Greetings from your Missouri Capitol on this very spring-like day. As we head into the month of April, we certainly can look forward to a return to milder temperatures and welcome those spring days. The past two weeks have seen an increase in activity on the floor and rightfully so as we move into the second half of session where the lion's share of the work is done to pass good legislation.
During the course of any session, we have bills proposed to us that rise above the level of others, and those generally concern those most vulnerable, our young children. One of those bills was perfected a little over a week ago and that was HBs 557 and 560. My colleagues Rudy Veit and Kerri Ingle, of Jackson County, filed companion bills to protect children in unlicensed residential care facilities. News that children in some unlicensed residential care facilities have suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse prompted us as legislators to take quick action to create stronger protections for young people in faith-based reform schools. The House gave initial approval to a bill that would create stronger oversight for boarding schools run by religious organizations and, this past week, third read and passed this bill with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Veit, the bill sponsor, said, "There were people who came here, and they were truly not religious people. They set these homes up and we had some horrible, horrible results happen." He added, "These homes, all you had to say was that it was a religious organization, you were religious. You couldn't even check into if they were a recognized religious organization."
The issues with the unlicensed facilities were brought to light by the media, which then prompted the House Children and Families Committee to conduct hearings to investigate further. Most recently, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a total of 102 criminal charges against the operators of the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch. The attorney general's office is also working to assist authorities in Cedar County with an investigation of the Agape Boarding School, which has also received allegations of abuse.
The bill approved by the House ensures anyone working or volunteering at an unlicensed facility is subjected to a federal criminal background check. It requires all such facilities to notify the Department of Social Services of their existence and to comply with provisions that protect the safety of the children in residence. Additionally, the bill outlines a process to allow the department to intervene when there are allegations of abuse or neglect.
The bill was crafted to stop bad actors and to protect the religious freedoms of the organizations that are operating facilities legitimately. The bill includes a provision making it clear the state is not permitted to regulate any religious program, curriculum or ministry.
Other bills that passed include:
HB 432 — legislation that seeks to protect newborns from potential abuse. Known as the Birth Match Program, the bill requires data sharing between state departments that would better allow the state to offer prevention and crisis management support to families who may need it.
HB 387 — legislation to prevent the misuse of disciplinary practices known as seclusion and restraint. The bill provides stronger definitions for the practices and regulates how they can be implemented and utilized.
HB 543 — creates the Public School Open Enrollment Act, which establishes transfer procedures to nonresident districts for students in public schools. The bill specifies any student beginning kindergarten or already enrolled in a public school may attend a public school in any nonresident district. Districts must declare participation in the Open Enrollment Program by Oct. 1. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shall develop a model open enrollment transfer policy. Supporters state that where you live should not dictate where you go to school and that public school choice would be beneficial for parents and districts that offer a "good product." This bill focuses on students and creates flexibility and opportunities while allowing local policy development and holding districts responsible.
HB 228 — prevents any public school districts and charter schools from prohibiting a parent or guardian from audio recording any meeting held under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or a Section 504 plan meeting (Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973). Supporters say it is currently against the law to not allow the recording of these meetings, and these meetings include very detailed and complex amounts of information. Having a recording benefits the students and parents. Several other states have specific policies that allow recording of meetings, and Missouri statutes need to clarify that recording these meetings for personal use is allowed.
There are a number of other bills that were perfected this past week, third read and passed, but the biggest one came with the approval of our appropriation bills, namely Medicaid expansion. As I have told you in previous columns and many of you personally, I represent you and do my best to vote according to the way you voted. This one was a tossup since 19,034 voted for expansion and 19,416 voted against it. In these cases, I have to use my best judgment, and I voted against expansion. Here's why: Currently, Medicaid makes up almost 40 percent of our entire budget, and funding was not part of the initiative petition as directed in the Constitution. Supporters will claim that there is adequate funding now with the federal stimulus money, but my concern is, when this money is gone, where will we find money in the budget to pay for expansion. I weighed carefully each vote and while there were many parts I agreed with overall I had to ultimately vote no. The decision-making on each bill is an arduous one and one I do take very seriously with a great deal of thought and conversation with my colleagues who have been in this building longer than I. Having said all that, I would be willing to visit with any of you concerning this and any other issues that are of concern for you.
It is an honor to serve you, and I do my best every day to make good decisions knowing that I will not please everyone, but I do try to look out for your best interest and those of all Missourians.
State Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 60th District and shares his perspective on statehouse issues twice a month.