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JeffCo Legislative Wrap-up

15 May

As a follow-up to my last post, here’s an update on JeffCo-related happenings in the last week of the legislative session:

-Senator Gary Romine’s SB 43, one of the most controversial bills of the session, was passed by the legislature after six hours of debate in the House on Monday night. This bill changes the standard for winning a discrimination case from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor.” In the House, JeffCo reps voted along party lines on this bill.

-Representative Rob Vescovo was able to pass his bonding bill by attaching it to another piece of Senate legislation, SB 111. The provision requires school districts and cities to use competitive bidding when they issue bonds. A state auditor’s report in 2013 stated that this practice is little used but will save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per bond issue.

-Senator Paul Wieland had a bill, SB 302, that would allow for the creation of Advanced Industrial Manufacturing (AIM) Zones within ports (like the Jefferson County Port) along with some other port provisions. The bill, handled in the House by Rep. Becky Ruth, attracted a number of economic amendments, including one that would allow for special utility rates in the Bootheel in order to potentially attract a steel mill to replace a shuttered aluminum smelter, which was a major employer.

That amendment had some relation to SB 190, which was intended to allow for the modernization of Missouri’s electric grid. The plan would allow utilities like Ameren to raise rates to pay for these upgrades. But Sen. Romine led the charge against this bill, saying that it was not needed.

And so, likewise, with the Bootheel amendment, which Romine also opposed, seeing it as a giveaway to one company. Senator Wieland disagreed, according to the Missouri Times.

“It doesn’t cost the state a dime, we’re easing regulations, and creating jobs. This is straight from the Republican handbook, it seems to me,” Wieland said.

This opposition by Romine and others led to an epic rant from the House floor by Don Rone, a representative from the Bootheel (video here):

“I have traveled this entire United States and I’ve dealt with a lot of people in my job,” Rone continued. “I’ve dealt with some of the craziest farmers you’ve ever seen. But I don’t want to deal with the most selfish people as Libla, as Romine, in my life. Never. Five hundred shovel-ready jobs. I just don’t understand it. We shouldn’t pass anything they do because they’re heartless and they’re selfish. They are disrupting government at the state of Missouri. This is an opportunity for a whole generation in the state of Missouri. The citizens of my district will know and know and know how Libla treated them.”

Ultimately, the provision Rone wanted did not pass. However, the measure concerning AIM Zones in ports was attached as an amendment by Ruth to another bill, SB 283, which did pass the legislature.

-The Legislature passed a REAL ID bill that ensures that Missouri drivers licenses will still be accepted at airports and military bases next year. There has long been opposition in the Legislature to federal ID laws due to privacy. This bill gives Missourians the option of getting a REAL ID compliant license, which requires one’s proof-of-identity documents to be scanned and stored by the state. Rep. John McCaherty voted against this bill.

-Romine also played a role in bringing the Senate to a halt in the last two weeks. He joined up with several other senators on a crusade against “dark money” after a group linked to Governor Eric Greitens launched an ad against Sen. Rob Schaaf for his obstructionism. The group, A New Missouri, also prepared a mock-up of an ad against Romine, but did not run it. The group was able to force a hearing on an anti-dark money bill (dark money is given anonymously to non-profit organizations) by stopping Senate business, but the bill did not pass the Senate.

“The people of Missouri want ethics reform, and they don’t like these games that are being played,” said Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican. “I don’t think any member of this chamber wants to have a gun held to their head, that the governor might do this to them.”

Here’s an editorial by Romine on the matter. What’s funny to me is that this issue did not become serious until a senator was attacked, and only then did he and other senators react with high outrage.

-Rep. Ruth got a provision passed as part of SB 50 to add two new disorders to Missouri’s newborn screening test panel.

-Rep. Elaine Gannon and Sens. Wieland and Romine pushed a bill through to name a section of I-55 after West Point cadet Tom Surdyke of Festus, who died saving a classmate from drowning last year.

-The prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) bill failed, which keeps the issue alive at the county level, including here in JeffCo.

-Rep. Vescovo has announced that he will run for the position of House majority floor leader next year.

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May Legislative Update

8 May
  • Sen. Gary Romine (R, 3rd district, Farmington) has been under heavy criticism for his role sponsoring SB43, a bill to change the legal standard in discrimination lawsuits from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor” (a higher bar to clear). This would prevent frivolous suits like the one filed by Arnold police chief Bob Shockey. Romine is under fire because a business he owns is being sued for discrimination. But this law would even not affect his case; since the suit is already in progress, it would proceed under the current rules. And people who are actually discriminated against can still win lawsuits under SB43, their claims just have to have some merit to them. Remember how Dianne Critchlow has threatened to sue the Fox district now that feckless prosecutors have let her off the hook? I guarantee her suit will include a baseless gender discrimination claim if it is filed under the current standard. As a business owner, Romine knows about the issues Missouri has with frivolous lawsuits, and is trying to address the problem. The House would need to approve this bill this week in order to send it to the governor.

Romine: “Rather than seeing this bill for what it is — one of the most significant economic development measures to come along in years — the media has been more interested in eliciting the opinions of trial attorneys, SB 43’s only real opposition and a group of people who generally stand to lose from any significant progress on the tort reform front.”

  • Sen. Paul Wieland (R, 22nd, Imperial) briefly held up the passage of HB 130, the bill to allow rideshare services like Uber to operate statewide. He thought, misguidedly in my opinion, that Uber drivers would drop their personal auto insurance since Uber provides coverage while you are working. He had other concerns as well. But three weeks later, Wieland’s concerns were satisfied and the bill was passed and signed into law.

“I just wanted to make sure we protect the public and we keep the number of uninsured motorists to a minimum and I believe this bill will do that,” Wieland told The Missouri Times Thursday.

  • Rep. Rob Vescovo (R, 112th, Arnold) was the House sponsor of SB 182, which eliminates project labor agreements in public construction projects. This bill, which has passed both houses, ends requirements that non-union contractors pay union wages and stops local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors. This bill will reduce the cost to taxpayers of public projects. Reps. Vescovo, Shaul, and John McCaherty (R, 97th, High Ridge) voted yes; Reps. Elaine Gannon (R, 115th, DeSoto), Becky Ruth (R, 114th, Festus), and Ben Harris (D, 118th, Hillsboro) voted no; and Roden voted present (weak).

“Some would say it’s an anti-union legislation, and I disagree,” Vescovo said after the House adjourned for the week. “I would say it’s pro-worker and it allows the other 86 percent of the workforce to bid on projects and work on projects without being signatory. That’s very important.”

  • Rep. Dan Shaul (R, 113th, Imperial) ticked off teachers, according to the Leader,  with his vote for HB634, which would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state. Shaul also serves on the Windsor school board. Charters currently exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Teachers claimed Shaul has a conflict of interest, which I don’t buy. Some teachers turned their back on Shaul as he was sworn in for another term at the April 12 board meeting, which is quite juvenile. It doesn’t look like this bill will get a Senate vote. McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo also voted yes on this bill.

“I would disagree with the assumption that my vote on HB 634 was a conflict of interest,” Shaul said. “The vote I took on 634 was to ensure that all kids throughout the state of Missouri have the same opportunity that kids (who) go to Windsor have.”

  • Along with SB43, other much-needed legal reforms have been advancing through the legislature, and our county reps have voted for them along party lines. However, Rep. Shane Roden (R, 111th, Cedar Hill) voted no on HB460, which would limit out-of-state plaintiffs who bring their cases in St. Louis in hopes of winning big verdicts. This is why you hear all those ads from lawyers about talcum powder and cancer on the radio or see them on billboards. Those plaintiffs don’t even live here.
  • Sen. Romine took to the Senate floor during debate over the budget to offer an amendment to fully fund the state’s foundation formula for education for the first time. It was a bit unusual to do this on the floor after the Appropriations Committee already put the budget bill together, and it caused a split between Senate leadership and some GOP senators as the amendment passed. Romine voted yes on this, Wieland voted no. The House also voted to fully fund the formula.
  • The issue of whether to join a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) has been roiling county government here for months, but such a plan is also advancing at the legislature, and if it passes it would make the JeffCo debate moot. The House and Senate will be going to a conference committee to iron out their differences, but with only one week left, it seems unlikely this will get done. In the House, representatives McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo voted no on the PDMP bill, HB 90, as did Sen. Wieland.

Parents React to DeSoto Principal Resignation

3 May

Adam Grindstaff, principal of Vineland Elementary in the DeSoto school district, was forced to resign last week over “the use of district monies.” According to district parents, the issue was the unapproved purchase of a vacuum cleaner for the school; the district will not provide specifics. The district notes that Grindstaff declined his right to a public hearing before resigning.

A swell of outrage resulted from this event, leading to a petition calling for the reinstatement of Grindstaff that garnered over 1,400 signatures and a Facebook group with over 1,100 members. A school board meeting on Monday was moved to a larger location (the junior high cafeteria) to accommodate residents, who were only given a total of 30 minutes to speak to the board. Grindstaff’s attorney was not allowed to speak publicly during this meeting, on advice of the district’s attorney. It is noteworthy that DeSoto employs the same law firm, Mickes O’Toole, that the Fox district used during the reign of Dianne Critchlow. It was this firm that sent out letters threatening lawsuits against vocal critics of the district for daring to speak out while also thwarting parents who attempted to get services for their children with special needs. The law firm also helped Critchlow resist transparency as she withheld credit card statements and other requested records until her kingdom crumbled.

What Now?

At this point, Vineland parents are wondering what steps to take next. I would like to offer some thoughts:

Meeting result: The district has stated that the board voted to accept the resignation, and word is that it was unanimous. Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, the results of any votes taken in closed sessions of board meetings must be revealed within 72 hours. So by Friday DeSoto will have to reveal what votes were taken Monday night (residents may have to request this information) and the results of the roll call (how each board member voted).

School Board Elections: The next board election is April 3, 2018. Two board members, Beverly Wilson and Terry Noble, will be up for re-election (if they choose to run again). The registration period for candidates will run from mid-December to mid-January. The best scenario would be that all opposition gets together around two challengers in order to not split the vote.

Missouri law does not allow for the recall of school board members. After the Fox fiasco, Rep. Rob Vescovo from Arnold introduced a bill to create such a process specifically for that district, but it did not pass the House. Other similar bills have been introduced in the past 15 years but have also failed. Currently, recalls can only take place of elected city officials in third-class cities in Missouri (like Arnold or DeSoto).

Superintendent: DeSoto’s superintendent is Josh Isaacson, a former assistant superintendent in the district who took the top job in July of 2016. He can be removed by the school board. However, he has a contract that is probably for two or three years. If he were to be let go during the contract, he would be due for a big payout from the district unless they could show cause. It was only five years ago that DeSoto paid $208,000 to get rid of a superintendent, Critchlow crony Andy Arbeitman.

State Audit: Residents could petition the state auditor to audit the school district. This would lead to a deep-dive into the district’s finances and operations. While it would not directly impact the Grindstaff issue, every school district could use a good state audit. The recent audit of Fox documented many problems. The school district would have to pay for a petition audit, which could cost $40,000 or so. After submitting a request form to the auditor, residents would have to gather a number of signatures based on the number of votes cast in the district in the last election for governor. By my calculations, there were 12,223 such votes cast, and so 1,222 signatures (10%) would need to be gathered within one year. If everyone who signed the online petition mentioned above actually lives in the school district, there are enough signers right there.

Lawsuit: Grindstaff could pursue a lawsuit against the district. He has legal counsel. I’m not sure if the fact that he resigned instead of making them fire him makes a difference in his chances of winning or getting a settlement.

Call Representatives: Residents could contact their legislators to discuss this. However, Rep. Elaine (Freeman) Gannon is said to be related to DeSoto assistant superintendent Clint Freeman, so there would be a conflict there. Rep. Ben Harris covers part of the DeSoto area, and the state senator for DeSoto is Gary Romine.

Wastes of Time

The following moves, however, will not accomplish anything.

  • Trying to get the board to remove the superintendent. The board hired him a year ago, and they voted to support the Grindstaff resignation. Why would they remove the superintendent over this? Plus, they don’t want to have to pay a big settlement.
  • Trying to remove board members prior to the election. There’s no way to do it, as I stated above. And the vote to accept the resignation was a judgment call on their part, not a sign of misconduct. But it is one that can be punished at the ballot box.

I salute the parents of Vineland for becoming politically active in response to this decision that they strongly disagree with. Unfortunately, the next election is 11 months away. But keep communicating, get organized, learn the relevant state laws, attend board meetings, and vote, and you can make a difference. As we have seen in the Fox district, it’s not easy to win elections and affect significant change. But it is worth trying.

County Exec Waller Wants Greener Pastures

17 Apr

According to the Leader, “The Festus City Council voted 5-3 at Wednesday’s (April 12) meeting to hire Gregory Camp, currently city administrator of Desloge, as the new Festus city administrator.”

According to individuals with knowledge of the hiring process, current Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (Republican) applied for this position, and was one of the six candidates who received an interview. But he did not prevail in the end. It should be noted that the Festus city admin job will pay Camp $90,000 per year, whereas Waller currently makes about $81,000. We know that Waller wants more money from taxpayers, as evidenced by his participation in a multi-politician lawsuit against the county asking for more pay.

Waller’s second term as executive ends in 2018, but he was apparently looking for an early exit. His time as exec has been marked by conflict with the Republican-led county council, where he has adopted a more moderate, status quo approach to governing. He is currently trying to hector (his preferred leadership approach) the council into joining a prescription drug monitoring program.

Latest Lawsuit

This conflict is made evident by Waller’s recent decision to file another lawsuit, this one against the council over an ordinance it passed over his veto. The ordinance contains a rule that allows the council to replace members of some county boards that miss three meetings in a year. The original version of the bill gave the executive that power. It is the executive that appoints members to these boards while the council votes to confirm his appointments.

I’m not sure that this issue is even ripe for a lawsuit, since we aren’t in a situation where a board member has actually been removed. But it will require both sides of the lawsuit to shell out county money for outside legal representation, since the county’s full-time lawyers can’t participate in an intra-governmental court battle.

Next County Executive

It seems unlikely that Waller will run for another term as executive, though he still has a campaign committee set up for that purpose that has brought in $88,000 in the current election cycle and has $63,000 on hand.

One other Republican has taken a step to run for the seat. 97th district House Representative John McCaherty, Republican from High Ridge, who held the seat for seven years, has changed his campaign committee’s office of intent to county executive, per campaign finance records at the Missouri Ethics Commission:

mccaherty-exec

McCaherty will be subject to term limits next year, and thus unable to run again for the House. Incumbent Republican Paul Wieland will presumably run for reelection to the state Senate seat for northern JeffCo in 2018, so that option is out (though it is rumored that Waller was looking to make a play for it). McCaherty has raised $171,000, but only has $55,000 on hand.

Waller lives in Herculaneum, in House district 114, which is represented by Republican Becky Ruth. She is in her second term, and so could occupy that seat until 2022 if all goes well for her, so that option doesn’t seem open to Waller.

I guess he could always run for secretary of state.

Kasten Port Snort Continues; Wieland Weighs In

26 Feb

As I wrote about recently, county councilman/school board member/city administrator Jim Kasten was denied reappointment to the county Port Authority board in December over concerns that serving multiple entities as he does constitutes a conflict of interest. The idea is that situations may arise where the interests of one body are not aligned with those of another. This issue came up again at the January 23 county council meeting, but more on that later.

State senator Paul Wieland introduced a bill on February 21 that directly addresses this issue – SB449. Here is the summary of the bill:

This act specifies that no member of a board of port authority commissioners shall be an employee or independent contractor of a city or county.

Kasten is the city administrator for Herculaneum, and as such this bill would prevent him from being appointed to the JeffCo Port board. Here’s what Wieland said in his weekly newsletter:

“Growing and expanding Missouri Ports are one of my highest priorities. Having had the opportunities to visit ports across our state and nation, I am convinced that limiting the conflict of interest of policies [sic] insiders and bureaucrats will allow Port Authority Boards to make decisions and react to market conditions quicker. The fastest growing and most efficient ports are ones without these conflicts,” said Senator Wieland. “I was impressed by the acumen of our county council that they too recently voted down a nomination to our Jefferson county port authority because they recognized the conflict by having a city administrator reappointed to the board.”

If SB 449 were to become law, it would remove the temptation for future county executives to attempt to appoint any career bureaucrats.

I don’t suspect this bill will go anywhere this session, but it sends a message. Not only one in support of the county council, but in rebuke of county executive Ken Waller, who nominated Kasten for reappointment and continues to support him.

Port Vote Discussed

Several individuals, including some family members, spoke in favor of Kasten being reappointed at the January 23 meeting. A few regular critics of Pevely government showed up to support the council’s decision to not reappoint, as did lawyer Stan Schnaare, who has been involved in several politically-connected legal actions in the county and ran for judge as a Republican in 2012.

Kasten himself also spoke. According to the meeting minutes, “he explained his anger at the December 27th meeting stemmed from sadness and fear, that his feelings were hurt that not one Councilmember called to confer about the appointment and he is now fearful there is no relationship with the people he serves with on the Council.” He stated his desire to stay on the port authority. However, it sounds like this question will not be reopened for consideration.

Waller also mentioned his disapproval for how the vote was handled, and presumably he means how Kasten was not informed beforehand. The council has done this type of thing a few times in the past, and while I agree with them on the principle of this issue, I also agree that council members probably shouldn’t blindside nominees when they are voting against their appointment or reappointment to a board position.

JeffCo Senators Miffed at Governor

7 Feb

Both of the state senators that represent parts of Jefferson County expressed displeasure with Governor Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican, last week.

First, in a spat that got a lot of attention, Greitens ventured over to the Capitol when it looked like the Senate was going to fail to block a pay raise for elected officials that was recommended by a citizen panel. The raises take effect unless the legislature blocks them by a 2/3 vote in each house. So Greitens called GOP senators who were considering a no vote (no to blocking the raise) or a recusal into the office he was occupying to attempt to convince them to stop the pay raise. Senator Paul Wieland, who later said he was leaning towards a no vote at the time, was one who met with the governor. Wieland said the meeting was tense and that the governor tried to intimidate him.

In the end, Wieland and another senator voted no on the issue, but the pay raise was successfully blocked. Afterwards, Greitens took to Facebook to express his displeasure:

greitens-fb

(see the rest of the post here)

On Sunday, Wieland appeared on the TV show “This Week in Missouri Politics” to give his side of the story. He stated that he “does not respond well to pressure;” that he didn’t want to give in because he thought the governor would come back on the next issue and try to twist his arm again. He said he went from leaning towards support for the pay raise before the meeting to being firmly in favor of it after the meeting, because of the governor’s strong attempt to get him to change his vote.

In explaining his position, Wieland said he opposed pay raises the past three years, but that this raise was only 2% for legislators, who now make about $36,000 per year plus $104 per day for expenses. The legislative session lasts from the beginning of January through mid-May, plus a few days of veto session in September. The raise would have given them about $1,800 more in pay and raised per diem to $150. Wieland said that to attract good people to serve in the government, the pay has to keep up.

Wieland said he met with the governor the day after the pay raise vote, and that they are committed to working together going forward.

The Other Senator

Senator Gary Romine was not happy about Greitens’ budget address:

Specifically, Romine did not like the governor’s reference to “career politicians” (a term Greitens uses a lot) in the legislature causing the current Missouri budget crisis. Romine stated that there are no career politicians in the legislature due to term limits, and that the executive and legislative branches are a team and need to respect each other.

All in all, I know the legislative majority is glad to have a GOP governor now, so he can sign the bills they pass rather than veto them. And I think it is good that we have a governor that is engaged with legislators, as opposed to previous governor Jay Nixon’s aloofness. I also think it is good that the governor and legislature are not completely in lockstep; they need to keep each other accountable so bad bills don’t get passed (insert liberal objections here). Greitens clearly feels that passing a pay raise would have been horrible optics amid the state’s current budget situation. There may be more tense moments going forward, but I think legislative-executive relations will be fine and productive.

RTW Roll Call

3 Feb

The Missouri Legislature has passed right to work and sent it to the governor’s desk, where it is sure to be signed. Below I will record the votes of the JeffCo legislative contingent on right to work bills (HB 91 and SB 19). There are no surprises here; everyone voted as expected.

Senators

Wieland – No

Romine – No

Representatives

Gannon – No

Harris – No

McCaherty – No

Roden – No

Ruth – No

Shaul – Yes

Vescovo – Yes

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