FERGUSON-RELATED ISSUES GET LITTLE ATTENTION IN 2015
On the first day of the 2015 legislative session, then-House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town & Country, unequivocally declared: “We’re not going to have a Ferguson agenda in the House.” As the session ended on May 15, Deihl’s promise appeared to be largely kept, with no action on most of the dozens of bills inspired by the social unrest that followed the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white Ferguson police officer last August.
Legislation that failed to advance included updating Missouri’s broad statute governing police use of deadly force to comply with a much more restrictive 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, establishing a cause of action against government officials who violate someone’s constitutional rights under the color of authority and requiring officers to undergo additional training to prevent racial bias.
One top priority of those seeking to reform police operations was legislation to require officers to wear body cameras to record their interactions with suspects. Body camera supporters say recordings protect both officers and the public and that their use tends to result in sharp declines in both use of force incidents and citizen complaints against officers.
Instead, House Republicans went in the other direction, approving legislation that would prohibit departments from being required to use body cameras and making footage from police cameras closed records under the state Sunshine Law that could only by accessed by court order. Critics said that legislation, HB 762, undermined the very purpose of cameras by allowing police to release footage when it exonerated officers’ actions but to keep it secret when it pointed to officer guilt. The bill died in the Senate.
One significant bill that did pass was SB 5, which imposes various reforms intended to prevent abusive municipal court practices, caps combined fines and fees for minor violations at $300 per offense and limits how much revenue cities can derive from traffic fines and fees. The latter provision, however, is problematic as it sets the cap at 20 percent of a city’s operating budget for most Missouri municipalities but at 12.5 percent for those in St. Louis County.
Since the Missouri Constitution generally prohibits laws that treat a single jurisdiction differently than the rest of the state, that portion of SB 5, as well as another provision imposing strict operational standards only on municipalities in St. Louis County, are vulnerable to a court challenge. The St. Louis County Municipal League, an organization representing local cities, has already indicated its intention to sue.
New House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who replaced Diehl on the session’s final day, claimed at his post-session news conference that the legislature had passed two major Ferguson-related bills – SB 5 and HB 42. The latter measure was intended to address problems with a state transfer law that has affected two north St. Louis County school districts, including one that serves parts of Ferguson.
However, the transfer issue has been awaiting legislative action since 2011, long before last year’s events in Ferguson. As a result, it’s a rather large stretch to characterize the transfer bill as being in response to the situation.
EX-SENATOR IS NEW STATE EDUCATION BOARD PRESIDENT
The Missouri State Board of Education on May 19 elected former state lawmaker Charlie Shields of St. Joseph to a two-year term as board president. Shields, a Republican, served 12 years in the House of Representatives then eight years in the Senate and ended his legislative tenure in January 2011 as Senate president pro tem.
During much of his time in the legislature, Shields also served on the Mid-Buchanan R-V Board of Education. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, appointed him to the state school board in August 2012 for a term ending in 2020. As a senator, Shields helped write the state’s current school funding distribution law that was enacted in 2005. Shields is chief operating officer at Truman Medical Centers in Lakewood.
Shields replaces Peter Herschend of Branson as board president. Herschend has served on the board since December 1991 and had been president since 2011. He also served as president from 1994-1996 and 2005-2007. His board term expires July 1.
LAWMAKERS APPROVE EXTENSION OF HEALTH CARE TAX
Lawmakers on May 15 approved a one-year reauthorization of a special state tax on medical providers that is used to provide state matching funds to leverage federal money for Missouri’s $3.6 billion Medicaid program. Without passage of the bill, the tax would have expired on Sept. 30, 2015. SB 210 extends the tax until Sept. 30 2016.
Approval of the tax extension typically is a routine matter. However, this year it got caught in a partisan dispute that shut down the Republican-controlled Senate during the final week of the 2015 legislative session. The Senate unanimously approved the bill on the session’s final day and then immediately adjourned for the year. The House of Representatives then sent the bill to the governor on a 113-13 vote.