May 31, 2001
Representative Sam Berkowitz Calls 2001 Legislative Session A Success
The Memphis Democrat may have been a little out of place among the "big boys" covering the final day of the Missouri State House of Representatives. However the Scotland County newspaper was in agreement with the likes of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Associated Press, that it was a productive legislative session that came to a close May 18.
First District Representative Sam Berkowitz agreed that the law making session provided numerous improvements for citizens of his district as was the case for the entire state.
The Missouri House of Representatives concluded the 2001 legislative session after posting big victories for the state's schools and working families.
"On the first day of session, we set forth an agenda dedicated to public education and the working families of Missouri, with a strong commitment to bipartisanship," said House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa. "Based on our accomplishments during this past session, I think we have proven that we can work together for the benefit of all Missourians."
One of the most significant accomplishments during the year was the completion of the state budget, said Speaker Kreider, noting that budget negotiators were required to find a half billion dollars to trim from state departments. But even in a tight budget year, he said, the House approved a $78 million increase for Missouri schools.
"In my view, the funding of public education is among our most important duties in state government," said Speaker Kreider. "We must maintain a quality educational system to give our students the education they deserve."
The House also approved revisions to the Criminal Asset Forfeiture Act (CAFA), which requires all assets seized from drug busts and other criminal activity to be dedicated to a school building fund. Governor Holden has signed the measure into law.
With more than 200 bills reaching final passage, members of the House can truly say they had a busy session. But its leaders say the session was not only busy, but successful as well.
"I'm here to brag on the members of this House," said Speaker Kreider at a news conference following the final day of the legislative session. "They worked hard and the citizens of Missouri were well served by the Missouri House of Representatives."
"We went to work in the Missouri House and got some important legislation passed for the good of the people of Missouri," said Minority Leader Catherine Hanaway. "We were also successful at stopping some potentially harmful legislation. And while there were disappointments along the way, I think you can say we had a good session for the people of Missouri."
Speaker Kreider pointed to bills on women's health, the .08 drunken driving limit, redistricting and the budget as particular successes of the House.
He also pointed to the successful passage of trans-portation funding, accountability in transportation, and the spending of proceeds from the national tobacco settlement as bills that passed the House, but then stalled in the Senate.
Rep. Berkowitz echoed these sentiments, indicating his frustration in the inability to get the Governor's transportation bill passed. He noted the plan would have created significant improvements for northeast Missouri, including funding for projects on Highways 61, 63 and 36.
Berkowitz also noted his disappointment in the failure of the prescription drug plans that would have provided financial aid for elderly citizens to meet the growing costs of medicine.
"I think that is a topic that will be addressed at the special session in September," Berkowitz said. "Hopefully we can get a plan together to help these people so they will not have to go another year having to decide whether to spend their limited resources on medicine or other everyday necessities."
The House passed legislation creating the Pharmaceutical Investment Program for Seniors (PIPS), a prescription drug coverage plan for low-income senior citizens. In spite of early approval by the House, the measure failed to gain passage in the Missouri Senate.
Despite the transportation and prescription drug issues, Berkowitz praised the work done this year in the House, including productive work across party lines.
Lawmakers from both parties worked together to craft bills on lowering the state's drunken driving level from .10 to .08. They also worked together to pass legislation on agriculture, health care, veterans issues, senior citizens, education, insurance and the budget.
"From day one, we said our party's priority was to make government work for the people of the state of Missouri," said Rep. Hanaway. "We worked hard with members from the other side of the aisle and accomplished a great deal."
"I want to commend Leader Hanaway and members of her caucus, they were cooperative and worked hard with us," said Speaker Kreider. "This was a House that was united on many issues, and one which provided strong leadership on a number of important issues. I look forward to continuing our relationship and our commitment to hard work next year."
This session of the Missouri Legislature will be known as the session that dealt with a giant hole in the budget and began historic debates on transportation and the uses of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement. It could also be known for legislation that touches ordinary citizens' lives.
House Bill 762, the Well Women's Health Initiative, is an example of such legislation. It requires health insurance providers to include obstetrical/ gynecological coverage, to annually notify enrollees of cancer screenings covered under the health care plan, and to cover contraceptives if the enrollee requests.
"The women of Missouri now truly have a health care package that will encompass their lives from child bearing age until menopause," said Rep. Joan Barry, the sponsor of HB 762.
"We are so pleased that this will come to pass after so long. The winners in this are the women of Missouri."
House members also took a stand against drunken driving, by lowering the state's threshold for drunken driving offenses from .10 to .08. The bill (HB 302) was a result of more than five years of effort by Rep. Craig Hosmer.
"It's one of the biggest things that we have done for public safety and the safety of our highways in the eleven years I have been a member of the House of Representatives," said Rep. Hosmer. "This is a good bill, it is good public policy, and it's good for the safety of the people who travel our roads and highways."
"We're losing lives and highway dollars by not having .08 as our state law," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Sam Gaskill referring to the federal government's withholding of millions of dollars in highway funds from the state each year for not enacting the low drunk driving standards. "It makes no sense to carry on with opposition when so many studies point to the fact that everyone is inebriated and lacks good judgement at .08."
Another bill that was a long time coming was House Bill 328, legislation that requires health care insurance providers to, within 45 days of a claim, provide a complete description of all information necessary to process the entire claim.
The legislation also allows a person who has filed a claim for reimbursement for health care service to file a civil action against a carrier for violation of the "prompt pay" provision. Rep. Tim Harlan handled the bill that some say has been around since 1993.
"It's finally time for the state to take a stand on this issue," said Rep. Harlan. "There is no good reason for insurance companies to leave consumers dangling on whether or not their claims will be paid."
Elementary school students who read below grade level are the target for legislation passed in Senate Bill 319. Under an amendment passed by the House, local school districts are required to come up with a plan for helping students improve their reading bills. The new provisions do away with mandatory grade retention policies under existing law.
"Our children need to read at least at grade level to succeed anywhere in school," said House bill handler, Rep. Connie Johnson. "This legislation mandates that the individual school districts take action to make sure their students learn to read."
"The important thing about this legislation is that it gives districts local control about how to best handle individual students who fall behind," said Rep. Charlie Shields, a key supporter of the House amendment. "We now no longer mandate that a student should be held back an entire grade because of their reading, but instead we now mandate the district take action to help that student."
Missouri House members also tacked important legislation on to a Senate agriculture bill. The Farmland Protection Act (an amendment to Senate Bill 462) will help protect farmers who own land near and around developments. The bill has several provisions aimed at keeping cities and real estate developers from swallowing farmland from owners who are not ready to sell. The act was sponsored in the House by Speaker Jim Kreider and Rep. Luanne Ridgeway.
"With cities encroaching more and more into our rural areas, we need to do all we can to protect the family farms, which are our heritage," said Rep. Ridgeway. "Farm families should not be disadvantaged just because a developer wants to build a subdivision out in the country."
House members also remembered the state's military veterans by passing House Bill 207. It allocates a portion of the Veterans Commission Capitol Improvements Trust Fund to fund matching grants for veteran's service officer programs, provide medallions for the state's World War II veterans, and provide $10 million for the expansion and renovation of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.
"This is a way our generation can express our thanks and appreciation for all these veterans have given us," said bill sponsor, Rep. Carson Ross. "A worthy theme, taken from one of our veterans' service organizations, is to 'honor the dead by serving the living.'"
Finally, House members reached out to stop felons from being released from jail if there are out-standing warrants for their arrest in the memory of a little boy from Independence. By sending House Bill 144, "Jake's Law", to the governor, the House paid tribute to Jake Robel, a six-year-old boy, dragged to death by a car-jacker who had been erroneously released from a north central Missouri jail just hours before.
"We need to make sure law enforcement is more careful before releasing prisoners back on to the street," said HB 144 sponsor Dennis Bonner. "What happened to Jake should never happen again."
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