July 25, 2014

Missouri Senators discuss rulings on federal health care subsidies

It is likely the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether subsidies for insurance coverage under the federal healthcare reform law will continue to be available, after conflicting federal appeals court rulings about them this week.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

One ruling upholds subsidies for insurance purchased on the federal exchange, one says the law only provides them for insurance purchased on state exchanges.

The case carries extra meaning in Missouri, where the Republican-led legislature opted not to create a state exchange.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D) believes in the end, the subsidies will be upheld.

“We’ve had a number of court decisions on this issue and most of them have said that the subsidies are perfectly fine in the federal exchanges, so I think ultimately that position will prevail in the courts,” says McCaskill. “It has been the dominant decision in the courts that have considered it.”

The other option would be for Congress to change the law to clarify that those subsidies are OK, but Senator McCaskill says that is unlikely.

“It would be great to fix it along with other things that we’d like to fix in the health care bill, unfortunately it’s being wielded as strictly a political weapon by the Republican party right now,” says McCaskill. “They will not come to the table and fix things that need to be fixed because they think it diminishes their ability to win elections around this issue.”

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO)

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO)

Senator Roy Blunt (R) says the conflicting rulings are the result of courts trying to sort out a law that didn’t go to conference between the two chambers.

“The law was poorly written, it was poorly structured, it was crammed down the throats of the minority in both the House and the Senate,” says Blunt.

Discussing the case potentially reaching the Supreme Court, Blunt tells Missourinet affiliate KZRG in Joplin, “Ultimately this gives John Roberts maybe a chance to redeem himself and look at this law one more time, and decide it’s really not the best thing for the country and was done in the worst possible way.”

Blunt refers to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who delivered the majority opinion when the Court upheld the constitutionality of the “Affordable Care Act.” Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, has been heavily criticized by conservatives for voting to uphold that law.

President Obama to talk economy in Kansas City

The White House says President Barack Obama will visit Kansas City next week.

President Barack Obama delivers his 2013 State of the Union address.  (Courtesy; White House Media Affairs)

President Barack Obama delivers his 2013 State of the Union address. (Courtesy; White House Media Affairs)

According to the White House Media Affairs office, “On Tuesday, July 29, President Obama will travel to the Kansas City, MO area. He will remain overnight. On Wednesday, July 30 he will deliver remarks on the economy and return to Washington, D.C. More details about the President visit to the Kansas City area will be made available in the coming days.

Sen. McCaskill says GM legal team’s actions ‘killed innocent customers’

Senator Claire McCaskill (D) has gone after General Motors’ legal team for its handling of reports of ignition switch problems on vehicles including the Chevrolet Cobalt, now linked to 13 fatal crashes including one in Missouri.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D) chairs a hearing by a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D) chairs a hearing by a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection.

GM’s legal staff dealt with lawsuits stemming from those failures for years while engineers and investigators were aware of safety concerns. McCaskill says those attorneys allowed a dangerous situation to continue, and asked why GM’s General Counsel Michael Millikin had not been fired.

“It is very clear that the culture of lawyering up and whack-a-mole to minimize liability in individual lawsuits killed innocent customers of General Motors,” says McCaskill in a hearing of the subcommittee on consumer protection, which she chairs.

GM CEO Mary Barra defends her general counsel.

“Senator McCaskill, I respectfully disagree,” says Barra. “I have made the promise to fix what happened in the company to make sure that we are dedicated to safety, that we’re dedicated to excellence … to do that I need the right team. Mike Millikin is a man of incredibly high integrity.”

McCaskill told Barra, “I think the failure of this legal department is stunning. You look around government. When something like this happens … you know what? [Former Veterans Administration Secretary Eric] Shinseki didn’t know about those problems with [veterans scheduling appointments at VA hospitals]. Nobody told him. He’s gone.”

More hearings involving GM officials are anticipated.

A fund set up by General Motors for restitution for victims of GM ignition switch failures and their families will begin processing claims August 1.

Supreme Court hears gun rights amendment arguments

The Missouri Supreme Court has heard arguments on whether what appears on next month’s ballot about a proposed gun rights amendment says all it should say.

The Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City

The Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City

The Court has been asked to consider whether the title and ballot summary that voters will see next month for Constitutional Amendment 5 tells them enough about what it will do by making gun rights “unalienable.”

Attorney Chuck Hatfield asks whether voters know that would mean holding those rights to the highest legal scrutiny.

“Saying ‘unalienable’ tells us nothing,” argues Hatfield. “It tells the voters nothing about the change that we’re making to the Constitution.”

Senator Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia), an attorney, sponsored the measure in the legislature. He argues to the Court that it would put Missouri in line with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s an individual right that is unalienable. It gets the highest level of review from this court,” says Schaefer. “Basically when this court is presented with those questions, and I can’t speculate on those, what they would be, but it is going to be a decision for this court of what meets that standard and what does not.”

Read the ballot language (scroll down to “Constitutional Amendment 5″)

Attorneys for the state and the backers of the ballot language say the challenge should be tossed out because of a statutory deadline barring changes to ballots within six weeks before an election, and say that absentee ballots have already been cast. They say those ballots could be invalidated if the issue’s language is changed.

Hatfield says it isn’t the job of the Supreme Court to worry about those ballots.

“If this measure passes 70 [percent] to 30 [percent] it won’t matter. If this measure fails 70 [percent] to 30 [percent] it won’t matter,” argues Hatfield. “If it’s close it’s going to matter and we may be back [in front of the Supreme Court], but today it doesn’t matter.”

Additionally, Hatfield says if his clients’ case against that language is ruled to be moot, they will have been disenfranchised because he could not have acted earlier.

“The reason we got here when we did, the reason we got to the trial court before 60 days, is because everyone doubletimed it,” says Hatfield. “The Secretary of State issued their certification early, the Auditor issued their summary statement early, we filed suit on the afternoon of the day that the Secretary certified the initiative, we were in court on the next business day. Your honor, if this case is moot, I don’t know what else to do for my clients.”

The Court is also asked to consider, if it decides ballot language is inadequate, whether it can provide new language or whether it can simply remove the issue from the ballot altogether.

It could issue a ruling at any time.

Sponsors of ag bills expect to overturn vetoes, defend deer language

Governor Jay Nixon (D) has vetoed two agriculture omnibus bills because they contain language that would transfer regulatory control of captive deer to the Department of Agriculture. The sponsors of those bills say those vetoes will be easy overrides in September.

Representative Casey Guernsey (left) and Senator Brian Munzlinger sponsored agriculture omnibus legislation including captive deer language, in the 2014 session.  (photos courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications and the office of Sen. Munzlinger)

Representative Casey Guernsey (left) and Senator Brian Munzlinger sponsored agriculture omnibus legislation including captive deer language, in the 2014 session. (photos courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications and the office of Sen. Munzlinger)

Nixon says the bill violates the state’s Constitution, which says the Department of Conservation is responsible for the control and regulation of wildlife.

Senator Brian Munzlinger (R-Williamstown) says the bill is worded so as not to violate the Constitution by specifying that captive deer are not wild.

“Actually if you look at the Constitution, it says, ‘wildlife,’” says Munzlinger. “If you look at the (legislation’s proposed) definition of ‘livestock,’ it says ‘anything not taken from the wild,’ so I think if you look at clear definitions the governor was clearly wrong in his veto of Senate Bill 506.”

Backers of the captive deer provisions in that bill and House Bill 1326 say it would protect hunting preserve operators from new regulations that would put some of them out of business. Proponents of those new regulations say they are needed to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) from imported captive deer into the wild population.

Munzlinger accuses the Governor of standing against private property rights, and the House sponsor of those bills, Representative Casey Guernsey (R-Bethany), agrees.

Guernsey says the new regulations, “literally allow unaccountable, unelected officials a power grab to confiscate and regulate private property and farmers specifically, unlike we’ve ever seen before in the State of Missouri.”

Nixon, in his veto messages on the bills, calls it, “unfortunate,” that the legislature amended the deer language to, “two pieces of legislation that otherwise contain worthy provisions advancing Missouri agriculture.”

Munzlinger says the deer language “fit right in” with the bills.

“I think it was a good part, too,” says Munzlinger. “It was another sector of our agriculture industry – a private property rights issue that is related to agriculture because they are livestock. They are owned by those individuals, taken care of by those individuals.”

Munzlinger adds, “I cannot believe this governor came out against private property rights. That’s exactly what it is. We made a clear distinction that these were captive cervids that were property of the owners, and yet he didn’t clarify between ‘captive’ and ‘wild’ in his comments.”

Both lawmakers believe the vetoes will be overridden in September’s veto session.

Guernsey tells Missourinet, “We’ve passed and overridden the governor’s veto on agriculture legislation before. This isn’t the first time the governor’s vetoed agriculture’s priorities. I’m confident that if you look at the votes on all ten of these individual proposals, they passed out of the House and the Senate with pretty significant margins in a bipartisan fashion, so we’re going to do everything we can to override the veto.”

Read the Governor’s veto messages for SB 506 and HB 1326 (both are .pdf files)