MO Capitol

This Missouri News Network report is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by MPA member newspapers in print and online. The Salem News and Phelps County Focus are MPA members.

Parson talks fuel price gouging; NEA demands vaccines for teachers

By Judy Lucas

Gov. Mike Parson spoke about the outcry for assistance regarding huge price increases of heating fuel due to the record-low freezing temperatures at a news conference Thursday.

"Given the extremely cold temperatures, I understand there have been some supply issues," Parson said. "However, we will not tolerate any effort to price gouge or take advantage of customers at a time when there is no other choice or alternative options."

Parson reached out to the attorney general's office to look into the inflated prices. He said they will use any and all resources available to stop illegal behavior. Missourians who believe they have been subject to price gouging are being asked to contact the attorney general's Consumer Protection Hotline.

Earlier this week, the Parson administration announced an improved home heating bill with the addition of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that will offer improved assistance to eligible low-income Missourians. If a low-income household's heating gets shut off, this program pays the gas company the minimum amount to get their heating back on. The program will begin this winter.

As for the cancellation of mass vaccination events across the state, Parson said they are working to reschedule as soon as possible. Parson claims the cancellations did not affect regional vaccine allocations, and Missouri is still on track.

Parson spoke of encouraging COVID-19 data and said coronavirus activity has declined for the fifth consecutive week. As of Thursday, Missouri is the fourth lowest in the nation for daily positive cases per 100,000 people, and the positivity rate is down to 7%.

Randall Williams, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, addressed prioritizing teachers in the states vaccination efforts and reiterated that the state will not move teachers up to be vaccinated. He said Parson and him are focusing mainly on the most vulnerable populations, as of now. These populations include the elderly and residents with preexisting conditions who would be more likely to succumb to the virus if they contracted it.

"Those people most likely to get sick and, bluntly, to pass away if they get COVID continues to be my focus and the governor's focus," Williams said. "We just feel like it's our obligation to protect those most likely to get really sick."

In a news release sent Thursday, the Missouri National Education Association demanded teachers and school personnel get prioritized in the states vaccination efforts. The release states that other states such as Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska have all prioritized vaccinating educators: "If these states can prioritize vaccinating educators to resume full in-person instruction safely, why can't Missouri?"

In addition, Parson told the media him and his wife have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. He said they signed up online, like everyone else.

Solar energy advocates decry hearing, intent of bill that would charge users extra

By Grace Zokovitch

The public hearing on a bill that disturbs renewable energy advocates has been extended to next week after opponents expressed outrage at the last-minute notice, limited speaking time and snowy roads that blocked many from Wednesday’s hearing.

The bill, HB 539, proposes adding fees to customers who use solar panels, as well as charging additional fees for installation, constraining the sale of excess solar energy and reiterating consumer protections.

“I’m not against solar,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, said. “I’m not here to kill jobs. I’m here for simply fairness in an industry.”

Proponents argued at the House Utilities Committee hearing that establishing “fairness” means reducing what they see as extra incentives to use solar power. The way the electric system is set up now, they said, means non-solar customers of co-ops and electric power retailers effectively subsidize other customers’ use of solar power.

Knight also said that “net metering basically will establish a cost for the use of the (power) grid” by charging solar users both when energy is transported and when they sell excess energy back to the grid.

Opponents said the new fees are not proposed for the sake of fairness.

“The whole bill is designed to be a burden to the solar industry and to customers,” said James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri. “The utility companies say it costs extra to provide service to solar customers, which is not true. So it would add monthly increments to (the customers’) bills to make sure they do not see any benefit from solar.”

Owen said in states where fees like these have been implemented, like Kansas, these disincentives have “wiped out the solar industries.” He noted that a Kansas court ruled these discriminatory charges to certain customers unconstitutional.

Owen was unable to speak at Wednesday’s hearing but plans to attend next week when it continues.

The announcement Tuesday of the hearing on HB 539 prompted outrage from Renew Missouri and other environmental groups. Many complained that the 24-hour notice and continuing snow and cold would prevent them from being heard. The continuation will give the public another chance to weigh in.

Committee Chairperson Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, said that especially with these controversial issues, the committee is looking to work on the bills “for as long as it takes to get it right.”

Owen said this is not a new issue and that this sort of bill threatening solar energy has come up in the Missouri legislature for the past several years. Despite the previous defeat of similar bills, environmental advocates still see looming threats to the progress of renewable energy in Missouri.

Paul McKnight, the owner of EFS Energy in St. Louis and president of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, argued that expanding the use of renewable energy should be encouraged.

“These (upgrades and changes) are things which we need to allocate resources to,” McKnight said. “To try to slow that down or restrict that, I feel, is moving in the wrong direction.”

The Utilities Committee will reconvene at 8 a.m. next Wednesday to continue the public hearing.

House bill seeks to ban regulations based solely on a dog's breed

By Wicker Perlis

Owners of pit bulls and some other large dog breeds may soon have more options of where to live, if a House bill discussed Thursday becomes law.

The bill, proposed by Rep. David Gregory, R-St. Louis, would ban municipalities from passing breed-specific laws, or BSLs. More than 70 Missouri municipalities have BSLs, according to BSL census. More than 50 of those laws outright ban pit bulls. Columbia does not have a BSL, but a pit bull ban was discussed in 2019. Gregory, who proposed a similar bill in 2020, initially painted the issue as one of government overreach.

“What this bill seeks to do is deregulate governments throughout the state of Missouri,” Gregory said. “It is wrong for a government to come into your home and tell you what kind of dog, by breed, you can have.”

Gregory also cited national statistics on dog bites. Even though there are significantly more pit bulls than breeds such as German shepherds, pit bulls only make up a small plurality of bites, he said. Pit bulls account for 22.5% of all dog bites, about 5% more than German shepherds, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. Rather than BSLs, Gregory said he would like to see municipalities implement vicious dog ordinances and other regulations that prioritize safety regardless of breed.

“This is not a breed-specific problem. This is a dangerous dog problem,” he said.

Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, agreed with Gregory. He said he has raised many types of dogs that are often seen as less dangerous than pit bulls, but calmer breeds can still bite.

“No breed is immune from biting,” Adams said.

Multiple advocacy groups also supported the bill, including the Missouri ASPCA and the Missouri Pet Breeders Association.

The bill was not without its critics though. Rep. Randy Railsback, R-Hamilton, questioned whether this bill would infringe on “local control.”

Gregory acknowledged that it would but said it was necessary.

“I default to local control,” Gregory said. That said, if local power is abused “it is incumbent on us to step in.”

Rep. Richard West, R-Wentzville, seemed to take a middle path. He recalled his family’s history of dog breeding and training and his own history in law enforcement.

As an officer, he said he saw a young girl “literally have her face ripped off” by a pit bull, so he supports breed-specific safety regulations but not an outright ban on owning certain breeds.

“I think we might reconsider the wording of this,” West said.

Gregory said he was concerned that strict breed-specific safety regulations could effectively prohibit ownership.

“I think it’s a dangerous slippery slope,” he said.

Bill would allow recipients to keep much of overpaid unemployment benefits

BY Sara Dingmann

A bill passed by the Special Committee on Government Oversight on Wednesday would allow Missourians to keep the portion of overpaid unemployment benefits that came from federal stimulus package money.

About $150 million in unemployment benefits have been overpaid in Missouri since the start of the pandemic, according to Missouri Department of Labor Director Anna Hui. Lawmakers cited reports indicating that 75-80% of the overpaid benefits used federal funds.

The average overpayment was $4,500, according to Hui. Recipients of overpayments got letters starting in the fall stating they owed that money back.

The bill has bipartisan support and has been a major point of discussion over the past few weeks.

In Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, shared how one of her friends had considered killing himself in the hopes that someone in the community would be able to raise the funds for his wife to pay the money back and support her and the child they are expecting.

“We have citizens in the state who are deciding whether or not (to end) their life, for the sake of us sending money back to the federal government for no benefit,” Proudie said in tears.

Her friend had been dissuaded from taking any actions by the words of Rep. Scott Cupps, R-Shell Knob, who spoke last week during a hearing about the bill to people who were struggling financially. Proudie was grateful that Cupps, a rural Republican, could help her urban friend.

“Tell your friend that help is on the way, to hang in there,” said Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville. Eggleston noted that several similar bills were being combined into one effort to block government action to go after the federal money.

“This committee — your bill, the chair’s bill — a number of us, we are going to put them all together and do the best that we can to get him help as quickly as we can,” said Eggleston.

The bill specifies that recipients of overpayment from federal aid do not have to pay back the amount if they did not commit fraud. Two Republicans in the hearing voiced concern over a lack of clear definition of fraud when collecting unemployment benefits.

“Fraud does require intent, so I don’t know how we would really be able to in a reasonable fashion actually make those determinations in a real time basis in a way that’s likely going to get us results that are going to be better than what we had here,” said Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon.

Lovasco acknowledged that there is confusion surrounding the process of registering for unemployment and expressed interest in an amendment that would work to define fraud in the context of the bill.

Committee members expressed interest in now working on a bill that would also allow people to keep overpayments from the state. Gov. Mike Parson has said he believes the money should be returned.

The bill will now go before the House.

Lawmakers discuss bills on chokeholds, officer-involved deaths

BY Jose Luis Adriano

The Missouri Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety discussed a bill Wednesday that would prohibit the use of chokeholds by police officers.

The measure came in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Michael Brown because of police brutality.

“I was elected in 2014, and Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson happened the Saturday after my primary on a Tuesday,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, sponsor of House Bills 461 and 876.

HB 876, first introduced Jan. 26, refers to the use of chokeholds. Its summary reads, “Any peace officer or security guard who causes death using a chokehold and is not justified in using deadly force shall be guilty of a class A felony and may be referred for disciplinary action.”

In the hearing, Dogan explained that this bill is the result of several discussions with activist groups such as the NAAPC and the ACLU, as well as with sheriffs, police chiefs and members of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The proposed bill is against the use of maneuvers commonly referred to as chokeholds, which restrict blood or oxygen flow to the brain, prevent breathing or reduce the intake of air. It also adds certification requirements in de-escalation training for officers.

Furthermore, this bill would create offenses for sexual conduct in the course of public duty with a detainee, offender or prisoner.

Dogan said the bill is his response to unjustified mistreatment police show toward communities of color.

“The history we have of policing toward African Americans is not a pretty one,” he said in the hearing.

The other bill, HB 461, proposes law enforcement agencies have a written policy for investigations of officer-involved deaths. It would also require officers to provide complete reports to the prosecutor of the county or city where the death occurred, along with requiring independent researchers to investigate these cases.

Teachers seek vaccine priority; Parson administration sticking with plan

BY Jonathan Jain

Despite educators across the state pleading to receive the COVID-19 vaccine sooner, the Parson administration refuses to revise Missouri’s vaccination plan.

Teachers are classified in Phase 1B, Tier 3, of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, among other workers deemed necessary to keep essential societal functions running. Missouri is currently vaccinating high-risk individuals in Phase 1B, Tier 2.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Service Director Randall Williams has indicated that he hopes to begin vaccinating Missourians in Phase 1B, Tier 3, starting mid-to-late April.

The past five recipients of the Missouri Teacher of the Year award sent a letter to Williams requesting that Missouri school teachers and support staff be prioritized for immediate vaccination.

“Our state’s teachers and support staff have faithfully risked their lives this year,” read the statement. “We have been thanked as heroes — and just as often have been accused of ‘not doing enough.’ And yet: We have continued to place the needs of the children as our first priorities.”

The letter highlighted that 26 states chose to vaccinate educators immediately, including seven of Missouri’s eight bordering states.

Michelle Baumstark, community relations director for Columbia Public Schools, said about 10% of CPS employees have received the vaccine, but the rest will have to wait.

“There’s a lot of political pressure from our state government and others to be in-seat (for school instruction), yet teachers were put lower on the list, within that Tier 3 (1B) group.

It’s all about how those things are prioritized,” Baumstark said.

Gov. Mike Parson’s communications director, Kelli Jones, released a statement to the Missourian.

“We are doing everything we can to vaccinate as many Missourians as quickly as possible, and we look forward to the day when supply increases to the point where we can vaccinate our teachers.”

“Right now, Missouri must remain committed to protecting approximately 3 million senior citizens, health care providers, first responders, and those with underlying health conditions who are currently eligible for the vaccine,” Jones said. “It is critical that we prioritize those most vulnerable with the limited amount of vaccine currently available.”

Jones went on to cite recent CDC reports that indicate COVID-19 transmission in schools is low and in-person learning does not commonly increase community spread.

She added that proper preventative measures in schools create an environment that is unlikely to increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Columbia Missouri National Education Association President Kathy Steinhoff supported moving teachers to a higher vaccination priority.

“I definitely support it, and it’s a move some other states have made,” Steinhoff said. “It’s not about getting kids back to school, it’s about keeping the kids in school,” Steinhoff said.

In a press release Tuesday, Rep. Michael Burton, D-Lakeshire, pushed for teachers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine sooner.

“Parents, students, and educators from across the state are eager to get back in the classroom after almost a year of virtual learning, but for that to happen, teachers must immediately be made a top priority for vaccines,” read a statement released by Burton. “Saying they will ‘probably’ get their first shot in the next two to three weeks just isn’t good enough.”

Despite speaking to members of the Parson administration, Burton said he didn’t receive an adequate response, so he put out the release. He said he is hoping state leaders switch teachers’ priority level, and he is going to continue putting pressure to push the change.

“We’re right there, we’re very close to getting this done right, but we need to prioritize teachers,” Burton said. “Right now.”

Taylor Freeman contributed to this report.