Feb 12, 2015 – Weekly Capitol Update

COURT SAYS LEGISLATORS CAN’T BLOCK BALLOT MEASURES

Lawmakers can’t pre-emptively block pending ballot measures by passing legislation that attempts to supersede the measure before voters have a chance to decide, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision on Feb. 10. The case involves a bill the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed in May 2008 that sought to exempt certain utility companies from renewable energy requirements that were to appear on the statewide ballot the following November. Voters approved the measure, Proposition C, with 66 percent support.

Proposition C was placed on the ballot via an initiative petition, which allows citizens to propose legislation that goes directly before voters, bypassing the General Assembly. By enacting a bill intended to block or modify certain provisions of Proposition C, lawmakers deprived voters of their constitutional rights to the initiative, the court said.

“The legislature could not preempt the effect of all or part of Proposition C so that, even when adopted by the people, some of its provisions would never take effect,” Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote in the majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Zel Fischer said the majority improperly placed legislation proposed and enacted through the initiative process above legislation passed by the General Assembly. Judge Patricia Breckenridge joined the dissent.

 

MISSOURI SUPREME COURT SIDESTEPS GAY DIVORCE CASE

The Missouri Supreme Court on Feb. 10 sidestepped a decision on whether Missouri courts have the authority to grant divorces to same-sex couples legally married in another state. Instead, the high court overturned a circuit judge’s ruling dismissing the case and ordered a more thorough review, while offering no guidance on the legal issues involved.

“While the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction over this civil case, this Court expresses no opinion as to the merits of any aspect of this case, including the constitutional or statutory authority of the circuit court to dissolve a same sex marriage,” Judge Richard Teitelman wrote for a unanimous court.

In the case, a man sought a divorce from another man, whom he had married in Iowa in 2012. St. Louis County Circuit Judge John Borbonus dismissed the divorce petition, claiming he had no legal jurisdiction to consider the case because the Missouri Constitution recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman. While the Supreme Court said Borbonus has jurisdiction to take the case, on remand he must decide whether he has the constitutional authority to grant a divorce to a same-sex couple.

 

HOUSE APPROVES SO-CALLED ‘RIGHT-TO-WORK’ BILL

The House of Representatives on Feb. 12 voted 91-64-2 in favor of legislation that would allow state government to impose its will on negotiations between private companies and their workers. Twenty-three Republicans broke from their party to oppose the bill, which wasn’t’ supported by a single Democrat.

House Bill 116, which supporters dub “right to work,” would prohibit Missouri businesses from negotiating labor contracts that require employees who benefit from union representation to pay dues for the services they receive. The measure now advances to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.

If the bill manages to win final legislative passage, a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon is expected. The vote on HB 116 fell well short of the 109 House votes required for a veto override.

 

MoDOT DIRECTOR TO RETIRE AS FINANICAL CRISIS LOOMS

Missouri Department of Transportation Director Dave Nichols will retire on May 1 after a 30-year career with the department but only two years in the top job. The State Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT’s governing authority, will hire his replacement.

Nichols announced his pending retirement just one day after the commission on Feb. 4 approved a plan in which, starting in 2017, MoDOT will continue to fully maintain only about 8,000 miles of the 34,000-mile state highway system. The remaining highways, which consist mostly of supplementary roads, will receive only limited maintenance, such as filling potholes.

MoDOT says the sharp cutbacks are necessary since by 2017 it expects its construction budget to drop about $325 million a year, about the $160 million less than the $485 million annually it takes to adequately maintain the entire state system.

 

SENATE APPROVES STRICTER CAP ON TRAFFIC FINE REVENUE

The Senate on Feb. 10 granted first-round approval on a voice vote to legislation that would lower the cap on how much revenue municipalities can collect from traffic fines and court fees. The bill requires a second vote to advance to the House of Representatives.

Existing law caps traffic fine revenue at 30 percent of a municipality’s operating revenue. Under SB 5, the cap would drop to 10 percent for most municipalities but only 20 percent for certain small cities and villages located in most rural counties. Municipalities that bust the cap are supposed to forfeit the excess to their local schools. If a city that fails to do so, its municipal court would lose jurisdiction over traffic cases until it pays up.