Friday, January 28, 2011

Justus Journal -- January 28, 2011

Things are back in full swing in Jefferson City this week. Several committees met for the first time and the Senate chamber saw some substantive debate.

I'm taking my first tour on the Appropriations Committee and so far it has been an incredibly educational experience. This week we heard testimony from the Missouri Department of Revenue and the Missouri Department of Transportation. Each department presents their budget requests and the committee is allowed to question the department heads about their budgets and priorities. We are not making any spending decisions at this time -- we are simply gathering information.

Three other committees that I sit on this year were busy this week.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a bill related to work comp. SB8 restricts co-employee liability in workers' compensation cases and has been amended to include restrictions on occupational health claims. As one of only seven lawyers in the senate, there was a lot of traffic in my office this week on both sides of the issue. All sides are continuing to work toward a compromise.

The the theme was voting in the Financial & Governmental Organizations & Elections Committee on Monday. We heard testimony relating to early voting (a bill I am co-sponsoring) and photo ID. Both issues remain controversial and politically charged. I anticipate prolonged negotiation and debate on both issues.

The issue of drug-testing for TANF recipients was the number one priority for the Health, Mental Health, Seniors & Families Committee this week. I've heard and argued against versions of this bill every year I've been in the Senate. It makes a great sound bite and is obviously a great public policy goal to help families break the addiction cycle, but the realities of implementation are difficult to resolve. The cost of drug tests, lack of treatment for those who test positive (the waiting list for treatment beds in Missouri is in the thousands) and the difficulty of making sure the children of the recipients are taken care of are all tough questions with no easy answers.

Other hot topics in Jefferson City this week included the repeal of Proposition B (the puppy mill voter initiative that passed in November) and local control of the St. Louis police department. The dog issue is moving quickly to the Senate floor, where we will be able to have a substantive discussion about the wishes of Missouri voters and what, if any, changes should be made to the law. Like Kansas City, the St. Louis police department is controlled by a police board that is appointed by the governor. Unlike Kansas City, however, there is a critical mass of people in St. Louis who want the mayor and City Council to control the police. The issue is quite controversial for my friends on the eastern side of the state, but so far, Kansas City has stayed out of the discussion.

I filed two more bills this week. The first was a proposed constitutional amendment to make it harder for wealthy individuals and organizations to buy a law or constitutional amendment in this state. The bill would require signatures to be gathered in every congressional district in the state rather than just 2/3 of the congressional districts. I was excited to hear from senators from across the state who want to work with me to raise the bar and send the message that Missouri laws are not for sale.

For the fifth year in a row I also filed a resolution, asking Missouri to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment which was passed by the United States Congress in 1972. I realize that the effort is largely symbolic at this point, but I am happy to carry the torch for the hundreds of thousands of women who have been fighting the fight for equality for my entire life.

The Senate floor wasn't quite as busy this week as the committee rooms, but we did debate two issues. On Thursday the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would expand the legislature's authority to subpoena people and records within state government. Senator Mayer sponsored the legislation and explained that it will give us more authority to assist with our efforts to reorganize state government.

Earlier in the week, we also revisited the Renewable Energy Standard known as Proposition C that was approved by voters in 2008. The Public Service Commission finally issued the rules this summer, after 18 months of discussion.

The sticking point seems to be whether renewable energy must be manufactured in Missouri, or whether utility companies will be able to discharge their obligation under the law by purchasing renewable energy credits from other states or countries. The PSC agreed with Missouri renewable energy companies that the purpose of the law is to create renewable energy in Missouri, thus creating Missouri jobs and reducing our dependence on coal. Unfortunately, the legislature disagreed with the PSC's rulemaking and the PSC's rule was rejected.

It will now be up to the renewable energy companies and environmental groups to work with the utilities to craft new legislation that addresses the issue of homegrown renewable energy.

On a personal note, thank you so much for the outpouring of thoughts and prayers as my father remains in the hospital this week. I'm sorry that we were not able to meet for our weekly Coffee Break, but I hope to resume our regular meetings in the next week or so. Until then, I hope you send me your questions, thoughts and concerns via Twitter, Facebook or on my blog. You are always welcome to call, e-mail or visit me in Jefferson City.

Thanks for staying tuned in and in touch!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DREAM Act 2010

Today I had a hearing on SB783, the DREAM Act, in front of the Senate Education Committee. The legislation makes certain students eligible for instate college tuition regardless of their immigration status. The bill creates the “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act,” otherwise known as the Dream Act. The legislation requires any higher education institution in Missouri that receives state funding to provide instate tuition to students who meet the following guidelines:

1) The student lived with his or her parent or guardian while attending high school in Missouri;

2) The student attended school in Missouri for two years and graduated from a Missouri high school or received the equivalent of a high school diploma;

3) The student entered the United States before the DREAM Act was signed into law; and

4) An individual who is not a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident presents a signed affidavit to a higher education institution stating he or she will file an application to become a permanent resident at the earliest opportunity.

The hearing was well attended by immigration advocates and self-described DREAM Activists from across the state. Four organizations provided testimony in favor of the legislation -- no one provided opposition testimony. In addition to the organizations testifying in favor of the bill (MIRA, MNEA, SEIU & Catholic Charities), several students from the KS/MO DREAM Alliance traveled to Jefferson City to support the bill.

Imagine the frustration and heartache of students who work hard to learn and excel in their studies only to find they cannot continue their education after high school because the cost of college is totally unattainable.

I've talked to high school counselors who have a difficult time keeping kids in school and engaged, when the promise of college is not waiting upon graduation. With no work documentation and no money for school, thousands of talented kids fall through the cracks after high school graduation, rather than earning the education they deserve.

The most high-profile example of the issue was highlighted a few years back in a great WIRED article called "La Vida Robot" about 4 high school kids in Arizona who beat MIT in a national robotics championship, but had no hope of attending college after high school graduation. The article is well worth your time.

During the hearing I presented testimony about 10 other states that have similar laws including Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. A federal version of the bill has also been introduced in Washington, D.C., with bipartisan support in both the Senate and House.

This is the second year I have filed the DREAM Act. We are a nation of immigrants, all of whom came here to pursue the American dream. Why would we make it more difficult for new immigrants to have the same opportunities that our grandparents or great grandparents enjoyed when they came to this country? These children were brought here as kids, through no fault of their own. They have excelled in their schools and are ready to become our next generation of tax-paying scientists, doctors and lawyers.

The next step for the bill is to get enough votes to advance it out of the Education Committee. It is unlikely to do so this year, as the majority of the committee members don't have a strong voting record when it comes to basic rights for immigrants and refugees. Even so, today's hearing was a great opportunity to tell the story of these incredible kids and we will use this as the baseline education year as we try to advance the bill in the future.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

End the Ban

Today I introduced a Senate Concurrent Resolution urging the Missouri General Assembly to send a message to Washington, D.C., that it is time to end the outdated military policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

The following is the text from my floor speech. I will post the language of the concurrent resolution as soon as it is available online.

This summer I had the privilege of attending a moving event at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum honoring the 61st anniversary of President Truman's signing of Executive Order 9981 that ended racial segregation in the armed forces. The program explored the history and lessons learned of racial discrimination in the U.S. military. It also examined gender discrimination and the ban on openly gay service members -- two of the remaining challenges of our 21st century fighting force.

Courageous individuals who have served their country under extraordinary circumstances attended the event. It is both fitting and proper that I briefly share three of their stories with you today.

Oliver Vincent Shields served as an African American during World War II. Shields landed at Normandy Beach during D-Day and was selected as one of the 2500 African-American volunteers to serve in the 14th Armored Division (known as the "Liberators"). He served in a segregated army, but fought as hard and brave as any other member of that Army. Oliver Vincent Shields supports a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Chief Petty Officer Stuart O’Brien of the Royal Australian Army served alongside the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006. Australia is one of 27 countries that allow open service of gay men and women. This summer he told the story of a U.S. service member who received grief counseling and support from the Australian Navy Chaplain when his longtime partner was killed while on active duty. This American could not reach out to his own chaplain, his own country or even his own American friends because to do so would be an admission that he is gay and end his career. Chief Petty Officer Stuart O’Brien supports the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Finally, I want to tell you about Shonda Garrison. Shonda grew up in Branson, Missouri and enrolled in the U.S. Army right out of high school. She worked hard and advanced quickly. In the fall of 1990 she, like tens of thousands of other Americans, shipped out to Saudi Arabia and spent almost a year in the desert fighting for this country. Shonda loves her country and wanted to make a career in the military, but after 8 years of service, she had to make the agonizing decision to leave because she could no longer serve in silence. Shonda is gay and under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she could not enter a committed relationship with the person she loves for fear of losing her career. Shonda Garrison is my partner and she supports the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Today in Washington, D.C. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss how we can end this country’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. The Senate Concurrent Resolution I am filing today urges the Missouri General Assembly to send a message to the U.S. Congress that it is time to end this unnecessary practice that actually costs American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermines our military’s readiness.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "In the 1940s President Truman demonstrated courage and leadership by desegregating the military so that all qualified Americans, regardless of their race, could serve their country with full equality. Today's leaders can take encouragement from the example of President Truman, who, during an election year, put justice and equality under the law before political expediency."

Let’s do the right thing – it’s time to end the ban.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Time to Strengthen DWI Laws & Expand DWI Courts

On Wednesday I filed SB836, legislation to combat repeat drunk driving. The bill closes a loophole that allows multiple convictions without a central reporting mechanism, it institutes harsher penalties based upon the level of intoxication, it mandates minimum jail sentences for offenders, and it provides courts the authority to establish a DWI Court for offenders with alcohol problems similar to the Drug Courts now in operation.

For too long our system has let offenders slip through the cracks. SB836 will stop that. Under my legislation, repeat offenders would automatically go to state court where their offenses would be recorded into the statewide system. The bill also mandates minimum jail sentences: a person convicted of a .15 blood alcohol content (BAC) would serve 48 hours in jail; those convicted of a BAC above .20 would serve five days in jail. The bill also limits the use of Suspended Imposition of Sentence, a common tactic to avoid a record of a previous DWI conviction. Prior offenders would receive 10 days in jail and persistent offenders’ jail time would be increased from 10 to 30 days.

We want drunk drivers to know that Missouri will not tolerate putting the rest of us at risk. For too long we have debated slight changes in BAC, flirted with interlock devices and left the punishment for a refusal to submit to a BAC test equivalent to the punishment for a second DWI.

This bill extends the loss of driving privileges from one year to two when a suspect refuses to submit to a breathalyzer.

Finally, the legislation encourages the establishment of DWI Courts. Missouri courts already are allowed to establish DWI Courts if no additional funds are spent, but this bill expands upon the concept. The bill allows for a DWI docket or court, drawing on the funding already established for Drug Courts. Similarly, the DWI Court could order treatment and testing and could go further by reinstating limited driving privileges.

The best driver is a sober driver. We cannot forget the other side of the equation – many of these repeat and high BAC drivers have a drinking problem. If the drinking problem is addressed, recidivism drops exponentially.

The DWI Court is not intended to address first-time offenders. In speaking with those in the recovery community, the reinstatement of a limited license would likely attract many of the hardcore offenders. These are the people that make the newspapers with four convictions or some astronomical BAC. The DWI Court is aimed at people with an obvious drinking problem.

Current law does not distinguish between a driver having a BAC of .09 (just above the state limit of .08) and those having a .25. The state of Missouri already has a nationally recognized model in the Greene County DWI Court. The program is self-sustaining by charging participants for the cost. Moreover, Missouri currently has nine stand-alone DWI courts and 34 other drug courts that accept DWI offenders.

In 2008, 43 DWI court participants graduated in Missouri with only a single recidivist, resulting in a recidivism rate of two percent. In Michigan, a study of that state’s DUI Courts found that traditionally sentenced DUI offenders are 19 times more likely to be re-arrested for a DWI charge that those who participated in DWI Court.

In 2007, there were 12,609 charges filed for an initial DWI arrest in Missouri, 2,397 arrests for a second DWI offense and 1,863 arrests for a third DWI (persistent offenders). Note the dramatic drop off from those arrested once for DWI and those arrested a second or third time, which suggests that hardcore impaired drivers are not deterred by punishment alone and are in need of treatment. That is why my legislation focuses on these persistent offenders.

I want safe roads at the best cost to the taxpayer. Substantial punishment mixed with an offer of recovery for serious offenders is the best and most economical option.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together!

It's only the first week of session and I'm excited about the united front that many KC leaders are showing in Jefferson City. On Monday night the KC Chamber hosted a dinner where they presented their legislative priorities for 2010. There were dozens of KC business leaders in the room, but more importantly, more than half of the KC City Council members and several of the city employees were on hand to meet with the KC state legislative delegation and discuss issues that are critical to the KC metro this year.

Last year I raised quite a stink about all the different groups that come from Kansas City to the Capitol, each with their massive agenda and well-paid lobbyists. The result was often a lack of consensus on what the metro's priorities really were and a gaggle of lobbyists each working against the other's best interest. I took the late spring/early summer to talk to multiple groups about the need for a consensus agenda from the metro and the need for all the groups to talk in one voice about what our real priorities are for the city.

I was very excited to get a visit Tuesday morning from a group with a single postcard that said: Kansas City's 2010 Consensus Agenda for Economic Development. It was presented jointly by The Chamber, The City of Kansas City, The KC Economic Development Corporation and the Downtown Council. Chamber and civic leaders, business owners, city council members and lobbyists brought the card to me as a group and informed me they had been making the rounds with leadership in the House and the Senate presenting a united front for KC. It was great. I love it when a plan comes together!

Even better were the items that made the consensus agenda, including my two top priorities -- child care assistance and the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act. I can't seem to find the consensus agenda on line, so I'm going to recreate it for you here:

"The continued economic competitiveness and vitality of the Kansas City region are dependent on the State of Missouri having an economic development strategy that focuses on high-growth industries of the 21st Century; fosters the creation, attraction, and retention of high-quality jobs; and establishes a business environment where companies -- and employees -- want to be located.

Recognizing the need to focus on growing the Kansas City region's economy along with the State's economy, we support:

Retaining existing state economic development incentives and programs - including MODESA, state TIFs, tax credits, and other programs that benefit Kansas City area projects.

Developing new economic development tools that help to level the playing field with competing states and give Missouri - and the Kansas City region - a competitive edge in growing, attracting and retaining development that provides jobs and contributes to a high quality of life now and in the future.

Reducing the eligibility threshold in Missouri's Quality Jobs Act for job retention projects.

Developing innovative tools to grow and support the science and technology industries, such as the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act and the Missouri Jobs for the Future Act.

Improving access and lowering the cost of child care for low-income workers.

Passing the Port Authority Act to allow for environmental remediation at Port Authority sites throughout Missouri.

Adopting new mechanisms to promote the development of the Vine Street District and similar distressed districts throughout Missouri.

Fully funding the First Quartile Kansas City projects listed in the Joint Committee on Capital Improvements and Leases Oversight report: $5.0 million for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority; $10.0 million for East Village Infrastructure; $6.75 million for Oxford on the Blue; and $2.8 million for the Metropolitan Community College's Homeland Security Regional Training Institute."

Were there some disappointments? Sure. I would have liked to see other organizations put their stamp of approval on the consensus agenda. The KC Civic Council, UMKC, Kansas City Area Development Corporation and others come to mind. I wish there were more of a focus on public transportation and access to quality health care as necessary components to job creation and economic development. And finally, I wish Mayor Funkhouser would have come with the delegation to put his stamp of approval on the agenda and spend some time meeting with the legislators who will be asked to carry this ball across the goal line.

Even so - this is a definite step in the right direction and I am excited about the coordinated energy coming out of our city.

If you would like more information about additional priorities put forth by some of these groups, you can check out the Chamber's Missouri Public Policy page, and the City of Kansas City's Legislative Priorities Resolution.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Make Your Voice Heard

One of the best parts about being a senator is the opportunity to hear from constituents. Whether you have an idea for a law, a concern about a Missouri agency, a question about your state government, or just want to talk politics, I look forward to hearing from you.

For the last year we have met every Friday morning from 9-10 for "Coffee Break w/ Senator Justus." Unfortunately, our wonderful location for last year's meetings has closed its doors for good, but we have found a new home at Oak Street Coffee, 6221 Oak Street. Every Friday I provide a Jefferson City update, talk politics, answer your questions and enjoy some great coffee. It's also a great opportunity to promote an event/organization and meet your neighbors.

For those who are not able to break away from work or other duties on Friday mornings, I'm adding some new options to meet up and make your voice heard. The first opportunity is a Saturday Listening Post. The third Saturday of every month, I will hang out at a local coffee shop or diner and you can drop in for a quick question/concern or just to chat for a bit. The first Saturday Listening Post is this Saturday from 9-11 at One More Cup at 7408 Wornall in Waldo. Future Saturday Listening Posts will be held around town to make it convenient for people throughout the 10th District.

Since it's easier for some folks to break away over the lunch hour, I'm also adding a Brownbag Lunch Series on the last Friday of every month. This meeting is from 12:00-1:30 at the MainCor office, 3215 Main Street, Ste 200. I'll provide some water, soft drinks and cookies. You bring a lunch, questions and concerns. This will be a chance to hold longer discussions about specific issues and we'll have some special guests to help us tackle some of KC's biggest problems.

Before you set out to attend one of our meetings, make sure to check out my Facebook page or Twitter feed to make sure we don't have any last minute cancellations or location changes. I look forward to seeing you around town soon!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hot Off The Presses

My 2009 Legislative Report is hot off the presses and headed to a mailbox near you in the 10th District. If you just can't wait for your very own copy to arrive, you can view the entire report here, including a scorecard of bills I passed this year, a big victory for education of foster kids and help for the housing crisis. There is even a kid's corner and a breakdown of how YOUR state tax dollars are spent.

The 10th District had a great year in a tough time. Next year it will be even tougher. Please let me know if you have ideas, questions, concerns about the upcoming legislative session. Comment on this blog, come to Coffee Break on Friday mornings from 9-10 at 5400 Troost Avenue, or just track me down on Twitter or Facebook. What do you see as the biggest wins this year and what can we do better next year?