Protecting Privacy of Families Involved with Suicide – and Calling Out the Post-Dispatch

On Monday night, the House adopted an amendment I offered to a bill that would close suicide reports from release to the general public for 30 days. In the moments immediately after a person’s suicide or attempted suicide, their family should never learn about it through the news media. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some news organizations put the need for speed ahead of what’s best for families suffering through tragedies.

This amendment is very similar to a bill sponsored by Rep. Genise Montecillo, whose privacy was violated last year by the Post-Dispatch. Last weekend, the P-D went further in an editorial in which they criticized her bill (which is fair) but also took unnecessary cheap shots. The following is the debate on the amendment. Curiously, even though the P-D has seen fit to opine twice on Rep. Montecillo’s bill, so far we haven’t read anything about this:

Newspapers in this state, including the Post-Dispatch, have fun pointing out the foibles and follies of this building. And the flaws that come with the political process. But Mr. Speaker, the newspapers of this state have their own flaws and foibles.

And the phrase if it bleeds, it leads all too often dictates what media outlets and newspapers do. In the few days since this body adopted the Lady from St. Louis County’s bill, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote on the editorial page something that is beneath the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, something that dragged the Lady from St. Louis County back into the spotlight this weekend.

The Post-Dispatch says this, “We don’t want to appear callous regarding the history of childhood abuse.” What does that sentence have anything to do with the Lady’s bill or this amendment? That is a sentence that is meant to inflame. That is a sentence from the most powerful newspaper in this state that is an attack on the Lady from St. Louis County because she’s trying to do what she thinks is right. That sentence has no business being in an editorial about this amendment or the underlying bill.

Here’s another thing they said that was interesting. They said “a greater good is served by talking about these issues” – the issues of suicide and not keeping the public in the dark. Mr. Speaker, that is true. But it is not true for individuals and their families in the immediate moments and days following a suicide attempt that they have to have their private lives splayed out on the front page of a newspaper before their family can even find out. Is that good journalism? To not wait an hour? To not wait three hours? As if the President had had something go wrong?

If it bleeds, it leads, is not good journalistic practice. It might be good copy that sells newspapers but it’s wrong. And Mr. Speaker, this amendment is designed to protect Missourians and their families in those moments immediately following a suicide where they need privacy and they don’t want their names on the front page of a newspaper in these trying times.

Alternatives to Abortion Program Saves Lives – the Legislature Just Increased Its Funding

Another week, another abortion debate in the Missouri House. To give you the context, the General Assembly increased funding for the Alternatives to Abortion program which provides moneys to Pregnancy Resource Centers that help women with crisis pregnancies to choose life and care for themselves and their children. After Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick finishes up comments on another part of the bill, Rep. Stacey Newman weighs in to oppose increased funding for PRCs – then I respond.

Carl Vogel and Bob Jones – Winners All the Way

Carl Vogel touched many lives in his role as a public official, business owner, community servant, and family man. His loss is a loss to our entire community. On Wednesday, I attended his funeral and the words of his son Jake struck me as important: the headlines reporting his death said he had “lost” a battle with cancer.  I know it’s just a cliché, but it’s a terrible one. 

Newsflash: we are all terminal. Eventually, something will lead to our passing from this earth. Those who live life with joy, dignity, and faith do not lose when they pass away. Carl Vogel was one of those people. When faced with a terrible diagnosis, he lived his last year without losing his sense of humor or his dignity. Carl Vogel was a winner his whole life – all the way to the end.                             

Many of the same things can be said of the late Cole County Commissioner Bob Jones, who passed away unexpectedly Tuesday morning. Like Carl, Bob could always be found with a smile on his face. He will be missed.

God-willing, they are both smiling down on our community from heaven. May their souls rest in peace.

 

Ethics Bills Headed to Gov. Nixon’s Desk

Our strategy of confining ethics reforms to single-subject bills is working. Gov. Nixon has already signed one bill into law. And this week, the legislature sent two more bills to his desk.

House Bill 1979, sponsored by Rep. Caleb Rowden, imposes a six month waiting period after a member’s term of service is complete before they can become a paid lobbyist – and applies to current members of the legislature. I would have preferred a one-year waiting period, but with a five month legislative session that starts immediately upon the completion of current members’ terms, this effectively accomplishes the same thing. Elected officials will have to sit out a session before returning to the Capitol as paid lobbyists.

I sponsored House Bill 2203, which prohibits candidates from using their campaign funds like they’re a hedge fund manager. Campaign contributions are designed to be used in political campaigns – not to become a mechanism for investments that perpetuate the account. The Senate improved the bill with amendments that prohibit anyone from working as a lobbyist until they have disbursed the moneys in their campaign account by refunding it to donors, contributing it to a political party, or donating it to charity.

Credit must also go to Senator Kehoe, who helped shepherd these bills through the Senate in his role as floor leader.

Two other ethics bills still await Senate action. House Bill 2166, sponsored by Rep. Justin Alferman, bans gifts for state legislators. I believe this is the most important of the five ethics bills and remain hopeful that it will find a way to Gov. Nixon’s desk. The other bill awaiting Senate action is House Bill 2226, which I sponsored to close a loophole in state law by prohibiting special gubernatorial appointees from using their public positions to privately profit.

All of these bills share two things in common. First, public officials should not use their positions for private profit. These bills remove financial incentives for elected officials to do the wrong thing. Second, they help move the Capitol culture further away from entitlement and closer to service.

The vast majority of Representatives and Senators begin – and continue – to serve for the right reasons. But power is intoxicating. It changes people, slowly and sometimes imperceptibly to the person being changed. Humility can be hard when people Monday through Thursday laugh at your bad jokes and act like your every word has great meaning. No one is immune to this.

Our Founders understood this. Madison expressed it best, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” These ethics bills won’t fix every ill with government. No bill ever could. They will, however, improve your state government. 

Why We Defend Life

On Thursday, the House passed legislation to prohibit the use of fetal body tissue obtained from an abortion in medical experiments. Every time an abortion bill comes up, the opposition attacks the motives of pro-life representatives. On Thursday, I spoke in favor of House Bill 2069. Though most weeks I spend a few hours writing and editing, this week the text of my extemporaneous floor speech on HB 2069 is better without edits:

Beginning at approximately the 1:55 mark: Mr. Speaker, I rise to make three points. The first is that I believe this body and normal people reject the utilitarian logic that some must, or should die, so that others can live better, particularly when those who die have no choice in the matter. The Lady from St. Louis County uses that word a lot – choice, choice, choice. Where is the choice for the child, Mr. Speaker? Where is the choice for the child in the womb to say, “I want to live, I want to breathe.”?

The second point Mr. Speaker: we heard an earlier person from the other side of the aisle talk about fetal abnormalities, and those are tragic situations for everyone. But a child born with disability is no less a human being worthy of life than anyone else, Mr. Speaker. They are a creation of God. They have dignity. They deserve our legal protection.

And third and finally, Mr. Speaker, the lady from St. Louis County spent a Senate amount of time talking about facts and saying that this body is paying no attention to facts. We also heard people talk about abortion like its’ any old medical procedure – like it’s a knee replacement or a shoulder manipulation.

But Mr. Speaker, here is the ultimate fact: Every single abortion ends with the premature termination of a human life, and a being with a soul. And a life of someone who did not have the opportunity to say, “I want to live.” When we bring these bills to the floor, it is about children. It is giving voice to the voiceless. It is defending the defenseless. Children should not be science experiments, Mr. Speaker. Thank you.

Ethics Bills Moving Towards Gov. Nixon’s Desk

It’s no secret that Missouri has the most lax ethics laws for legislators in the country. Ours is the only state without limits on gifts, campaign contributions, or a reasonable waiting period before a legislator can become a paid lobbyist. For the past four months, we have worked to change that for the better.

In January, Speaker Todd Richardson made ethics a top priority and assigned all ethics bill to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, of which I am the chairman. In past years, we combined all of the ethics proposals into a single bill – and then watched it languish in the last month of session. A big, bulky target, it became easy prey for ethics reform opponents to quietly kill.  

We took a different path this year. Instead of an omnibus bill, the House sent narrow single-subject ethics bills to the Senate. One of these bills has already passed. House Bill 1983, which prohibits legislators from cashing in on their service by being paid as campaign consultants for fellow members or candidates for statewide office, was signed by Gov. Nixon this Thursday.

Now, with four weeks left in session, there are four ethics bills are teed up for debate to be sent to the governor’s desk .

House Bill 2203, which I have sponsored, prohibits candidates (including incumbents) from using their campaign funds to purchase businesses or make other exotic investments. It also requires that, after an elected official has finished their service, they must dispose of their campaign funds before becoming a paid lobbyist. When emptying their former campaign account, a former member is limited to (1) giving refunds to donors, (2) donating the money to charity, or (3) transferring it to a political party committee. This part of the bill was added by the Senate and prevents former members from cashing in on their campaign funds in a later career as a lobbyist.

Finally, the bill prohibits candidates from converting campaign funds into personal use by transferring it to another committee and then receiving compensation from that committee. A conference committee agreed to the final language of the bill this week. And now it simply waits for action by both bodies.

House Bill 2226, which I have sponsored, closes a loophole in our state’s current self-dealing law. Self-dealing laws prevent those who serve in the public trust from profiting directly from their decisions in public service. Under federal law, persons appointed by executive agencies to provide advice and expertise are prohibited from self-dealing. Under current Missouri law, they are not. HB 2226 is awaiting Senate action, and I am confident that it will pass.

As agreed to by a conference committee, House Bill 1979 imposes a six month waiting period before former members of the General Assembly are permitted to become paid lobbyists. On Thursday, it passed the House 131 to 19. It now awaits Senate action.

Finally, House Bill 2166, as passed by the House, enacts a ban on lobbyist expenditures. The Senate debated it previously this session, but still awaits action. I am hopeful that the Senate, too, will pass it and send it to Gov. Nixon.

With just one month left, we have put them in the position to reach Gov. Nixon’s desk. And together, if all of these bills are passed, they will make a significant positive difference in the way your General Assembly operates.  

Protecting Your Health Insurance Benefits from Those Who Would Give Them Away

If you become paralyzed by a drunk driver, who should get the benefit of your responsible decision to pay health insurance premiums every month? You or the drunk driver?

Under current state law, whether you or the drunk driver gets the benefit of your health insurance is decided by a jury. But if a bill working its way through the General Assembly becomes law, the drunk driver will get it automatically.

In particular, I’m writing about Senate Bill 847, which would abrogate the collateral source rule. In short, the collateral source rule prevents defendants from introducing evidence at a trial that a third-party has paid part of the damages suffered by the person who was injured. In most cases, that third-party is an insurance company that only pays part of the damages because the person injured paid premiums.

It’s a legal doctrine nearly as old as our state. In 1854, in a case called The Proper Monticello v. Mollison, the United States Supreme Court explained that this rule prohibiting wrong-doers from benefiting from their victims foresight was already “well-established” in American law.

Courts have described the collateral source rule to have three purposes. First, it ensures that a wrongdoer does not benefit from their victim’s foresight to purchase insurance. Second, it supports the deterrent purposes of tort law by requiring the wrongdoer to pay the full extent of the damages he caused. And third, if there’s threat of a “windfall” between a wrongdoer and his victim, the wrongdoer should never be the beneficiary.

These purposes relate directly to personal responsibility. We are each responsible for our own lives. We are responsible for the good decisions that we make – and should be able to benefit from them. And we are responsible for the harm that we cause – and should be required to make good for it.

If you work and are responsible, you pay health insurance premiums every month. In 2010, the last year for which I could find data, the average annual health insurance costs for Missouri families with private health insurance was $13,903 per year. With Obamacare, that price is only going up.

What do you get for those monthly payments? First, your money purchases the certainty that a medical calamity will not bankrupt you. Rather than being forced to pay for your medical care out-of-pocket, you pay an insurance company to reduce your out-of-pocket costs. If you use less than your premium payments, you don’t get your premiums back but at least you’ve had the certainty all year that an illness will not bankrupt you. If you use more, you get the certainty, and actually spend less through premiums than you would have if you did not have insurance.

I believe you should be able to keep the benefits you’ve paid for and that government should not take any action to give those benefits to someone else. And under current law, our civil justice system ensures that people who harm others intentionally or through reckless behavior are held personally accountable for their behavior through monetary damages.

Do not be mistaken, defendants found liable in civil lawsuits have done something wrong. Every successful lawsuit involving physical injuries to the victim involves a conscious and deliberate choice by the defendant to violate a community safety rule. There are no exceptions. Though most defendants do not directly intend the result of their actions, i.e. injury to the plaintiffs, to be liable, each and every civil defendant must have, at some point, made a conscious and deliberate choice to engage in an action that violates safety rule designed to protect you and I and everyone else in our state.

For example, we have traffic rules designed to protect the safety of everyone traveling on our roads and highways. We have laws against following too closely, running red lights, speeding, and drunk driving. When someone violates these community safety rules and injures someone else, the wrongdoer is responsible for the harm they cause.

For over 160 years in this state, the collateral source rule has ensured that juries of ordinary Missourians can hold wrongdoers fully responsible for the harm they cause. Unlike “pure” collateral source states, defendants in Missouri can present evidence of the amount of medical bills paid. The jury also sees the original bills. Then it’s up to you – the jury – to decide the true measure of damages.

Unfortunately, personal responsibility is a value that politicians often preach, but don’t always vote that way. The most prominent recent example involving health insurance is Obamacare, which involved an overt transfer of benefits from those responsible enough to purchase health insurance and gave it to the uninsured. If you have a “Cadillac” health care plan, Obamacare taxes it and uses the proceeds to benefit the uninsured. Obamacare also creates an incentive for people not to buy health insurance when they’re healthy. With its rules on guaranteed issue, a person can choose to forego health insurance until they know they’re going to have high health costs. These free-riders take advantage of those of us responsible enough to pay our premiums every month.

Senate Bill 847 shares features of Obamacare, except, instead of giving the benefits of your health insurance policy to the uninsured, it gives them to drunk-drivers, red-light runners, and other people whose negligent acts have harmed someone else.

Neither the plaintiffs’ health insurance nor the defendants’ liability insurance are relevant to the measure of damages caused by the defendants’ wrong-doing. The abrogation of the collateral source rule operates as little more than a perverse reverse socialism. One leading advocate of pro-insurance company tort reform measures has even admitted that proposals like SB 847 “operate as wealth-transfers to tortfeasors.” That’s because this so-called “reform” takes money and resources away from responsible middle-class Missourians who pay their health insurance premiums every month and gives the benefit of those premiums to wrong-doers and their insurers.

Those wrong-doers range from those who have done the mundane – following too closely – to drunk drivers and far worse.  Others may side with drunk drivers and their insurance companies. But if this bill comes up for a vote, I’ll stand with those Missourians who were responsible enough to buy health insurance.

Back to Work in the Missouri House

The House resumed work this week. With only six weeks remaining, the time for bills to pass out of their original chamber is fading. This week, I was pleased that one of my sponsored bills passed through the chamber.

House Bill 1923 passed on Thursday with only a single no vote. It is this year’s version of what I called the “Medicaid Modernization Act” last year. It updates state law to bring our Medicaid program into the 21st century by providing reimbursement for health care services that are delivered through modern technologies like video-conferencing or high-definition “store-and-forward” medical diagnosis.

The goal is to ensure that state taxpayers and Medicaid recipients benefit from the reduced costs and improved quality of care of modern technology. For example, one section of the bill creates a “home tele-monitoring” service within Medicaid that would give recipients at risk of hospitalization the option of receiving care and monitoring at home so we can prevent expensive hospitalizations.

Last year, the House passed the bill by an overwhelming margin, but it was one of dozens of bills that languished on the Senate calendar late in session due to a Democrat filibuster the last week of session. This year, passing the bill is critical. After last session, some major health care providers in the state noticed that, even though many doctors were using telehealth, there’s nothing in state law that explicitly authorizes use of modern technologies to deliver health care. While 41 other states have statutes or rules that define the terms under which a physician can provide their services via video-conference or store-and-forward technology, Missouri has no such law or administrative rule.

In debate this week, one representative said he believed HB 1923 was the most important bill we’ve taken up this year. I appreciate the superlative, and, as far as positive impact on the most people, he may be right. By making telehealth services available in Medicaid and ensuring its continued use in private health care, we are increasing access to care for all Missourians simply by allowing health care professionals to take advantage of new technologies. Under HB 1923, a person in an area without medical specialist will have a better opportunity to access specialty care. They will not necessarily have to drive to St. Louis, Kansas City, or even a regional hospital, but instead can have some specialty services delivered in their local family physician’s office.

On Thursday, the House also passed legislation to help homeowners in Holts Summit. Sponsored by Rep. Travis Fitzwater (R-Holts Summit), House Bill 1684 allows residents of Lake Mykee and Holts Summit to consolidate if they so choose. Residents of Lake Mykee have been told they have to build a new sewer system that would cost tens of thousands of dollars for every homeowner. A better option would be to consolidate with Holts Summit, which has enough capacity in its sewer system to assume these new residents. Consolidating would reduce costs for residents of both Lake Mykee and Holts Summit. This bill is a great example of a common-sense, good government measure where Rep. Fitzwater is working for all of his constituents.

Ethics Update

On Thursday, the Senate sent the first ethics bill of the session to Gov. Nixon. House Bill 1983, sponsored by Rep. Shamed Dogan, which prohibits statewide elected officials and members of the General Assembly from serving as paid political consultants. This bill is important because when a person signs up to be a public servant, they should not also be creating a side business that profits from that position.

As a side-note, HB 1983 was an example of how the legislative process should work more often. The bill improved at each step of the process. We learn in grade school that when the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill that they have to figure out a way to resolve the differences. In practice, this means each side appoints members to a conference committee to reach a compromise. Typically, the results of conference committees are foregone conclusions. As a House conferee on HB 1983, it was different from almost any other conference committee on which I’ve served. Every member – from both sides and both sides of the aisle – contributed. And the end result, which split the difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill, made the bill a better product. (Sen. Kehoe also served on the conference committee.)

I believe this is just the first of several ethics bills that will reach Gov. Nixon’s desk. House Bill 1979, which closes the “revolving door,” is in conference and set for a hearing next Wednesday morning. Senator Kehoe and I are conferees on that bill as well. House Bill 2203, which I sponsored to prohibit exotic investments with campaign funds, is also in conference and ready to be set for hearing. (Again, Senator Kehoe and I are conferees.) Finally, I remain hopeful that legislation to ban lobbyists’ gifts and to update Missouri’s self-dealing laws to cover special gubernatorial advisors will also pass through the Senate in some form. 

The First Ever Override of a Gubernatorial Withhold

Under the Missouri Constitution, the legislature has appropriations authority. It decides where to spend your tax dollars. Under the constitution and traditions, the governor has three budget responsibilities and powers. The first is to submit a proposed budget to the legislature. The second is to sign or veto budget bills – including the opportunity to make line-item vetoes. The third power is to control the rate of state spending so that, if revenues are falling short of expectations, the governor can save the state’s credit rating by withholding appropriations. Under this power, the governor chooses exactly where to withhold.

Gov. Nixon (and his predecessors) have taken a broader view of this authority than the legislature has deemed appropriate. In some years, the legislature was frustrated by the governor’s decisions to withhold funds even though revenue was on track. By taking a broad view of withholding power, a governor can undermine the legislature’s appropriations power.

The rules on gubernatorial withholds changed in 2014 with the passage of Amendment 10 by a margin of 57 to 43. Under the new language of Art. IV, Section 27 of the Missouri Constitution, the legislature has the authority to override specific gubernatorial withholds.

Opponents have portrayed this new legislative power as dangerous to the state’s credit rating. I disagree for two reasons. First, it does not require the governor to reduce the total amount of his withholds. If the legislature overrides a withhold of $1 million on a specific line item, the governor can respond by withholding $1 million somewhere else. Second, a withhold override requires a super-majority of two-thirds.

This resolution also has the effect of giving the legislature shared responsibility for withholds. Previously, governors have been criticized by members of the opposing party for where they chose to make withholds. Under this change, that criticism will no longer be valid because the General Assembly now has the power to override those decisions.

On Wednesday, the Missouri House took its first action to exercise the powers granted by voters with Amendment 10. We overrode two withholds – $575,000 for the Missouri Scholars and Fine Arts academies, programs for gifted Missouri students, and $350,000 for rehab services for Missourians who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

These withhold overrides are modest and responsible. Last year’s budget was based on a projection of 2.8 percent revenue growth. To date, state revenue is growing at a 4 percent rate. If this trend continues through the end of the fiscal year, the state will receive $300 million in revenue above appropriations. These two withhold overrides are a tiny fraction of that potential surplus.

Consent Bill Week in the Missouri House

This was consent bill week in the Missouri House. To qualify for “consent” status, a bill must be non-controversial, cost-free, and not create or expand a civil or criminal penalty. To prove its status as non-controversial, a consent bill must pass unanimously through committee. When it reaches the floor, it cannot be amended. Most pass nearly unanimously on the floor.

Representatives seek a broad view of “consent” status for their own bills. If you can get your bill classified as consent, the skids are greased for its passage. A few years ago, a bill found its way onto the consent calendar, passed on the House floor with a larger number of no votes than typical consent bills, and eventually found its way to Gov. Nixon’s desk. Then Gov. Nixon vetoed the bill and thus triggered one of the biggest non-partisan, non-ideological battles in my tenure as your state representative. By the end, each side claimed nearly every lobbyist in the building. It was fun to watch as a technical business structure question became a hot topic for everyone. Ultimately, the bill that originally passed consent failed to become law.

Every year the House picks a week before spring break to pass these bills. As with previous efforts, it was a busy but boring week. Thankfully, “consent” seems harder to get now in the House. We “only” passed 20 consent bills this week.

Some consent bills named highways or months. Others fixed a word or two in statute. Only two were interesting to me.

House Bill 1851, designates river counties from mid-Missouri to St. Louis, (including Cole, Callaway, and Osage) as the German Heritage Corridor of Missouri. As the proud descendant of German Catholic immigrants, I was pleased to vote for HB 1851.

House Bill 2195, would name “Old Drum” the official state historical dog of Missouri. We already have 26 official state “things.” Missouri has an official flag, seal, bird, game bird, flower, tree, rock, mineral, song, insect, musical instrument, fossil, dinosaur, tree nut, animal, exercise, folk dance, invertebrate, aquatic animal, fish, horse, grass, grape, amphibian, reptile, and dessert. That seems sufficient.

This bill has failed six years in a row. So I’m not quite sure how it keeps making the consent calendar. “Old Drum” has competition. Some favor “Seaman,” the dog Lewis and Clark brought on their journey. Seaman was a survivor. Lewis and Clark ate over 200 dogs on their journey but Seaman survived. On their way home, Native Americans stole the dog – and Lewis and Clark threatened to send men to attack the tribe that took him if he was not returned. If there’s any dog that deserves this honor, it should be Missouri’s first dog.

However, no dog should receive this honor unless we remove other official things. In keeping with my pledge to vote “no” on all bills naming an official Missouri thing as a waste of legislative time, I was one of 26 noes on the bill.