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Five ideas

In this section, we present a few of the major issues that have come up in the public discourse in the
Sunday, March 4, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:43 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

[1] SMOKERS’ CHOICES

Since Columbia’s smoking ordinance took effect in January, the city’s bars and restaurants have had to get rid of their ashtrays. Some establishments have put butt containers outside, but many have not. The result? Some smokers are throwing their cigarette butts on sidewalks and streets, creating unsightly litter and polluting the city’s water system.

Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District, said that the butt-littered landscape is one of those “unintended consequences that you don’t think about until later.”

Janelle Mertin, executive director for the Community Health Improvement Project in Lawrence, Kan., said that education about littering should have been provided along with other information about smoking bans when Columbia’s ordinance was introduced. “As more cities that are just passing the ban are learning about it from other cities, I think that’s a good thing to include nowadays,” Mertin said.

Meanwhile, complaints about violations of the ban are mounting, suggesting that resistance to the law lingers.

What other unintended consequences have you noticed since the smoking ordinance took effect?

[2] MISSOURI HEALTH

With the Missouri Medicaid program set to expire next year, the state Senate has taken up a bill on a replacement plan, known as Missouri HealthNet. The new program would provide health care for all eligible Missourians in five years.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields,

R-St. Joseph, HealthNet would feature incentives for people who make healthy lifestyle decisions. These lifestyle changes would garner points that could be used to buy prescription medication or pay for fitness club memberships.

The new plan, however, does not change eligibility requirements, meaning the approximately 100,000 Missourians who lost their government health coverage in 2005 won’t see it restored. That angered Senate Democratic leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis City, who said those people should have been a priority for lawmakers. Shields said restoring coverage to those who lost coverage two years ago would be tackled in other bills.

Do you think offering people incentives to change their behavior will work?

[3] INTELLECTUAL DIVERSITY

House Bill 213, also known as The Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, would require Missouri universities to document how they promote academic freedom and encourage the free exchange of ideas in classrooms. Emily Brooker is a former student at Missouri State University who was subjected to a grievance hearing after she refused to draft a letter in support of gay adoption for a social work class. The bill that bears her name is similar to legislation proposed elsewhere around the country. Credit — or blame — for this national debate can be laid at the doorstep of conservative pundit David Horowitz, who says that higher education is rife with liberal ideologues forcing “leftist content” on beleaguered students. Horowitz and others point to a number of studies they say supports their view.

MU biologist Frank Schmidt who testified at last week’s House committee hearing on the bill, said that the studies do not accurately represent the situation on Missouri campuses.

Do you think intellectual diversity is a problem at Missouri colleges? Why?

[4] PUBLIC DEFENSE

Missouri’s public defender system is on the “verge of collapse” and in “crisis mode,” according to a committee’s 2005 study issued in late January.

The situation has gotten so dire that the Public Defender Commission on Friday considered, but narrowly rejected, a plan directing the state’s public defender offices to refuse all new cases — what is known as the “nuclear option.”

Currently, the average case load for a Missouri public defender is 289 — well above the 235 mixed-case load set by then-Gov. John Ashcroft in 1989. The committee’s chairwoman, Loramel Shurtleff, said the heavy load doesn’t give public defenders time to effectively handle cases.

No one seems to have a solution to the problem of who will handle the cases that the public defenders refuse. One option could be to contract misdemeanor cases out to private attorneys.

The Spangenburg Group, which conducted the study, has been hired to recommend options.

What are the ramifications of having an overextended public defender system?

[5] SUNSHINE REQUESTS

On Jan. 16, the Missourian submitted a request to the Boone County Fire Protection District for three documents. This request was partially filled as of Friday when one document was received. The district says part of the problem is that former Assistant Chief Sharon Curry, who was also the custodian of records, resigned in early February.

Another problem, the district says, is that the documents cannot be found and were perhaps stolen. That prompted an investigation that was quickly closed when it was determined that the statute of limitations on a crime thought to be committed two years ago has run out. On Monday, Jefferson City attorney David Moen sued the fire district because it has so far failed to make available public records he requested in November. The lawsuit also seeks to fine the district and Curry for failing to comply with Missouri’s open records law, known as the Sunshine law.

March 11 marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, which aims to promote awareness of the public’s right to freedom of information.

Is a law that allows the public to access documents about public institutions important to you? How?


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