February 9, 2016

Republicans want more info on $50-million settlement before filing tobacco bill

The Attorney General says legislation must be passed to protect as much as $1-billion in future tobacco settlement payments, but Republican legislative leaders want more information.

Senator Kurt Schaefer (photo courtesy; Harrison Sweazea, Missouri Senate Communications)

Senator Kurt Schaefer (photo courtesy; Harrison Sweazea, Missouri Senate Communications)

Attorney General Chris Koster (D) says he’s reached an agreement to preserve a $50-million tobacco payment to Missouri for 2003, plus future payments, but it’s contingent on passage of a bill to stop tobacco companies that weren’t part of the settlement from recouping payments into an escrow fund, or the allocable share fund.

Those companies were required to pay into the fund in case they get sued, but can recoup the money after a time if not sued. Koster says they are recouping payments under a “loophole” that all other states in the settlement have closed, and that only existed because of a drafting error in the law.

A bill to repeal the allocable share fund has been called for since 2002.

Republicans say they’re not prepared to file a bill until they know more about the agreement Koster says has been reached. The last time a repeal was proposed, Senator Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) carried it in 2014. He says he’s not sure there’s a settlement.

“If there is a settlement agreement I think we need to see it. I think we need to see what the requirements are as far as what would have to be in legislation. We haven’t seen that yet,” said Schaefer.

Senate president Ron Richard (R-Joplin) says until the legislature studies that agreement, it’s not prepared to take up the issue.

“Not at this time … we haven’t even had our attorneys look at it,” said Richard. “I think what the senator’s saying is we don’t even know what the deal is.”

The 2003 payment was reduced under an arbitration decision in 2013. Koster’s office is still challenging that ruling in a case now pending before the state Supreme Court.

Schaefer says the legislature still has questions about whether due diligence is being done by the Attorney General’s office in regard to prosecution, as required by the tobacco settlement.

“Remember we lost that arbitration for the year 2003 because the attorney general at the time did not diligently enforce the settlement agreement. It’s not because the state didn’t have allocable share,” said Schaefer. “The finding of that arbitration is that the attorney general did not diligently enforce the settlement agreement and there’s a multitude of reasons why they found that. That’s an issue that doesn’t have anything to do with allocable share.”

Schaefer isn’t sure that the legislature should count on that $50-million payment in the budget it’s crafting now, for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“I would assume that would be an issue for [next year’s legislative session], but we have to see the terms of how fast that would be paid. Again, that would be part of the settlement we haven’t seen,” said Schaefer.

Death penalty repeal debated in Missouri Senate

The state Senate has debated a repeal of the death penalty, but that’s as far as the idea will go this year.

Senator Paul Wieland (R-Imperial) has offered a death penalty repeal bill for the past six years, but this session is the first time the full senate has debated the issue. Weiland said because there isn’t enough support, he won’t ask to have the bill brought back up for more debate.  It did not come to a vote.

Sen. Paul Wieland (R-Imperial)

Sen. Paul Wieland (R-Imperial)

Senator Jason Holsman (D-Kansas City) is pleased that senators had a chance to discuss the proposal.

“Certainly since I’ve been here, maybe since I was first elected to the General Assembly in 2006, this is the first time I can ever remember hearing and having a meaningful debate on the subject where the members of the chamber just weren’t afraid to talk about the death penalty,” said Holsman.

Senator Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph) supports a repeal and said the death penalty is not applied fairly.

“If you are a black person who kills a white person, you are fairly likely to get the death penalty. But, there has only been one white person in modern history in Missouri who has been executed for killing a black person,” said Schaaf.

Senator Mike Parson (R-Bolivar), a former sheriff, opposes a repeal.

“It’s almost as though we are talking about victims,” said Parson. “What we’re really talking about is killers. We’re talking about people who have done pre-meditated crimes.”

Senator Ed Emery (R-Lamar) supports the death penalty.

“If we say anything less than a life is equal to a life, we have devalued life,” said Emery.

Wieland considers it a victory that the bill was debated on the floor.

Six Republicans and one Democrat are co-sponsoring a repeal bill in the House.

Missouri House gives initial approval to veterans home bonding proposal

The state House is close to proposing that voters be asked to support the construction of a new state veterans home.

Representative Lindell Shumake (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Lindell Shumake (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House has given initial approval to asking voters to approve the sale of $50-million dollars of bonds. The issue would go on the ballot in November unless Governor Jay Nixon (D) sets a special election date.

Another favorable vote will send the resolution to the Senate.

Representative Pat Conway (D-St. Joseph) said many of the veterans waiting to get into homes are like him; a Vietnam veteran.

“Some came voluntarily, some came somewhat involuntarily, but they all waited in line to do their duty and the call of their country. Now we have a line that’s full on the outside of these veterans homes,” said Conway.

The state Veterans Commission says more than 1900 veterans are on a waiting list to get into a home. Conway said many of those who fought in the Vietnam War or Korean War were not welcomed home when they returned, “and now many of those have problems not only with drugs and alcohol, but being able to determine and get healthcare that’s affordable.”

The measure is sponsored by Representative Lindell Shumake (R-Hannibal).

Where the new home would go must be determined by the state Veterans Commission. Last year only three House members voted against it.

Attorney General says Missouri legislature must finish $50-million tobacco agreement

The Attorney General’s Office says its arranged to save the state some tobacco money, but it says now the legislature needs to do its part.

Attorney General Chris Koster announces plea agreement at the Supreme Court Building.

Attorney General Chris Koster

Attorney General Chris Koster says his office has reached an agreement with major tobacco companies to restore a 50-million dollar tobacco settlement payment Missouri had been set to lose due to a federal court ruling, and to keep the state from losing more than 1-billion more settlement dollars. The agreement is contingent on the legislature passing a law addressing what he calls a “loophole,” that allows tobacco companies that concentrate sales in Missouri to recoup money paid into an escrow account to cover future claims against them.

Koster and then-Attorney General Nixon have called on the legislature to pass such a law since 2002. A bill was debated in 2014 after the court ruling but did not pass.

Big tobacco companies say the change would level the playing field between them and their smaller counterparts. Small companies say it would put them at a disadantage and force them to pay an inflated fee for offenses they didn’t commit.

Koster says Missouri is the only state that hasn’t addressed the issue.  Missouri has reached out to legislative leaders to see if they will pursue such a bill.

Koster’s office, meanwhile, is continuing a court challenge seeking the payment by tobacco companies of that $50-million. That case is pending in front of the Missouri Supreme Court. After a lower court ruled against the state, Governor Jay Nixon (D) withheld $50-million from the current state budget to offset the loss of that money.

Earlier stories: 

Ruling cuts Missouri tobacco payments by $70-million

‘Little tobacco’ squares off vs. Attorney General’s office, ‘big’ counterparts in hearing

Missouri Governor announces budget restrictions in response to tobacco settlement ruling

 

Missouri Senate to debate death penalty repeal this week

A Republican-sponsored proposal to repeal the death penalty is likely to come up for debate early this week in the state Senate.

Missouri executed two inmates at the same time on four occasions in its gas chamber between 1938 and 1953.  (photo courtesy; Adam Roberts)

Missouri executed 40 people at its gas chamber between 1938 and 1989 at the now-decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary. (photo courtesy; Adam Roberts)

Director of the State Public Defender System Michael Barrett supports a repeal. He says the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to murders and says the money spent arguing resulting cases could be better spent on more effective public safety items. He says those cases are far more expensive than the typical ones his office deals with.

“Two years ago we represented 74-thousand individuals in this state – misdemeanors, felonies, sex offenses. You combine all the expenses, personnel, overhead costs, we resolved these matters for an average of $345 per case,” said Barrett. “When you look at the death penalty costs, it’s $166-thousand per case.”

Barrett argues that money could go to other public safety needs.

“We are not eradicating the rape kit backlog. Look at the number of unsolved murders we have in the state and we don’t have the resources to solve them. Look at the active warrants that are out there, where we don’t have the resources to round up these guys,” said Barrett.

Senator Bob Onder (R-Lake Saint Louis) opposes a repeal, and tells Barrett he’s not convinced one would make much difference in those needs.

“You saying we get rid of the death penalty, we put one drop into the bucket,” said Onder.

Onder also disagreed with those that argue for a repeal in light of people sentenced to death and later set free.

“I think those are the cases that are few and far between. Those are the rare cases that you suggest making bad policy in response to,” said Onder.

A repeal is supported by Democrats and some Republicans, but it considered unlikely to reach Governor Jay Nixon (D) in a Republican-controlled legislature, and Nixon supports the death penalty.

Missouri has always had the death penalty except during a national moratorium in the 1970s. The state Corrections Department lists 28 men as being sentenced to death.