- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Joplin Globe, Jan. 23

Watch Our Backs

Joplin is counting on the Missouri Public Service Commission and the Missouri Office of Public Counsel to be standing guard.

Two of the largest utility projects in the area’s history - a reservoir and two large wind farms - are coming. And quickly.

Citing growth in the region and the threat to our water supply from a long-term drought, Missouri American says it needs a reservoir to supplement Shoal Creek, which provides almost all of Joplin’s water. It is looking at two locations just south of Joplin in Newton County, and it estimates the cost at $200 million to acquire the land and build the reservoir.

Meanwhile, Liberty Utilities-Empire District is poised to build 600 megawatts of wind generation, half of that in Southwest Missouri and half in Southeast Kansas. The price tag for that has been put at more than $1 billion.

Both of these investor-owned utilities will ultimately include costs for these large projects in their rate base, which means it will be part of the formula used to set rates for customers.

That’s where the PSC and OPC come in.

We need to know that they have our back - that they are aggressive in watching to make sure these utilities are making prudent and reasonable decisions, and that any unnecessary or excessive costs won’t be passed on ratepayers.

Nathan Williams, chief deputy public counsel for OPC, which represents ratepayers before the PSC, told us recently: “Everything the utility does is on the table for potentially being challenged as being an imprudent decision in a rate case.”

Given the scale of both projects, and the limitations on the OPC’s small staff, we’d like to see it give serious consideration to the possibility of hiring outside experts to provide impartial, third-party assessments of the projects.

Right now, we don’t have reason to suspect that either utility is being imprudent, and some of what is being proposed looks necessary and, in the case of switching from coal to renewables, better for the environment. But there is too much at stake not to be taking a close look at these operations and then taking steps to reassure the public these agencies are being watchful.


The Kansas City Star, Jan. 24

Missouri is shrouding medical marijuana in secrecy, hiding who wants to grow and dispense it

Medical marijuana is now legal in Missouri. But the identities of potential pot growers and sellers apparently are a state secret.

That’s because the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services refuses to disclose the names of those who have applied to cultivate and distribute the drug.

The Department of Health and Senior Services is charged with implementing and administering the state’s medical marijuana program. The department has been accepting pre-licensing fees and the forms that accompany those payments since the first week of January.

But officials have essentially shut out the public by refusing to release copies of the forms.

In November, voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. And as of Monday, the department had already received more than 350 pre-filed applications and fees totaling more than $2.5 million to cultivate, dispense and manufacture marijuana-infused products.

Official applications for licenses won’t be accepted until August. Medical marijuana shops are expected to begin selling pot next year.

There is still plenty of time to work out the kinks in this process. But in the meantime, Missouri officials should lift the veil of secrecy so that applicants can be publicly vetted before licenses are issued.

The attempt to keep the names of applicants secret is bureaucracy at its worst. Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams says text from the voter-approved Amendment 2 marijuana initiative requires privacy.

The new medical marijuana law does indeed contain a privacy provision to protect business and medical records. And as the law stipulates, the state certainly must safeguard sales information, financial records, tax returns, credit reports, cultivation information, testing results, security plans and any patient information.

But the public has a right to know who has applied to grow and distribute marijuana in Missouri.

Proponents of medical marijuana have argued that basic information about growers and distributors should be made public. And they are right.

“We applaud the department’s commitment to privacy for patients and the security plans and other proprietary information of industry applicants,” said John Payne, the campaign manager for New Approach Missouri, which successfully advocated for the legalization of medical marijuana. “However, we believe that the public does have a right to know basic information about applicants and eventual license holders, such as their names, and we hope that the department will make that information public at some point during the process.”

Anything short of identifiable personal information should be public. Provisions in the new law were not designed to protect the identities of potential growers and distributors.

Medical marijuana is new terrain for Missouri officials. But other states, including Oklahoma, are on the right track in terms of transparency.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority recently published a list of licensed growers, processors, and dispensaries on its website. The agency had approved 33,214 patient licenses, 207 licenses for caregivers, 883 for dispensaries, 1,450 for growers and 377 processor licenses as of Monday.

Addresses for growers and processors are not included in the lists. But all application information is considered a public record.

State lawmakers should file similar legislation authorizing the release of names associated with growers, processors and distributors of medical marijuana in Missouri. State officials cannot continue to hide behind ambiguous language in the law.


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 23

Missouri should join other states in banning cellphone usage while driving

A couple of thousand times a year in Missouri, drivers who are splitting their attention between looking at the road and looking at a cellphone crash their vehicles. In some of those crashes, inevitably, the driver or someone else dies.

Some Missouri legislators are trying - again - to outlaw cellphone use while driving. It’s a commonsense idea that, based on national trends, seems certain to become state law sooner or later. The only question is how many more drivers will die before it does.

So far, 16 states, including Illinois, have banned all handheld phone activity while driving. Texting while driving - possibly the most pervasive and dangerous activity, because it takes the driver’s eyes completely off the road - has been banned in all but three states.

But in Missouri, drivers 21 and older can do pretty much anything they want on their phones while guiding a two-ton machine down public roadways at high speeds.

In 2017, there were almost 2,600 crashes in Missouri, both fatal and nonfatal, that police know involved cellphones. Officials say that number is almost certainly low because of people who either don’t admit they were using a phone or who don’t survive to explain what happened.

Missouri does prohibit texting by drivers under 21. But according to the Missouri Department of Transportation, some 70 percent of drivers in crashes that involved cellphones were 21 and older. This isn’t just an issue for inexperienced drivers but all drivers.

Yet year after year, numerous measures in Jefferson City seeking to restrict cellphone usage while driving fail to win approval. As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reported Wednesday, proponents are trying again this year.

Legislators have introduced at least six bills to restrict cellphone usage while driving in various ways. Measures by Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, would ban texting for drivers of all ages - which should be viewed as the bare minimum that needs to be done.

Better yet are bills filed by Reps. Nate Tate, R-St. Clair, Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, and Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, to ban all cellphone usage while driving.

If the past is a guide, even the milder measures will face an uphill fight for approval. It isn’t difficult to guess why. In Missouri, as everywhere else in America, cellphones have become so ubiquitous - and are used so often, for so many things - that asking people to put them away while driving is, for some, like oxygen deprivation.

The problem can only be solved with the kind of fundamental cultural change America experienced when drinking while driving went from being routine to being legally and socially unacceptable. Such a transformation regarding cellphones behind the wheel may take time, but a strict state law making it a moving violation with significant fines is a good way to start.

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