this is something in which the governor has shown interest, Bromley said he thinks the chances of the governor's signature is high.

"On these panels, they will speak about the victim's impact, where they will tell their side," Bromley said. "Right now, judges have sole discretion about whether a DWI case should do this, and so many times, someone who is ordered to has already been in an accident that killed someone."

In addition to the governor's support, a similar bill passed the House last year, Bromley said.

Another bill he is currently working on deals with giving landlords additional rights of utility usage in the event of defaulting tenants. But for the most part, Bromley said he sees a better chance of helping others with their bills than submitting his own.

"I don't take putting bills in lightly," Bromley said. "It needs to solve something and have things that all of us like. I think sometimes I believe a lot of bills get just put out there with no chance of passing."

'In God We Trust'

State Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, has introduced a handful of bills that deal with religious issues and schools. They include:

• Prohibiting the state from doing business with a business that is boycotting Israel.

• Allowing school districts to offer elective social studies courses on Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.

• Requiring school districts to display "In God We Trust" in a prominent location at each school building.

• Banning public funds from being donated to any ballot measure or candidate.

• Requiring high school students to fill out a FAFSA application before graduation.

• Requiring colleges and universities to fully document projected costs to incoming freshmen.

Baker said his motivation for the "In God We Trust" bill deals more with history than religion, but he expects it to be controversial. He is carrying the bill this year at the request of state Rep. Dean Dohrman, R- La Monte, who carried it last year.

"It's something I think is important," Baker said. "With the Supreme Court ruling that it is the national motto, it's a historical thing to me, showing what was a major influence in the founding of our country."

Bills such as that one and the ones on Bible classes, Israel and campaign ethics, have a better chance of making it to the governor's desk, Baker said, because they have been discussed and perfected in previous sessions.

Concealed carry

State Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, has so far pre-filed bills that:

• Lower the age for concealed carry permits to 18.

• Establish a joint committee for a Missouri Constitutional Convention.

• Require recipients of the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to search for a job, receive career training or volunteer.

• Allow landowners to use night vision or thermal imaging devices to hunt nuisance predators.

Deaton said his proposed change of the minimum age for concealed carry is not that drastic, and he views it as a technical fix. Currently set at age 19, it started out at age 24 and was lowered to 21 a few years later. The lowering to age 19 was made as a compromise from an earlier proposal for 18, he said.

A person who can be charged criminally as an adult and be drafted into military service should have the right to use Missouri's concealed carry laws, he said.

Of those four, Deaton said he is already getting pushback over the SNAP program modifications, which are similar to changes proposed for federal programs. Critics have argued such requirements don't reduce poverty and cause additional problems for poor people.

"In my mind, it's exactly the opposite," Deaton said. "The program should help the lowest levels of income and hopefully get them started in a job or training for a credential, or if they volunteer, getting skills that could translate to getting a job. That allows them to have the value and dignity that comes with having a job."

The measure about using night vision or thermal imaging is intended to allow farmers and landowners to control nuisance predators such as feral hogs or coyotes, Deaton said. His bill would not allow hunters to use the devices for hunting game animals.

A tale of two budgets

State Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, is the only local legislator who has not pre-filed any bills. And that is to be expected — as the House Budget Committee chair, his attention is focused on the collection of bills that will encompass the state budget.

Currently, Smith sees a tale of two budgets, he said. The short-term, including the rest of fiscal year 2020 that ends on June 30, could exceed prior expectations, he said.

But once the next fiscal year starts on July 1, Smith has concerns about a combination of additional costs and dwindling revenues.

"The further you go in the future, the more you get into theory and speculation," Smith said. But the longer-term outlook I have more concerns about as opposed to the short term. The long term is more troublesome."

Among his concerns:

• The effect of a possible Medicaid expansion that voters could approve in November. The Republican-controlled Legislature has for years resisted Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act for fear that the federal government may not fund its share of a 90-10 split. leaving the state holding the bill. That would leave a $200 million to $300 million hole in the budget, Smith said.

Currently, petition campaigns are underway to put the matter on the ballot.

• The reworking of a tobacco master settlement that may result in revenue upon which "the state has become dependent," Smith said.

• A lawsuit where state employees are suing the Department of Corrections could carry a $100 million price tag, and previous tax cuts could result in $160 million less for state coffers.

On top of those extra costs, Smith fears the arrival of a recession could further reduce revenues.

"I expect (the economy) to remain strong through 2020, but we're probably on borrowed time, economically speaking," Smith said. "We're overdue for a slowing."

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.

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