- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Kansas City Star, March 6

Lobbyist gigs, pizza dilemmas and entitlement in Jefferson City:

The Missouri General Assembly’s annual ritual of talking its way out of meaningful ethics reform is well underway.

The Senate has already watered down what ought to be a simple measure to enact - a sensible waiting period to stop lawmakers from leaving their seats one day and becoming lobbyists the next.

But that would be “a solution in search of a problem,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, a Republican from Franklin County. As though public suspicion that a legislator would vote a certain way in hopes of securing a lucrative lobbying job isn’t a problem.

More than 30 states require a “cooling off” period before a lawmaker can join the lobbying ranks, but Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat who voted against the measure, told a reporter he thought a moratorium would be unconstitutional.

Schatz argued that a waiting period would deny legislators the “freedom to pursue happiness that’s guaranteed to us in the Constitution.”

That’s right. In the Missouri legislature, happiness is a lobbyist gig awaiting you after term limits.

The best the Senate could do was agree to a measure banning legislators from resigning their office in the middle of a term to accept a lobbying job. That’s actually happened, so the Senate bill is a baby step forward. And so are measures the Senate approved involving campaign accounts belonging to former legislators.

But baby steps are a long walk from substantive reform.

A House bill to ban lawmakers from accepting freebies from lobbyists also teetered into a black hole in the Senate.

Schatz worried that he might run afoul of a new law if, say, he wandered into someone’s office and grabbed a slice of pizza that turned out to have come from a lobbyist. Now that would be a problem. We say that if the senator decides the pursuit of happiness leads him to a slice of cheese and pepperoni, he can purchase it himself.

Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat who frequently places near the top of the list of recipients of lobbyists’ gifts, worried that she wouldn’t be able to help her constituents by passing on gifts from lobbyists.

Sorry, but a favor is a favor, and passing one on to constituents doesn’t make a lawmaker any less beholden.

Senate leaders still hold out hope for a gift ban, but the issue has been shelved for now. And the ethics reform that’s most needed - limits on campaign contributions - isn’t even up for discussion. A constructive measure to disclose the names of people who make big monetary donations to nonprofits with political missions narrowly failed in the Senate.

The legislature is displaying its sense of entitlement in another way. Leaders and lawyers for the House and Senate are asserting that emails of lawmakers and their staffers are not open to the public under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

While the legislature itself is a public body, and subject to public disclosure, the members are not, they reason.

Lawmakers need to rethink that stance and draft legislation that eliminates the ambiguity. State employees are subject to the Sunshine Law, and it makes no sense that legislators’ correspondence is exempt. The public deserves to have access to the inner workings of lawmaking.

Other states are grappling with the same issue. In Kansas, lawmakers are exempted from the Open Records Act, and there have been controversies about whether state employees can avoid transparency by doing public work on personal computers.

But after a series of scandals, the Missouri legislature isn’t in a good position to say, “just trust us.” The idea that the public is watching may be just the incentive to stay out of trouble.


Springfield News-Leader, March 5

Missouri must build teacher database:

Our educators are a treasure.

While most of us lament our inability to handle eighth-grade math (insert your Common Core joke here), these men and women are intelligent, committed and self-sacrificial. They perform a service for our community that we could not accomplish without them. Their pay is too low, the hours are too long, and for most of them, they couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else with their lives.

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when our trust in a teacher is shattered. And unacceptable that we aren’t doing more to share information about those teachers.

USA Today last month released a nationwide investigation into teacher misconduct, finding fundamental defects in the teacher screening systems used to ensure the safety of our nation’s students. In the time since the investigation was published, teachers who had quietly crossed state lines to re-enter classrooms have been removed and lawmakers have pledged their support to reforming the system. Education agencies in every state, including Missouri, voluntarily report disciplinary actions to a privately run database operated by a nonprofit. That nonprofit has ordered an audit of all information submitted since joining the system.

Here at home, Missouri earned a D for its efforts to protect students from disciplined teachers. The state received high marks for its efforts to screen incoming teachers prior to licensing. Our laws regarding mandatory reporting of teacher misconduct were also ranked high. This is good news for students and parents in districts like Springfield Public Schools. Missouri laws ensure strong state-level screening before a teacher is hired, helping keep students safer from teachers who have mistreated kids.

But once a teacher is disciplined in Missouri, finding information about why is more cumbersome than showing your work on a trigonometry proof.

As News-Leader reporter Claudette Riley pointed out this week, a check of Missouri’s public portal for teachers’ licenses was both hard to use and lacked significant details. Information on Craig Wood, currently awaiting trial in the rape and murder of Hailey Owens, and Jeffrey Turnbough, convicted of attempted sexual misconduct with a child, was both hard to locate and failed to list basic details as to why their licenses lapsed or were revoked.

When asked by the News-Leader, Margery Tannery, director of educator certification for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she didn’t know why the state was downgraded for transparency. Tanner said districts do a good job alerting the state about issues.

But who’s going to tell other states? Or the public?

The “I don’t know why” response rings hallow. This isn’t a response we would accept regarding drugs, guns or other dangers in schools. There’s no reason to be any less urgent or comprehensive in this case. These efforts must move quickly from too-early-to-talk-about-publicly to implemented-for-the-safety-of-students-everywhere.

Rather than wonder why our system is being dinged for transparency, Missouri could be leading the way in sponsoring a nationwide system to keep those who give teachers a bad name from ever stepping in front of a classroom again. The system should ensure that parents everywhere have easy-to-use access to information about those they trust with the safety of their children.

When it comes to keeping those with ill intent away from children, anything less than an “A” doesn’t make the grade.


St. Joseph News-Press, March 5

Drug tax a useful tool:

It’s unconventional, and drug dealers won’t like it, but it makes sense to require tax stamps on illegal drugs.

A proposal before the Missouri Senate would assess an additional criminal penalty on any dealer caught with more than 35 grams of marijuana, or more than a gram of other drugs or a dosage of an illegal substance, without paying a tax. The proof would be in an officially issued tax stamp affixed to the package of drugs.

Helpfully, state revenue authorities would sell the tax stamps to dealers and promise not to collect their personal information when doing so.

Passing such a law likely would bring legal challenges, as it has in other states, but it also could produce notable revenue. More than 20 states already have drug tax stamp laws. Revenue estimates vary widely, but they range from several hundred thousand dollars over several years, to several million dollars a year.

Lawmakers promoting the Missouri tax think our state easily could bring in more than $1 million a year based on the experience in less-populated Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.

This money has been proposed as a way to improve funding for state law enforcement. Last year, a similar bill would have used the new income to replace federal grant money for law enforcement that was drying up. Other states have funneled a portion of their proceeds to their state general fund or to drug-treatment programs.

To be clear, few drug dealers buy the stamps. Rather, they encounter the tax when illegal drugs are seized, facing both that assessment and the charge of tax evasion for failure to obtain a tax stamp.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes tax stamp laws on the ground they attempt to punish people twice for the same crime. But the prevalence of these laws in other states shows they can be constructed to sidestep constitutional issues.

Having accomplished that, lawmakers can take satisfaction in two positives:

- Generating more revenue that can help in the fight against drug dealers.

- Requiring the underground illegal economy of drug dealing to submit to taxation, in the same way legitimate businesses are taxed.


Jefferson City News-Tribune, March 6

Impostor drugs add urgency to need for Rx monitoring:

While Missouri lawmakers continue to nudge forward a bill to establish a prescription drug monitoring program, authorities nationwide have sounded a new alarm regarding deadly opioid impostors.

The state House last week advanced a bill by Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, to establish a database that would allow physicians and pharmacists to monitor patients’ use of opioid painkillers.

Missouri remains the only state without a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP), largely as a result of privacy concerns voiced by opponents.

Prescription opioids, including oxycodone and morphine, are highly addictive, and a PDMP is designed to prevent patients from “doctor shopping” to acquire more than the prescribed amount.

The tortured path is that “doctor shopping” leads to prescription drug addiction and, in many cases, to illegal drugs, including heroin.

A study last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found about 75 percent of new heroin users first became hooked on prescription opiates. In many cases, heroin became more attractive because it was less expensive and more accessible.

A disturbing, new concern was revealed in an Associated Press report published in Tuesday’s News Tribune. The story began: “Authorities are sounding the alarm about a new and deadly twist in the country’s drug-addiction crisis in the form of potent painkillers disguised as other medications.”

According to the story, drug dealers are substituting purported prescription drugs with a cheaper, more potent drug, fetanyl, creating what one acting U.S. attorney called: “A fatal overdose waiting to happen.”

As we wrote in this forum in February, although we are sensitive to privacy concerns, we have no problem allowing physicians and pharmacists to have access to the database. As the licensed professionals who prescribe and dispense the drugs, they already have access to the information. In addition, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) prohibits them from disclosing patient information.

Any privacy concerns, largely a red herring, pale in comparison to the powerful pull of prescription drug abuse, which is leading otherwise law-abiding citizens into addiction, substituting illegal drugs and succumbing to impostor drugs and fatal overdoses.

Missouri lawmakers have an opportunity to interrupt this dangerous, downward spiral.

Urgency exists; legislators must not hesitate.

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