LAWMAKERS SEND $26 BILLION STATE BUDGET TO GOVERNOR
The Republican-controlled General Assembly on April 23 granted final approval to the 13 appropriations bills that make up the $26 billion state operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1. By sending the bills to Gov. Jay Nixon more than two weeks before May 8 budget deadline, lawmakers triggered a constitutional quirk that will require Nixon, a Democrat, to act on the bills within 15 days.
The budget increases basic state funding for local public school districts by $84 million over FY 2015 levels. However, the funding for local schools would still fall about $400 million short of what state law says it should be. Budget negotiators agreed to the $12 million boost for public colleges and universities proposed by the House of Representatives instead of the $27.6 million increase suggested by the Senate.
Negotiators also scrapped a controversial proposal by Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, to provide lump-sum appropriations to the departments of health, mental health and social services and reducing their budgets by a combined $140 million from what the House proposed. Under the final budget, $100 million of that funding was restored. The Senate’s cuts to the Department of Mental Health were for the most part restored. The bulk of the remaining $40 million in cuts were to various segments of Medicaid.
The governor typically has several weeks to review the budget bills before acting on them in late June shortly before the start of the new fiscal year. By rushing the process, Nixon will have to take action before the legislature adjourns for the year on May 15. This will allow Republican leaders to attempt to override any line-item vetoes immediately instead of waiting until the September veto session.
HOUSE PASSES MUNY COURT REFORM, LIMITS ON FINES
The House of Representatives on April 22 131-19 in favor of legislation that would further restrict how much revenue local governments may derive from traffic fines and court fees and impose various reforms on municipal court operations. SB 5 now returns to the Senate, which passed a more limited version of the measure in April.
Existing law caps the amount of revenue cities can receive from traffic fines and fees at 35 percent of their operating budgets. SB 5 would lower the cap to 20 percent for most Missouri cities and 15 percent for municipalities in St. Louis County, where accusations of police and courts being used primarily to generate revenue have been most common.
In addition, the bill would limit combined fines and cost costs for minor traffic violations to $200 per offense. Other provisions would prohibit courts from jailing defendants for minor violations or for inability to pay fines, bar courts from issuing separate charges for failure to appear in court and directing the state Supreme Court to establish conflict-of-interest rules for municipal judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Also, an amendment added by House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town & Country, would require St. Louis County municipalities to adhere to certain minimum standards or potentially face serious consequences, including administrative takeover or even disincorporation. The attorney general would have the duty of bringing suit to enforce those standards.
MED MAL DAMAGE CAPS WIN FINAL LEGISLATIVE PASSAGE
The House of Representatives on April 21 voted 125-27 to grant final approval to legislation that attempts to reinstate caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, which the Missouri Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in 2012. However, it doesn’t appear the bill, SB 239, overcomes the central constitutional problem identified by the court.
The Missouri Constitution says the right to trial by jury as it existed under the English Common Law prior to 1820 “shall remain inviolate.” The Supreme Court has ruled that imposing a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases interferes with the right to trial by jury by arbitrarily reducing damage amounts determined by a jury after consideration of the evidence. Non-economic damages include such things as pain and suffering.
The court in earlier cases, however, had upheld damage caps in cases involving statutory causes of action created by the General Assembly that didn’t exist under the common law. So, SB 239 attempts to get around Watts by abrogating medical malpractice as common law cause of action and replacing it with a statutory cause of action.
However, because the Supreme Court ruled the General Assembly can’t interfere with the right to trial by jury as it existed under the common law prior to 1820 – a historical fact that no legislation can change – that portion of SB 239 likely is unconstitutional.
The 2005 law struck down by the court capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $350,000. As part of a compromise to secure passage of SB 239, the bill would boost the cap most non-economic damages at $400,000, with damages in “catastrophic cases,” such as quadriplegia, paraplegia, loss of limb, brain injury or vision loss capped at $700,000.
The bill also doubles the $350,000 cap on non-economic damages in wrongful death cases, which the court had previously upheld, to $700,000. Unlike with existing law, the statutory caps automatically would increase 1.7 percent each year instead of remaining at a perpetually fixed amount.
MAJORITY APPROVES SLASHING UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
Lawmakers have granted final approval to legislation that could slash maximum unemployment benefits by more than a third. However, the vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives fell well short of the two-thirds supermajority needed to override an expected veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who also rejected similar legislation last year.
After passing 21-8 on a straight party-line vote in the Senate on April 15, the House voted 88-68 to approve HB 150 on April 21, with 26 Republicans joining unanimous Democrats in opposition. The House tally came up 21 votes shy of the 109 necessary for a veto override.
Under existing law, unemployed Missourians can receive a maximum of 20 weeks of benefits, which is the fifth lowest in the nation. Missouri is one of just eight states that provides less than 26 weeks of benefits. Under HB 150, the maximum weeks of benefits would be based on the statewide unemployment rate during the previous year and range from just 13 weeks if the statewide rate is below 6 percent to 20 weeks if the statewide rate is 9 percent or higher.
HOUSE MOVES PROPOSED AMENDMENT ON BINGO RULES
The House of Representatives on April 21 granted first-round approval on a voice vote to a proposed constitutional amendment that would reduce the amount of time someone must belong to an organization in order to be eligible to be involved with the group’s charity bingo operation from two years to six months. Missouri voters in 2000 overwhelmingly rejected a similar measure, which garnered just 32.5 percent support.
All forms of legal gambling had been constitutionally prohibited in Missouri for more than a century until voters ratified a constitutional amendment in 1980 allowing charitable organizations to operate bingo games, subject to numerous regulations. Voters later ratified subsequent amendments authorizing the state lottery, charity raffles and casinos. Because the regulations on bingo operations are embedded in the Missouri Constitution, a voter-approved amendment is required to change them.
Supporters of the measure, HJR 7, say the two-year membership rule is too long, causing many charitable groups to have trouble coming up with sufficient eligible members to staff bingo games. HJR 7 also would eliminate an existing ban on mass advertising of bingo games. A second House vote is required to send the measure to the Senate. If approved by both chambers, it would automatically appear on the November 2016 statewide ballot for voter ratification.
HOUSE APPROVES TERM LIMITS FOR ALL STATEWIDE OFFICES
The House of Representatives on April granted first-round approval on a voice vote a proposed constitutional amendment that would impose a limit of two four-year terms on all six of Missouri’s statewide elected offices. The measure, HJR 24, requires a second House vote to advance to the Senate. If approved by both chambers, it would automatically appear on the November 2016 statewide ballot for voter ratification.
At present, the governor and state treasurer are the only two officeholders subject to the eight-year term limit. HJR 24 would extend the limit to the remaining four offices – lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor. Of the 163 people to hold those four offices in state history, only 11, including current Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican serving his third term, have been elected to the same statewide office more than twice.