Weekly Capitol Update – May 15, 2015

NEW HOUSE SPEAKER CHOSEN FOLLOWING INTERN SCANDAL

On the last day of the 2015 legislative session, the House of Representatives on May 15 elected House Majority Leader Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, as House speaker following the sudden resignation of previous House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town & Country. Diehl stepped down after The Kansas City Star reported on a series of suggestive text messages that pointed to a “sexually charged relationship” between Diehl and a 19-year-old Capitol intern.

Several hours after the story broke on the morning of May 13, Diehl, 49, issued a statement vaguely apologizing for “poor judgment” but making it clear he planned to remain in office until the end of his term in January 2017. Less than 24-hours later, however, he issued another statement announcing his resignation from both the speakership and his legislative seat representing part of west St. Louis County.

“I have acknowledged making a serious error in judgment by sending the text messages,” Diehl said in the second statement. “It was wrong and I am truly sorry. Too often we hear leaders say they’re sorry but are unwilling to accept the consequences. I understand that as a leader, I am responsible for my actions and I am willing to face the consequences.”

Diehl was serving his fourth and final House term under term limits. He had been elected to a two-year term as speaker in January. The intern is a student at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. The school pulled all four of its interns from the Capitol several weeks ago but hasn’t publicly disclosed the reason.

Richardson, the new speaker is serving his third term as state representative. He was in line to succeed Diehl as speaker in 2017. His father, Mark Richardson, served 12 years in the House, including a stint as House minority leader.

 

LEGISLATURE PASSES SO-CALLED RIGHT-TO-WORK BILL

The Republican-controlled General Assembly on May 13 granted final approval to legislation that makes it a crime for companies to negotiate labor contracts that require workers, as a condition of employment, to pay dues for the union representation they receive. However, neither chamber is expected to be able to override a likely veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon on the bill, which supporters dub “right-to-work.”

HB 116 went to Nixon on final votes of 92-66-2 in the House and 21-13 in the Senate. A veto override requires 109 House votes and 23 Senate votes. Under the bill, business owners could face up to 15 days in jail and a $300 fine for negotiating “closed shop” labor contracts, which at present are common in Missouri.

In order to win Senate passage, Republican leaders had to employ a parliamentary move to shut down debate a force a vote on May 12. Although the move is extremely common in the House, it is rarely executed in the Senate, which typically cherishes its tradition of unlimited debate. The action sparked acrimony in the Senate, which essentially shut down during the final days of the legislative session.

 

SENATE INACTION STOPS UNEMPLOYMENT BILL OVERRIDE

The House of Representatives on May 12 voted 109-53 in favor of overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation seeking to slash the maximum weeks of unemployment benefits by more than a third. However, the override attempt died for lack of action in the Senate.

Under existing law, unemployed Missourians can receive a maximum of 20 weeks of benefits, which is fifth lowest in the nation. Missouri is one of just eight states that provides fewer than 26 weeks of benefits.

HB 150 would base the maximum weeks of benefits on the statewide unemployment rate during the previous year, with maximum benefits ranging from just 13 weeks if the statewide rate is below 6 percent to 20 weeks if the statewide rate is 9 percent or higher.

The bill doesn’t account for regional differences in the unemployment rate, meaning workers in economically struggling areas would still receive the reduced level of benefits if the state’s overall unemployment rate remained low.

The override attempt came as a surprise since the House originally passed HB 150 on a vote of 88-68, falling well short of the 109 needed to overrule the governor. However, a number of Republicans who previously opposed the bill flipped positions on the override motion.

 

SUPREME COURT CREATES GROUP TO STUDY MUNY COURTS

The Missouri Supreme Court on May 14 established a Municipal Division Work Group to review municipal court operations throughout the state and recommend potential changes to court operating rules or state law. The work group, which includes two former Supreme Court chief justices, is charged with issuing an interim report to high court by Sept. 1, with a final report due by Dec. 1.

Municipal court practices, especially in St. Louis County, have come under intense scrutiny in recent months. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report earlier this year documenting numerous abuses by the Ferguson municipal court and police department. Also, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has published an ongoing series of stories outlining how many municipal courts throughout St. Louis County primarily operate to generate revenue for their cities and enrich local attorneys, while routinely violating the constitutional rights of defendants and operating outside of their legal authority.

In a news release, Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell said the group’s primary goal will be “to ensure our state’s municipal court divisions are places where defendants can trust they will be treated fairly and with respect, where their rights will be protected, and where the focus will be on due process of law.”

The Supreme Court has made several recent moves toward reforming municipal courts, including taking control of the Ferguson municipal court days after the DOJ issued its report. Under the Missouri Constitution, the Supreme Court has “general superintending control over all courts and tribunals.

The nine-member work group will be co-chaired former state Supreme Court chief justices Ann Covington of Columbia and Chip Robertson Jr. of Jefferson City, along with retired Judge Booker T. Shaw of the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District.

The remaining six members are Kathryn Banks, legal services director for Voices for Children in St. Louis; Kansas City Mayor Sly James; Kimberly Jade Norwood, a law and African-American studies director at Washington University in St. Louis; chief Springfield Municipal Court Judge Todd Thornhill; Missouri Bar President Reuben Shelton; and Scotland County Associate Circuit Judge Karl DeMarce.

 

GOVERNOR SIGNS $26 BILLION STATE BUDGET INTO LAW

Gov. Jay Nixon on May 8 signed into law the 13 appropriations bills that make up the $26 billion state operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1. In a sharp change from the FY 2015 state budget, when Nixon issued 160 line-item spending vetoes, he made just a single line-item veto this year and that was merely to delete a drafting error.

The FY 2016 budget increases basic state funding for local public school districts by $84 million over the previous year. However, K-12 funding still falls nearly $400 million short of what state law says it should be. The budget provides a $12 million boost in state funding for public colleges and universities