The Mo ABLE Act

The Mo ABLE Act

With the scandal-news as the backdrop, I was grateful for the opportunity this week to assist a mock legislative session hosted by the Missouri Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities. On Tuesday, these students from around the state convened in Jefferson City to visit their capitol and meet Gov. Nixon.

Leading student sessions like these are refreshing. They are enthusiastic and ready to learn. It’s fun to see them absorb how things work so quickly. After about 15 minutes, the young man elected Speaker for this session was already doing well enough to show he could preside over an actual House session with a little more practice.

Their topic for debate this week was Senate Bill 174, sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-St. Louis). SB 174 created the Missouri Achieving a Better Life Experience program this year. This legislation, carried by Speaker Todd Richardson in the House, allows families of Missourians with a disability to open a tax-exempt savings account to pay for expenses related to the disability. Anyone can make a tax-deductible contribution of $8,000 per individual or $16,000 for married couples to another Missourian’s ABLE account.

“Helping children with disabilities is not a partisan issue, it’s a human issue. It is about the right of all children to realize their God-given potential,” Gov. Nixon said when he signed the bill into law on June 29. “The Missouri ABLE program will allow people with disabilities and their families to save money in a special, tax exempt savings account so that they can provide for their basic necessities, and maintain a better quality of life. It’s a common sense, compassionate piece of legislation.”

Not surprisingly, the Mo ABLE bill passed by wide margins – with only a single no vote in the entire legislature. Our state legislation follows a federal law passed in 2014, which allows persons with disability to save up to $100,000 tax-free. In addition, any interest earned on the savings is tax free.

Scandal makes better copy. Partisan or ideological conflict supplies juicier bits for attack ads. Yet, the business of Missouri government still includes people of good will working to make Missouri a better place.

A Short Note on Scandals

The Missouri legislature’s reputation has taken a beating this summer. The bad acts of the few have maligned the reputation of the many. I’ve long advocated for ethics reform – and call me naive, but I do not recognize the capitol culture depicted in many articles as the same place I work every day from January to May.

The capitol culture most people experience who work in the building is not Sesame Street, but it’s also not Animal House. It’s obvious from the news of the past three months that there are legislators who become corrupted by power and the sycophancy attached to it. (Or maybe they came to office particularly susceptible to temptation.) Most legislators, however, – Republican and Democrat – are good people who try to do their best for constituents.

So what can be done? A gift limit would definitely help. A more formal, centralized internship program would help keep the focus where it should be. Standing up for those who speak up is a must. Finally, more clearly written rules and training won’t hurt. But let’s not pretend there’s a magic rule out there that will prevent all scandals. Power corrupts. Human beings are corruptible. In the most recent cases, the formal and centralized internship program would certainly have helped, but more clearly defined written rules would not likely have prevented the outcomes.

Does any normal person really need a written rule to know it’s not appropriate for a legislator to drink heavily with an intern or invite them to their apartment? The same is true for sexually explicit text messages from elected officials to interns.

Here’s a basic rule of conduct for legislators: if you wouldn’t want your spouse, kids, parents, or constituents to know what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be doing it. That works everywhere in life. The vast majority of legislators already follow it, and every legislator should.

Missourians deserve better. All elected officials ought to hold themselves and be held to a higher standard. When one takes an oath, they become the voice – and a true representative – of their community. We serve in the public trust and our actions in office – good and bad- reflect on our own community.

Our state capitol will never be an idyllic oasis of angels. And I don’t think anyone expects that it will. Creating new rules won’t prevent every future scandal. Humans will always be human. But fostering an atmosphere that supports those who speak up and lets potential predators know their actions may end up on the front page of their hometown newspaper will make a difference. I’m hopeful that these recent events will mark a sharp turning point in the culture of state government.

Another Planned Parenthood Update

Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri announced in July that it would start performing abortions again in Missouri on August 3. They announced the same week as video surfaced showing Planned Parenthood leaders haggling over prices for body parts of aborted children. The issue now is whether Planned Parenthood would violate state law if it starts performing abortions at its Columbia facility. In 2007, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring abortion clinics to follow the same rules as other ambulatory surgical centers.

Planned Parenthood sued. It eventually settled the case and was allowed to continue operating without making the changes required by law. Essentially, their existing facility was “grandfathered” in. Planned Parenthood then ceased performing abortions. Generally, a “grandfather” clause expires when the party claiming its protection stops the grandfathered activity. That’s exactly what happened here.

It is not known whether Planned Parenthood has made the necessary upgrades to its facility to comply with state law. But it was issued a permit. At a hearing this week, the legislative liaison for the Department of Health and Senior Services was not able to answer basic questions about the permitting process. They shouldn’t have been issued a permit until, if and when, they are compliant. I’m confident that Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chairman of the committee leading the investigation, will continue to ask the right questions and will eventually get the necessary answers.

The End of Planned Parenthood?

Planned Parenthood’s unmitigated implosion continues. Since last week’s report, the Missouri Senate announced it would investigate Missouri’s chapter with an interim committee on the Sanctity of Life chaired by Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia). Attorney General Chris Koster announced Tuesday he would heed Sen. Schaefer’s and my call for a criminal investigation, noting that the video released called for careful review “regardless of whether one is pro-life or pro-choice.” Two Missouri House committees have also announced a joint investigation.

Also on Tuesday, the Center for Medical Progress released yet another disturbing hidden video of a Planned Parenthood doctor trafficking in human body parts. In the new video, Planned Parenthood’s Medical Directors’ Council President is shown haggling over payments and jokes, “I want a Lamborghini.”

Planned Parenthood has since apologized for the first video’s tone –which only further shows that they exist in a parallel moral universe from the vast majority of Americans. I could feign shock or surprise by the latest video. But think about it. Set the legal arguments aside. Planned Parenthood leaders believe what they are doing should be legal, but also believe there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. Slave owners didn’t think there was anything wrong with what they were doing either. The brazen treatment of innocent lives by Planned Parenthood should not shock anyone.

For normal moral people, every abortion is a tragedy a for the child, but also for others, for the mother and father, for the family, for society. For Planned Parenthood, abortion is just another medical procedure. To the Planned Parenthood leaders on the videos, these are not lives they are talking about. To Planned Parenthood, these are mere tissues – in these videos, commodities to be bartered over and sold like ordinary property –even though in many cases they could survive outside the womb.

I am not suggesting, of course, that every person who is pro-choice thinks like Planned Parenthood doctors. Most people who are pro-choice try to avoid assigning a moral value to decisions on abortion. Many people say, “Personally, I’m pro-choice. I could never do that. But it’s not my choice. I can’t tell a woman what to do with their own body.” For most pro-choice Americans, the child is tertiary. It’s the individual choice of the woman. The child doesn’t have a say.

For most things in life, a general live-and-let-live philosophy is not only defensible, but a necessary value for a free society. Abortion is different. As uncomfortable as it may be, the pro-choice position requires acceptance of the same logic that justified slavery. The pro-choice philosophy requires one to accept that the moral value of an individual life is entirely dependent on some other person’s perspective. But just as “no human being can be justly owned by another,” neither can the moral value of an innocent life hinge on anyone else’s decision.  

Pro-choice advocates have polluted the political debate on the issue by portraying pro-lifers as anti-woman. It is true that the pro-life focus is on the child first. We fight for these children to give voice to the voice-less. There is nothing sexist about insisting that every child matters.

As a society, we do not accept the pro-choice logic in any other aspect of law or life. We don’t accept “honor” killings within a family like they do in the Middle East. It is illegal for husbands here to subjugate their wives. Even the very same child who can be legally aborted is protected by our laws against murder when someone else carries out an act of violence against a mother.

Abortion defenders argue this is different – that what us pro-lifers say is a child is, in their view, not developed enough to be worthy of our protection. But how different is it really? At 18 days a baby’s heart beats. At just eight weeks, all organs function. At nine weeks, they have fingerprints. At 10 weeks, tests show they can feel pain and respond to stimuli. At 12 weeks, they can suck their thumb and make a fist. At 22 weeks, they can survive outside the womb. At 25 weeks, they have a greater than 50 percent chance of surviving.

In short, they are alive. They are human. They are gifts from God. They have souls. They have moral value. And they are more than worthy of our protection.

In 2009, a similar series of hidden video led to the break-up of ACORN. Could the same thing happen to Planned Parenthood? I hope so. The organization’s defenders argue that it provides vital non-abortion health care services to millions of women. True. But there are better options.  Why can’t county health departments or other health care providers provide those services? If Planned Parenthood did not exist, someone else would provide the same services. And, rather than referring at-risk women for abortions, instead they’d refer them to pregnancy help centers.

Perhaps Missouri can give Planned Parenthood a helpful nudge by passing a law to prohibit any health care provider from operating in this state if it has any relationship with an organization convicted of illegally harvesting or trafficking in human body parts.  

Community Mental Health Liaisons – A Positive Legacy for Gov. Jay Nixon

When a Colorado gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 others in 2012, Gov. Nixon took action. Rather than blaming guns, he looked at the trigger man, who was obvious mentally ill. Nixon asked what Missouri could do to prevent that from happening here.

Starting in 2013, by working with the General Assembly, Gov. Nixon created 31 community mental health liaisons throughout the state. The liaisons train law enforcement to identify Missourians with mental illness. They also help Missourians live more productive lives by making referrals for mental health services. From November 2013 to May of this year, the liaisons made 11,000 referrals for services and had more than 20,000 contacts with law enforcement and Missouri courts.

Senate Bill 426 helps liaisons protect Missourians and refer people in need to mental health services by adding them to the limited list of individuals who can access mental health records for the sole purpose of coordinating care and services.

With Gov. Nixon’s leadership and by working with the legislature, Missouri is a safer place for everyone and a better place to live for those suffering with mental illness. It has not received much press, but Gov. Nixon’s efforts in mental health services have made Missouri a national leader in this area. We can’t guarantee perfection, but when his term in office is finished, Gov. Nixon’s creation of community mental health liaisons will be a lasting, positive legacy. 

Why I Voted to Save You 23 Cents a Year – and Was In a Super-Minority

For decades, the process for awarding license fee offices in Missouri has been a political football and embarrassing for those who care about good government. They were an undeniable vestige of political patronage. The governor would award the money-making contracts to key political supporters. It was wink-wink corruption of which both parties were guilty. Slowly, the patronage aspect of license fees offices has waned. Today, non-profits or apolitical small businesses run these offices more often than political hacks. .

House Bill 137, which Gov. Nixon allowed to become law without his signature, tweaks the bidding process for these contracts. It prohibits the Department of Revenue from requiring bidders for license fee offices to compete on price through a contract provision called “return to state.” Under return to state, bidders for license fee offices were allowed to return a portion of their revenues to state coffers. The result of this was to bring down the cost to taxpayers.

However, many license fee offices are run by non-profits or small businesses that did not feel “return to state” was fair for the bid process. Some labeled it a “pay to play” scheme, but that obliterates the very meaning of the term – a euphemism for corruption where there is a personal benefit to a government official for making a decision. But “return to state” did not benefit any government official personally. Instead, it benefitted you and every other Missouri taxpayer through reduced spending to license office fee agents.

In addition, there should be no sympathy for a bidder on a government contract who complains about price competition.  Outsourcing should only happen if it can be shown that the private vendor can provide better service at a better price through competition over a long period of time. In other words, this is the Show-Me State: a bidder should have to prove they’re better and more affordable before they get any taxpayer dollars. We shouldn’t outsource for the sake of “creating” taxpayer funded private jobs or boosting the bottom lines of non-profits or others.

For those reasons, I voted no on House Bill 137. The vast majority of my colleagues in the legislature viewed the bill differently. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and through the House by a vote of 146 to 5. The combined vote was 180 to 5, which is likely why Gov. Nixon refused to veto it. It’s obvious from those numbers that Gov. Nixon knew he would lose an override fight, so he chose not to have it.  

House Bill 137 is a perfect example of how concentrated interests often beat diffused beneficiaries in politics. There are only 178 license fees offices in the state. Every Missouri fee office contractor had a significant tangible interest in the outcome of this legislation. The vast majority of these contractors are good people who do the best they can. They are pillars of their community and have good relationships with their legislators.

The fiscal note for HB 137 estimates it will cost state taxpayers nearly $1.4 million per year. That’s nearly $8,000 a year per fee office and 23 cents a year per taxpayer. That simple math shows why the fee office agents would have much greater interest in the bill, and why it would be difficult to motivate any taxpayer or other group to take the time to work against the bill. It also shows why, after this column, you’re likely to never hear about “return to state” again. They should have named it “return to taxpayers” and it might have had a fighting chance. 

Joining Sen. Schaefer’s Call for a Criminal Investigation of Planned Parenthood

On Tuesday, the Center for Medical Progress released a video showing Planned Parenthood’s top “doctor” discussing how their organization sells body parts after partial-birth abortions. The doctor in the video suggests this is a widespread practice that extends to Planned Parenthood’s affiliates throughout the country. She even rattles off prices for various body parts and explains the grotesque process of how she kills babies but is careful to save their organs. The video is not for the feint-hearted.

On Wednesday, Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) called for a criminal investigation into Planned Parenthood’s operations in Missouri. As Sen. Schaefer points out, if Missouri’s Planned Parenthood facilities are engaging in the activity their executive described, they should be tried, convicted, and sent to prison. I thank Sen. Schaefer for his leadership on this issue and join his call for an investigation. 

Meet Eric Greitens in Jefferson City, Thursday at 11:00 a.m. at the Downtown Diner

Eric Greitens has a resume you won’t believe – until you meet him. He’s a former Navy SEAL and a Rhodes scholar. He’s written a best-selling book on overcoming hardship called Resilience that’s a must read. Fortune Magazine named him one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world for his work as the Founder and CEO of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans rejoin society. Time Magazinecalled him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Eric has dedicated his life to service for others. And he’ll be in Jefferson City this Thursday morning at the Downtown Diner to take your questions. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet an inspirational leader. I hope to see you there.

Municipal Court Reform Becomes Law

On Thursday, Governor Nixon signed municipal court reform legislation sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt. Like the transfer legislation Gov. Nixon vetoed last week, Senate Bill 5 was the product of a bi-partisan, cross-regional effort to improve the lives of all Missourians. The major focus of the bill, however, was in the St. Louis region, where dozens of municipalities (which probably shouldn’t exist) have implemented systems of taxation by citation. These cities – like Edmundson, St. Ann, and Normandy – have treated their municipal courts more like profit centers than forums for law enforcement. 

Senate Bill 5 aims to stop these schemes to abuse citizens. Most of the press on Senate Bill 5 focused on the Mack’s Creek portion of the bill. Under current law, a municipality can receive up to 30 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets. Sen. Schmitt’s bill reduces that to 20 percent for most of the state and 12.5 percent for St. Louis County. This will force municipalities to quit balancing their budgets by writing phony tickets. (By contrast, Jefferson City receives just over three percent of its annual revenue from traffic fines and fees.) 

As I’ve written before, the right amount is not 30, 20, 12.5 or even three. It’s zero. Article IX, section 7 of the Missouri constitution requires that the “clear proceeds of all penalties, forfeitures, and fines” for breach of the “penal laws” must be distributed to schools, not municipal, county, or state budgets. 

For minor traffic violations, Senate Bill 5 caps fines and costs to $300 and prohibits jail time. To help municipalities collect unpaid tickets, the bill allows municipal courts to withhold tax refund money from offenders. Just as important, it requires every municipal court to adopt basic due process standards. Every municipal court: (1) must give defendants in custody due to a municipal arrest warrant must an opportunity for a hearing in front of judge within 48 hours, (2) is prohibited from holding a person more than 24 hours without a warrant after arrest; (3) certify that defendants are not being detained to coerce payment of fines and costs; (4) be held in a courtroom open to the public and large enough to accommodate the public, parties, and attorneys; and (5) must make use of alternative payment plans and community service alternatives. If a municipal court fails to comply, it’s taken over by the county circuit court.

Just as important, SB 5 creates minimum standards for local governments in St. Louis County. To continue their existence, every local government must have (1) a balanced budget, (2) an annual audit, (3) insurance, (4) ordinances that are easily-accessible to the public, and (5) an accredited police force with a written use of force policy. These are simple requirements. A municipality that can’t meet them is a municipality that should no longer exist. The bill empowers citizens by permitting them to file an affidavit with the Attorney General if they believe their municipality is not complying. The AG has a duty to investigate and is given the authority to file suit against the lackluster municipality. If a judge finds that the municipality has failed to meet these standards, they can order an election for disincorporation or place an administrative authority in charge of the city.

In signing the bill, Gov. Nixon rightly called it “the most comprehensive and sweeping municipal court reform bill in Missouri history.” It’s a bill that will help “return our municipal courts to their intended purpose: serving our citizens and protecting the public.”

Of course, some municipalities will still find ways around these restrictions. Just this week, KMOV in St. Louis reported that many municipalities’ revenues are shifting from traffic tickets to other citations. In Pine Lawn last year, the city prosecuted eight non-traffic ordinance violations for every household in the city.

Investigative reporter Craig Cheatam highlighted the story of one couple in Hanley Hills. They’re set for a trial on the charge of failure to get an occupancy permit after they were recently married and the husband moved in with his wife. There were not any other people living in the house.  And yet, it’s apparently an offense in Hanley Hills to live with a new spouse without first checking in with your friendly local government bureaucrat. The couple may have a constitutional claim against the statute as applied to them, but even if they don’t, this is the type of case that any sensible prosecutor would dismiss. That is, unless the purpose of the court system making money and not justice. Cheatam’s report highlights the fact that the legislative process is never finished. Just as con men will always find new ways to commit fraud, so too will bad local government officials find ways to squeeze their citizens. Next year’s reform may well be to prohibit municipalities from prosecuting married couples for living together. 

The Safe Sleep Act and the Democratic Process in Missouri

As we pause to celebrate Independence Day this weekend, we should remember those famous words expressed by the Founders in July 1776: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The Founders replaced a system of government in which the people had no voice with one in which they did. They specified that government only derives “just powers from the consent of the governed.” And they instituted a democratic system in which, eventually, everyone would have a say.

Of course, the ability to change laws for the better or make your voice heard in Washington is limited in today’s world. In Missouri, it’s different. Here, with a citizen-legislature closer to their constituents, any single Missourian with a good idea can change the law for the better.

This week I want to talk about two heroes of the democratic process this year in Missouri – two Missourians who suffered a tremendous personal tragedy, but who then went to work changing Missouri law to help avoid anyone else having to go through the same loss.

Anna and Aaron Haber are two young parents from Missouri. When they went to choose a day care for their children, they did their research and found a place that was both licensed and reputable.  On August 20, 2014, they dropped their two children off in the morning – including Owen George Haber, their seven month old.

Many people don’t realize it, but, at that age, it’s not safe to place any extra material in a crib with a baby. Nor is it safe to wrap the crib with bumper-pads, sleep-positioning devices, or anything which might restrict the air-flow to the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep recommendations makes clear that these materials should not be in a baby’s crib. The reason is simple: these materials risk suffocation.

Owen was put down for a nap that day and never woke up. I cannot imagine the grief felt by Anna and Aaron. It’s hard to say how any of us would react to such a tragedy. It would be an understandable reaction to withdraw or avoid the subject.

That’s not what Anna and Aaron did. They decided they didn’t want any other child or any other parents to suffer the same tragedy. So they started contacting legislators.

Their own state representative is Rep. Jeanne Kirkton from St. Louis. Rep. Kirkton filedHouse Bill 707 to require all licensed day care facilities to implement a safe sleep policy for babies that follows the rules of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Anna and Aaron did their part as well. They traveled to the capitol on several occasions to tell their story to legislators and why the bill was important for protecting children. They had to re-tell and re-live their tragedy in every single meeting. I met with them in the hallway and will admit to crying with them in public. And they did this time and time again.

It probably would have been easier psychologically for Anna and Aaron not to re-tell Owen’s story each and every time. But they realized that, unless they were there to explain the tragedy, their bill to protect children might get lost in the mix somewhere.

They found other allies, including Sen. Jeannie Riddle (R-Mokane). Then Sen. Riddle and Rep. Kirkton did their part. They looked for bills upon which to stick HB 707 as an amendment. Eventually, Senate Bill 341, sponsored by Sen. Riddle was Truly Agreed and Finally Passed by the legislature. SB 341 sits on Gov. Nixon’s desk awaiting his signature.

Anna and Aaron Haber are heroes of democracy. After personal tragedy, they realized the law could be changed to better protect Missouri children. Rather than withdrawing, they chose to work to protect others. I’m not confident I could do it. Their actions took personal courage – and because of them, Missouri children will be safer.

Oh, and there’s another happy part to this story. The Habers are expecting their third child in September. May little Owen George’s soul rest in peace knowing that he will not be forgotten, and that his parents fought so hard to make the world a safer place for other children.