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Lawmakers deal setback to high-speed rail plan

Lawmakers deal setback to high-speed rail plan

April 13th, 2011 in News

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's quest for $1 billion in federal high-speed rail money suffered a setback Wednesday when a House committee defeated an attempt to include the money in a state budget bill.

Republican lawmakers expressed concern that even with the federal money - which would pay for the design and land acquisition of a new rail route between St. Louis and Kansas City - Missouri would be unable to pay for the subsequent construction and operation costs of the rail system.

By not including the money in state budget, Missouri would be unable to spend the federal money if it was awarded the grant. But Nixon's administration said Wednesday that it would proceed with the application, noting the money still could be added to the budget in the future if Missouri's request is successful.

At issue is $2.4 billion in federal aid originally awarded to Florida for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. When Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently turned back the money, Missouri was one of 24 states - with applications totaling $10 billion - that sought a share. Not all of that money may actually be redistributed, because a budget deal struck last week between President Barack Obama and Congress rescinds some the spending authority for high-speed rail projects.

Missouri's application was broken into 14 individual grant requests. A dozen of those, totaling $303 million, would fund improvements to the existing Union Pacific rail line between St. Louis and Kansas City that is used by Amtrak passenger trains. The goal would be to allow passenger trains to travel faster and slow down or stop less frequently to let other trains pass.

A $108 million request would help fund the purchase of three new passenger trains that travel between Kansas City and St. Louis and on to Chicago.

Another part of Missouri's application seeks $600 million to conduct environmental evaluations, commission engineering designs and purchase land for a route between Missouri's two largest cities that would allow passenger trains to travel up to 125 mph. Trains currently cannot travel more than 79 mph on the existing tracks.

Republicans on the House Budget Committee pressed the Missouri Department of Transportation for an estimate of how much it would cost to build and operate a new high-speed rail line.

"It's just irresponsible for us to advocate something like this with no idea of the ultimate price," said Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-Manchester.

House backs vehicle sticker change

Missouri drivers could soon be putting their vehicle registration stickers in a different place - inside their windshields instead of on their license plates.

Legislation passed by the House would require the state Department of Revenue to begin issuing the windshield stickers next year. Owners of trailers or motorcycles would still receive registration stickers for those license plates.

Motorists in many states place the stickers inside their windshields. Missouri requires them to be placed on license plates, where they're easy targets for thieves.

House Republican Charlie Denison, of Springfield, says the switch would prevent those thefts and save time for vehicle owners and police.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Lawmakers pass workplace discrimination bill

A bill changing the rules for Missouri lawsuits by people claiming they were fired because of discrimination is on its way to Gov. Jay Nixon.

The Missouri House passed the measure Wednesday on a vote of 96-63. The Senate had approved it earlier.

The bill requires plaintiffs to show that discrimination was a "motivating" factor in a firing. Missouri's current law requires a showing only that discrimination was a "contributing" factor.

The legislation also limits the amount of damages that could be awarded.

Supporters say the bill brings Missouri's laws in line with federal standards and will encourage job creation.

Critics called it a step backward and predict it will make employers less likely to prevent workplace discrimination.

House Democrats contest payday loan bill

The Missouri House has set aside a sharply contested measure to limit how much payday lenders can charge customers.

The bill debated Tuesday would cap total interest at 60 percent of the loan amount and let customers "roll over" a loan three times instead of the current six.

Sponsoring Rep. Ellen Brandom, a Sikeston Republican, said the bill would protect consumers from high interest rates while still allowing payday lenders to make money.

But Columbia Democrat Mary Still argued the interest rates should be much lower and that customers should get more time to pay off their loans.

The debate was contentious at times, with Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller repeatedly interrupting Democrats to warn them about the nature of their arguments.