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Missouri legislature approves autism bill, continues work on ethics, DWI bills

Thursday, May 13, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:31 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 13, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — After weeks of stagnation and cross-chamber acrimony, the Missouri legislature began moving on major issues in its final week of the 2010 session.

The legislature advanced a scaled-down version of an ethics package and sent the governor a measure mandating insurance coverage for autism. The Senate compromised on drunken-driving legislation and rejected a proposal requiring plumbing codes in counties with parks near lakes and streams. 

"In this line of work, you view what happens (by the) end, not necessarily the process," said Gov. Jay Nixon at a news conference.

Nixon said it was too early to pass judgment on the session's success.

"I wouldn't want to pregrade based on a midterm score," Nixon said. "We're at the turn, and we'll see how we do on the back nine."

The major legislative developments of the day included:

Ethics 

A tentative agreement on the campaign finance bill was unveiled. Republicans touted it as an answer to the calls for ethics reform, but Democrats criticized it for being a shell.

Although it imposes restrictions on fund transfers between political committees, the proposal would eliminate provisions that had been recommended by the House Ethics Committee and urged by the governor.

The conference committee version strips from the bill limits on lobbyist gifts to legislators, limits on how much any one person can contribute to a political campaign, a prohibition on legislators taking money from other legislators for campaign consulting and a waiting period before a state official could become a lobbyist after leaving office.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the broader ethics package could not have cleared the Senate. "What we do have is an ethics bill that restores some of the faith that we may have lost," Shields said. "I don't want to get ahead of myself, but this could be a (unanimous) vote in the Senate."

But House Democratic Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said the bill was an effort to kill real ethics reform. "It certainly doesn't clarify anything as far as money influencing the system down here," he said.

As the Democratic member on the conference committee drafting the bill, LeVota complained that his choices had been replaced by the Republican House speaker.

Autism

A bill that would require insurance companies to provide a maximum benefit of $40,000 for families with autistic children was sent to the governor's desk Wednesday.

The measure is substantially scaled back from the original proposal. The Department of Insurance estimates that only slightly more than 25 percent of health insurance policies would be covered by the measure.

Small businesses would be able to opt out of autism coverage.

"It's a dramatic and positive step forward for our state," Nixon said. "It also positions us ... to turn darkness into light for a lot of families."

Driving while intoxicated

The Senate approved and sent back to the House a measure to impose stronger penalties for drunken driving. Under the measure, a drunken driver who blew more than a 0.15 blood alcohol content when stopped would have to spend two days in jail unless the person underwent treatment.

Senators reached a compromise by removing a controversial provision that was included in the House-passed version that would allow police officers to,without a warrant, draw blood from a person they suspect of driving drunk. The Senate's sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, removed that provision and said it likely would have killed the bill because emergency personnel had opposed it.

"I didn't want the blood draw in there," Schaefer said. "We also heard from EMTs and firefighters who didn't want to draw blood without the liability protection that a judge's warrant would provide them."

The bill that passed the Senate allows circuit courts to create DWI-specific court dockets. It also requires city courts to report all drunken-driving offenses and mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders to the state. Schaefer said the bill encourages offenders to enter treatment by removing the mandatory sentences if they do so.

Plumbing

Missouri's Senate rejected a proposal to require plumbing codes in counties with parks on lakes and streams.

The measure was in response to last summer's reports of high levels of contamination at the Lake of the Ozarks caused in part by unregulated septic tanks.

"When you build something, your sewage is going to go somewhere, and it's going to affect somebody," said Schaefer, who supported the provision. Schaefer said that without some sort of regulation "we're going to continue to result in sewage flowing out and ending up somewhere it shouldn't end up and making people sick."

But Senate opponents said it would be an unreasonable burden on counties and could lead to further state regulation of rural development.

"This provision right here opens the door to statewide plumbing codes across the state," said Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington. "You're using a sledgehammer where a hammer is needed."

The Senate stripped the plumbing code provision from a relatively noncontroversial bill and it sent back to the House.

Jobs

Nixon again urged lawmakers to pass a jobs bill that would provide businesses with tax breaks for creating new jobs.

"Thousands of hardworking, dedicated Missourians get up each day but don't have a job to go to," Nixon said. "These are folks that want to work, that need work, who long to earn income and be independent with their families. It is time for the Missouri legislature to get that (bill) to my desk."

Nixon's plan was declared all but dead in the Senate. Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said tax breaks for businesses could not be passed in the Senate without including restrictions on tax credits to other special interests — an idea that House GOP leaders have flatly rejected for this year's session.


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