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January 7, 2004

Local lawmakers set priorities as session begins

From: Jefferson City News Tribune, MO - Jan 7, 2004

News Tribune

Improving education, addressing the state's budget woes and mending the job climate are three issues likely to focus the General Assembly's attention this session.

Today the second regular session of the 92nd General Assembly convened at noon at the Capitol. All morning, lawmakers, lobbyists and stateworkers hailed each other in the hallways and offices.

In the House of Representatives, area legislators already have filed, or are planning to soon file, dozens of bills designed to help constituents and establish their own ideas into Missouri state law.

Here is a preview of some area House members' bills this year:

Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City

As chairman of Crossroads of Central Missouri -- a non-profit agency dedicated to aiding recovering alcoholics -- Deeken believes there's hope for everyone.

He's hoping to pass a bill that would increase the excise tax on liquor, wine and spirits.

At six cents per gallon, Missouri's state excise taxes on beer are the second-lowest in the nation, said Deeken.

He's hoping to raise that fee to 24 cents per gallon for beer, four dollars per gallon for liquor and 78 cents per gallon for wine. Manufacturers of alcohol would pay the excise tax.

He expects his bill would generate about $42 million a year -- money he wants to go directly to a fund dedicated to alcohol-related problems.

Deeken's also interested in loosening the rules on service animals for people who suffer seizures and he hopes to advance a bill that could improve the pay for Missouri's county clerks.

Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton

Moore has two bills she hopes will improve the lives of the deaf community.

One would allow deaf people to drive buses for the various schools for the deaf in Missouri. Right now, state law prohibits them from doing so. "I think they are the very best people to drive, because they are able to communicate with deaf students" in the event of an emergency, said Moore.

The other bill is identical to a proposal filed last year. According to state law, health insurance providers already are required to cover the costs of hearing aides for children from birth to three years old. Moore is hoping to extend that coverage to children ages 3 to 19.

She said, while the insurance industry typically doesn't like mandates, she's hoping this one will be accepted, because only a few children with private insurance need the hearing aid coverage.

Many deaf children, said Moore, already have similar coverage under Medicaid and MC+.

Rep. Mark Bruns, R-Wardsville

Bruns and Moore are working together on a bill -- not yet filed -- designed to improve the state's inspection system for amusement rides.

The state already inspects amusement ride equipment, but both legislators said regulations need to be strengthened.

Bruns said the idea for the bill germinated following the death of a Jefferson City woman who fell from a climbing wall last summer. He added an inspection of carnival equipment at last summer's State Fair revealed numerous rides were operated in an unsafe condition. Moore said the intent of the bill is to improve safety at the many traveling carnivals that visit the state; it's not targeted at the state's large, permanent amusement parks.

"It spells out what the penalties will be for violating the amusement ride law and gives (officials) more authority to inspect," said Bruns.

Bruns also is proposing a bill that would allow low-income families to start savings accounts to send their children to vocational school. State law already allows those families to set aside money for college expenses.

He's also proposing a bill that he hopes will improve oversight of Missouri Vocational Enterprises, a work program operated by the Missouri Department of Corrections.

"I've been contacted by numerous businesses and there is a sense of too much competition with MVE," said Bruns.

Bruns said his intent isn't to do away with MVE -- he called it a proven program for training offenders -- but to temper it. If a business offers the same product that MVE does, Bruns' bill would allow that business an equal opportunity to bid on it.

Bruns also is working with the House Budget Chair to secure a small pay raise for state employees.

Rep. Larry Crawford, R-California

In an effort to curb the number of new car buyers who failed to pay sales tax, Crawford said he plans to introduce a bill that could involve re-issuing new license plates to all drivers every three or four years.

Ideas for the bill are still in the planning stages, he said.

The omnibus license plate bill could modernize the process. Crawford said the present archaic system involves too many different classes of plates. (His bill is not intended to address vanity plates.)

He said the state faces a problem with the stolen "tags" issued to drivers every two years. Crawford said unscrupulous people steal the tags, place them on their own cars, and thereby avoid having to pay sales tax and property taxes.

He said he won't introduce any legislation requiring auto dealers to collect sales tax on the vehicles they sell.

Another bill he's proposed could limit the ability of terrorists and illegal aliens to obtain Missouri drivers licenses. Under present state law, if a driver has a legal license from another state, Missouri is compelled to issue that person a license here.

Crawford said one Nicaraguan citizen, on a visa to attend school in Illinois, crossed into Missouri with only 30 days remaining on his visa. The state issued the man a Missouri driver's license -- now good for six years.

"It gives them a form of I.D. and allows them to stay," he said.

Crawford also has proposed bills that could give motorcycle riders, older than 21 years, the freedom to not wear helmets and authorize the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, not the Transportation Commission, to select the department's chief counsel and set his or her salary.

Rep. Merrill Townley, R-Chamois

The most significant bill Townley plans to file could reform the state's eminent domain laws.

Townley said a series of recent public hearings showed that eminent domain laws haven't changed in years and that abuses have evolved over time.

Townley said the impetus for his work came from landowners along the Katy Trail who complained the state took their land. He said, at times, MoDOT has been "dictatorial" in dealing with property owners and he noted that some power lines have been proposed without enough consideration.

He also was troubled that some Tax Increment Financing projects in the state have successfully taken property from one landowner and transferred it to another private entity.

The threat of high legal bills -- combined with the knowledge that a loss is likely -- often causes owners to capitulate to an authority's needs, he said.

By bringing three appraisers to the process -- one to represent the authority; one to represent the landowner; and one neutral party -- more equitable solutions will be negotiated, he hopes.

"I'm not trying to do away with eminent domain. We're trying to make it fair for the person who owns property," he said.

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