May 5, 2015

Future for Missouri Senate gas tax hike proposal is ‘Smoky’

The Missouri Senate last week gave initial approval to an increase in Missouri fuel taxes, but some leaders are concerned that might be as far as the bill gets.

The Transportation Department says without additional funding, it will have to restrict most of its road work to main corridors by 2017.  (Photo courtesy; MODOT's Flickr page)

The Transportation Department says without additional funding, it will have to restrict most of its road work to main corridors by 2017. (Photo courtesy; MODOT’s Flickr page)

“I’m thinking of the Burt Reynolds movie,” Senate Leader Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) told reporters in summing up the prospects of the bill. “It’s got a long [way] to go and a short time to get there.”

The proposal would raise Missouri’s tax on diesel fuel 3.5-cents and on other fuel 1.5-cents. If passed, Senate projections are that it would raise $54.6-million a year for transportation infrastructure, but Dempsey says language that would create a board to study tolling on I-70 could doom it.

“[I’m] hearing from some of our members that the amendment that Senator [Rob] Schaaf (R-St. Joseph) put on is problematic, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” said Dempsey.

If the proposal does make it out of the Senate, it could face a challenge in the House where Speaker John Diehl, Junior (R-Town and Country), had said transportation funding might have to wait until next year to be addressed. But, he told Missourinet his chamber would give it a look.

“Once they get it over to us we’ll refer it to the appropriate committee to give it a fair hearing, and see whether or not it’s something that we should pass out,” Diehl told Missourinet.

Transportation officials say the bill would generate enough to match 160-million federal transportation dollars in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2016, but additional state money would be needed to avoid losing federal dollars in years after that.

Missouri lawmakers hope federal program can propel police body camera issue

The federal government has approved a program that will help pay for police body cameras for local law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Senator Jamillah Nasheed (D-St. Louis)

Senator Jamillah Nasheed (D-St. Louis)

The Justice Department announced a new $20-million program to fund the use of police body cameras for local law enforcement agencies.

State Senator Jamilah Nasheed has made a push in the Senate to mandate the use of body cameras by police in Missouri.  Nasheed said throughout the country, community and law enforcement are divided.

“The federal government sees the light and we are still blind by the light as a state,” said Nasheed.  “Until we’re able to look at those body cameras, not as a negative, but as a positive in terms of bridging the gap between community and law enforcement, only then will we see true progress.”

State Representative and Chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus Brandon Ellington has filed bills in the House that would mandate the use of body cameras in Missouri, but many lawmakers were opposed to Ellington’s proposed ways to pay for them.

“We keep creating excuses as to why we cannot fund this, when we know we can if we are a little innovative,” said Ellington.  “I’m very appreciative that the federal government sees it’s a necessity to make money available for equipment that not only protects law enforcement, but protects citizens.”

Representative Brandon Ellington (photo courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Representative Brandon Ellington (photo courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Ellington hopes the new federal program will help diminish opposition, but said there are still key lawmakers who do not want to move this type of legislation forward.

“Now we can point at a funding mechanism that’s already out there, but I’m afraid that we’re not going to have movement on it until the leadership in the majority party feels it’s a necessity to protect citizens that are most vulnerable to police brutality and to protect police because it definitely protects the police against malicious accusations,” said Ellington.

Nasheed also hopes the new federal program will propel body camera legislation in Missouri.

“It is a step in the right direction and I am elated that the Justice Department has stepped to the plate,” said Nasheed.  “That’s something we need to do here on the state level and I’m going to continue to fight for body cameras.”

The Justice Department’s program includes 17-million dollars in grants for police departments to buy cameras and 3-million for training, technical assistance, and evaluation.

Missouri lawmakers debate possible constitutional problem with municipal courts bill

A plan to reform the state’s municipal courts has made it to a committee of House and Senate members who will try to find a version both chambers can agree on.

Representative Robert Cornejo sponsors the municipal courts bill in the House.  He tells Missourinet concerns about a possible Hancock violation are, "worth discussing," and says House conferees are willing to address any "appearance of" a Hancock issue.  (Photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Robert Cornejo sponsors the municipal courts bill in the House. He tells Missourinet concerns about a possible Hancock violation are, “worth discussing,” and says House conferees are willing to address any “appearance of” a Hancock issue. (Photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House added to a bill that would further limit how much of a city’s annual revenue can come from traffic tickets and fines, language requiring minimum standards for local government in St. Louis County, including a capital improvements plan and annual audits.

Senate sponsor Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale) says some senators are worried those requirements could violate the Hancock Amendment; a constitutional protection against the state requiring local governments to do something they have to pay for.

“I think there are some good ideas there, but we’ll have to figure out how that relates to the bill,” Schmitt told Missourinet.

That language was offered by House Speaker John Diehl, who said no one has discussed those concerns with him.

“I don’t think there are any Hancock issues with it, but we’re happy to discuss whatever concerns there are,” Diehl told Missourinet. “It’s something that we feel pretty strongly about and I think it was pretty instrumental to having the bill pass the House.”

The two chambers must also agree on how much the bill would change the current 30-percent limit to how much of a city’s annual revenue can come from traffic tickets and fines, with anything beyond that limit going to school districts local to that city.  Both chambers propose reducing it to 20-percent in most of the state.  The Senate, though, would reduce it further to 10-percent in “suburban areas,” while the House would reduce it to 15-percent only in St. Louis County.

The plan was prompted in part by Department of Justice findings that Ferguson Municipal Courts were discriminating against blacks and were more focused on generating revenue than administering justice.

Nine days remain before the end of the session.

Ameren Missouri electric rate increase approved, Noranda gets decrease

Ameren Missouri gets the approval to increase electric rates, but one southeast Missouri company will pay a lower rate.

Ameren Missouri's Callaway Energy Center

Ameren Missouri’s Callaway Energy Center

The Missouri Public Service Commission has authorized a rate increase of nearly $121.5 million, which is approximately $142 million less than what Ameren requested in July of 2014.  Noranda Aluminum is Ameren’s biggest customer, but company officials said higher rates would force the company to shut down.  Noranda Aluminum operates a smelter in New Madrid and purchases more than 10 percent of all Ameren’s electricity.

Public Service Commission Chairmen Robert Kenney said residential customers will see an estimated rate increase of a little over 5 dollars a month and explains why Noranda will receive a lower rate.

“If Noranda left Ameren’s system all together, all of what Noranda is currently paying would then be shifted to other customers and that shift would be greater than the decrease we’ve allowed,” said Kenney.  “It’s in the public interest and better for the remaining rate payers for Noranda to continue taking service from Ameren than if they shut down and left.”

Kenney said Noranda would be required to meet certain requirements in order to receive a discounted rate.

“There are employment levels that have to be maintained at the smelter, there are restrictions on their ability to pay special dividends to their shareholders, and there was a requirement that a certain level of capital expenditure be made at the plant itself,” said Kenney.

Ameren claims it needed to raise rates due to continued investment in the company’s generation and energy delivery systems, large investments in environmental controls at the company’s Labadie Energy Center, and a new reactor vessel head at the Ameren Missouri Callaway Energy Center.  It also cited escalating net energy costs, the recovery of solar power investments, and customer rebates as other driving factors to increase rates.

The rate increase is Ameren’s 6th rate increase since 2007.

Proposed expansion of Missouri ‘castle doctrine’ sent to Senate

The Missouri House has approved a bill that would extend the castle doctrine to houseguests.

Representative Joe Don McGaugh (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications - feature image courtesy; UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

Representative Joe Don McGaugh (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – feature image courtesy; UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

Missouri homeowners have a legal defense for using deadly force against intruders. Representative Jo Don McGaugh (R-Carrollton) proposes extending that to guests in a home as well.

“What this bill does is a common-sense expansion to say if I’m not the owner of that property but I’ve been given the authority of that property owner to protect my family and my property, that they can act in the same manner as what the public policy of the State of Missouri is now,” McGaugh said during House debate.

Representative Jeremy LaFaver (D-Kansas City) said he was alright with a different provision of the bill, but said he’s concerned expanding the castle doctrine will only lead to, “more dead people.”

“Increasing guns and increasing people with guns who are ready to defend; perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, I worry about that,” said LaFaver.

The bill would also allow municipal or county prosecuting attorneys and municipal, associate circuit or circuit judges who have completed required training to carry firearms in courtrooms and exempt them from other firearms violations, and would allow an individual to take some required firearms safety training online.

The bill, HB 122,  goes to the Senate for consideration.