Monday, May 18, 2009

Missouri Legislative Roundup - Death Penalty, Abortion, Private Jails, Immigration

A report from the Missouri Catholic Conference:

MCC Reports on Final Days of 2009 Legislative Session

May 18, 2009, JEFFERSON CITY, MO – A ban on coerced abortions, alternative to abortion funding, elderly in-home care, death penalty moratorium, regulation of private jails, immigration, Catholic school concerns and health coverage for working parents received priority attention by the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) in the 2009 session of the Missouri General Assembly, which concluded Friday, May 15.

Legislators failed to pass a bill making it a crime to coerce a woman to have an abortion. HBs 46 and 434, sponsored by state Representatives Bryan Pratt (R-Blue Springs) and Cynthia Davis (R-O’Fallon), also sought to strengthen Missouri’s informed consent law.

The coerced abortion bill passed the Missouri House of Representatives in March, but the Senate waited until the last week of the session to debate it. According to the Missouri Catholic Conference’s executive director, Deacon Larry Weber, the delay proved fatal for the bill.

“You can’t wait until the last minute to pass this kind of bill,” he said. “Abortion proponents are always going to filibuster and you have to allot sufficient time to break the filibuster.” The Senate prides itself on unlimited debate and very rarely will Senate leaders close off debate, according to Weber.

With time running out and citizens demanding action, the Senate jettisoned the coerced abortion provisions in order to mollify pro-abortion senators. The bill sent back to the House addressed only Missouri’s informed consent law. In their haste, the Senate weakened Missouri’s current informed consent law. The House requested a conference to repair the bill but the Senate refused to negotiate.

“We are very disappointed with the defeat of the coerced abortion bill,” said Weber. “Women in crisis pregnancies deserve protection from bullies who want to force them to abort their unborn child.”

The MCC had more success in ensuring almost $2 million in funding for the Missouri Alternatives to Abortion program. Under this program the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services contracts with providers, including Catholic Charities of St. Louis and Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, that offer emergency housing and counseling, job search assistance, pre-natal care referrals and adoption services.

Despite the tight state budget, Weber found bright spots for Missouri’s most vulnerable citizens. “We were able to preserve funding for in-home care services to the elderly. This is another program our Catholic Charities agencies provide in partnership with the state of Missouri.”

For the first time in many years, death penalty legislation cleared the committee level and received floor debate in both the Missouri Senate and House. The House added a provision to a crime bill calling for a commission to study the fairness of capital punishment. The bill failed to pass but the MCC’s Rita Linhardt counseled patience. “It will take time to build a consensus against capital punishment, but the floor time given to death penalty bills this year shows we are making progress.”

State Representative Bill Deeken (R-Jefferson City) and Senator Rita Days (D-St. Louis County) sponsored the death penalty study commission bills. The bills originally proposed a moratorium on carrying out death sentences while the commission conducted its deliberations.

The MCC led a successful effort to strengthen the regulations of private jails. Senator David Pierce (R-Warrensburg) sponsored the measure (SB 44), which now awaits Governor Nixon’s signature to become law. Senator Pierce filed his bill after a private jail located in Holden failed to notify local law enforcement about two escapees until fifteen hours after the escape.

Some legislators initially wondered why the MCC had concerns about private jails. The MCC reminded lawmakers how private jailers in Texas in 1996 had mistreated Missouri offenders, forcing them to crawl on the floor as dogs attacked and bit them.

“Thanks to MCC efforts private jails now are subject to applicable state laws and local ordinances and must have proof of financial liability in the event of a lawsuit,” said Rita Linhardt, corrections specialist. “We also successfully opposed a provision in the bill that prevented the local sheriff the right to enter a private jail.”

The MCC turned back efforts by legislators to enact anti-immigration measures relating to college students. Legislation proposed to add to Missouri law a prohibition on the college attendance of Missouri high school graduates lacking proper immigration documents. The MCC’s Assistant Director, Mike Hoey, testified in a Senate committee that young people brought into the U.S. by their parents were not to blame for their lack of legal status. The Committee responded by deleting the enrollment provisions from the bill. As approved by the General Assembly, however, HB 390 retained a provision barring student scholarships to undocumented students.

Legislators approved an education bill that ensures the participation of private, parochial and home school students in virtual school courses offered by their local public school district. Virtual courses can be provided over the internet and via e-mail. Senator Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) added the MCC drafted provision during floor debate to an omnibus education (SB 291).

If signed by Governor Nixon, SB 291 will allow Catholic school students to participate in virtual courses without leaving their home or Catholic school. “The virtual school provisions of SB 291 will expand educational opportunities for our Catholic school students,” MCC’s Mike Hoey said.

The General Assembly failed to pass a measure that would have provided Medicaid health coverage to an additional 35,000 working parents. The MCC strongly supported the proposal.

As crafted by the Missouri Senate, the Medicaid expansion would not have cost the state of Missouri any tax dollars. The Missouri Hospital Association agreed to a tax on its member hospitals with the revenue generated used to draw down federal Medicaid dollars. But the Missouri House of Representative refused to agree to the plan.

Due to the legislature’s failure to act, eligibility for Medicaid in Missouri will remain at 22% of the federal poverty level, or $292 per month income for a mother with two children.

During House debate some members said the Medicaid expansion was not needed because it would only be helping “able-bodied adults.” The MCC, however, pointed out that increasingly workers are not offered health benefits by their employers. Currently, only 60% of employers offer health coverage, a figure that has decreased in recent years.