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Legislative update: Clean Water Law revisions worry environmentalists

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Editor’s Note: Below are articles on recent Missouri General Assembly moves provided to Springfield Business Journal by the Missouri Press Association.

Clean Water Law revisions worry environmentalists
Proposed definition changes in the Missouri Clean Water Law would eliminate oversight over certain polluters and be detrimental to Missouri’s waters, opponents said in a state Senate hearing. Conversely, supporters said it would cut back regulation and help Missouri farmers.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, would make two main revisions to the law.

The first change would narrow the definition of water contaminants. Under the bill, contaminants would be classified as coming from point sources, which are sources of pollution from a single, identifiable source, such as a factory or pipe. This is opposed to nonpoint sources, such as fields and lawns, where pollution can occur over wide areas and can’t be pinpointed.

As a result, if a farmer sprays pesticides or chemicals on his crops, and if rain occurs so those chemicals run off into the water system, the farmer would be exempt.

The federal Clean Water Act exempts nonpoint sources already, and Schatz said this revision would bring state law in alignment with federal law to protect farmers from “regulatory uncertainty.” The change would ease the concerns of farmers, he said, who work their fields while worrying that unexpected rain will come.

Mike Deering, of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, testified about a producer in Versailles, whose land was a nonpoint source of runoff, who got called up by the state Department of Natural Resources. Deering said there was confusion about whether the producer was breaking the water law.

“There was no clarity to back that up in statute. This bill does just that,” he said.

Other agricultural organizations came out in support as well, including the Missouri Corn Growers Association, the Missouri Pork Association and the Missouri Soybean Association.

“Anytime we can reduce red tape, that’s what we’re all for,” said Casey Wasser, a member of the Missouri Soybean Association.

But Frances Klahr, a member of Missouri’s Sierra Club, objected that nonpoint sources still cause pollution and therefore need oversight.

John Madras, a former employee of the Department of Natural Resources, said he feared it would hinder the department from doing its job.

“It does make the situation such that the department would respond to pollution rather than preventing pollution,” he said.

Secretary of state pushing for more money to support broadband in libraries
In a world that has become electronically driven, public libraries still have an advocate at the Missouri Capitol.

But for Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, it’s not about keeping the libraries stuck in the pre-digital age — it’s about bringing them up to date as a resource for Missourians.

At a state budget hearing, Ashcroft spoke with committee members about his office’s appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July. One concern Ashcroft had was increasing the funds for a program that puts broadband and other technological services into public libraries across the state.

The Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program supports the cost for internet access, technical support, network security, training and other services to any tax-supported public library. The REAL Program is managed by the Missouri Research and Education Network, a nonprofit technology provider.

In Gov. Eric Greitens’ budget proposal, he recommended $2 million for the program, which is the amount the office received last year. Ashcroft said he wants the program to be appropriated an additional $1.1 million to get the funding back to the level it was in fiscal 2015.

“This is the most cost-effective way, probably, to get broadband to the people of the state,” Ashcroft said. “This is how people want to educate themselves — we have students in libraries who take courses online, proctor tests online, apply for jobs and government assistance online.”

Broadband has become a vital infrastructure for businesses, agriculture, education and everyday lives. In rural areas of Missouri, those who do not have access to broadband, or have unreliable broadband, rely on public libraries or public hot spots to be able to use the internet.

“We talk about broadband access and how important that is,” Ashcroft said at another hearing. “This is such a cost-effective way to realize the potential, to actualize the potential, of the people of the state of Missouri.”

Ashcroft said about 90 percent of Missourians have access to broadband in their local libraries because of programs like REAL.

Since 2010, state funding for the REAL Program has decreased by 36 percent, according to Maura Browning, director of communications for the secretary of state.

“When we cut REAL funding — which has been done year, after year, after year — our libraries have to get rid of that broadband service,” Ashcroft said. “They don’t have the tech support, they don’t have the virus protection for their computer system.”

There are 116 public library systems in Missouri that benefit from the REAL Program.

Lawmakers want to get rid of residency rule used to attack Hawley
A law that sparked controversy over where Attorney General Josh Hawley lives could be changed by the Missouri General Assembly.

Two identical bills seek to eliminate the requirement that the state attorney general reside in the “seat of government,” Jefferson City, and both were heard last week by the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee.

Early in 2017, Democrats said Hawley was violating that law. Hawley, a former University of Missouri professor, lives in nearby Boone County.

In response to the criticism, Hawley rented an apartment in Jefferson City, according to The Associated Press. He said the apartment would be his legal residence, but he would continue to live in his Boone County home.

Hawley voted in Boone County in the August 2017 special election, leading a resident to file a complaint with Boone County Clerk Taylor Burks. Burks determined in September that Hawley was qualified to vote in Boone County.

Hawley also is being sued in the Cole County Circuit Court over his split residency. Donna Mueller, the former chair of the Cole County Democratic Party and a Jefferson City resident, sued Hawley in November for violating the attorney general’s residency requirement.

Rep. Lindell Shumake, R-Hannibal, a sponsor of one bill, said the law is “antiquated,” dating to the late 1800s.

“In 1875, we didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have Facebook, we didn’t have FaceTime, we didn’t have all of the modern means of communication that we have now,” Shumake said.

He said it would have made sense at the time to require the state’s attorney to live in Jefferson City, where legal issues involving the state would likely come up. Modern technology in travel and communication has made it so the attorney general could live anywhere in the state and still be able to fulfill his duties.

Another bill sponsor, Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, said the attorney general still would be required to keep his office in Jefferson City.

“I think that’s what’s important, that he be there at the Supreme Court so that the government officials have access to him,” Marshall said.

Total ban on texting and driving heard by Senate committee
Under current Missouri law, only drivers under 21 are explicitly prohibited from texting while driving. Everyone else just needs to follow the state's broad distracted driving law by driving in a "careful and prudent manner" and exercising the "highest degree of care."

A bill proposed by Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, would put a blanket ban on using devices while driving, including cellphones and GPS receivers. The bill was heard by the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee on Thursday. Missouri, Montana and Arizona are the only three states that don't explicitly ban texting for all drivers.

Dixon told the committee the ban on texting for drivers under 21 wasn't meant to allow all other drivers to take their eyes off the road. He said it's still prohibited under the state's distracted driving law, but the explicit ban for young drivers has caused confusion in enforcing the law. He said it was an issue in a wrongful death lawsuit in southwest Missouri, where a texting driver over 21 killed a father of five in a head-on collision.

"The court looked at our newfangled law that we passed and said, 'Well, the statute, by virtue of banning texting for those under 21, essentially says it's legal for those over 21,'" Dixon said.

Before the ban for young drivers passed, all texting while driving was covered under distracted driving, though it was not explicitly listed, he said.

"(The court's ruling) was confirmation that we basically messed up the statutes with our attempts to improve the law," Dixon said.

Heidi Geisbuhler of the Missouri State Medical Association testified in support of the bill, saying she hoped an explicit ban would mean fewer people getting hurt or killed in crashes.

"We look at it from the perspective of our (emergency room) doctors," Geisbuhler said. "They see just terrible, terrible injuries that are caused by accidents that are caused by texting and driving."

One hundred people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2016 in Missouri, the last count available from the Missouri Department of Transportation. There were a total of 21,700 crashes involving a distracted driver that year, 13.7 percent of all crashes in the state.

Some localities have passed their own ordinances banning texting and driving, rather than waiting for action on the state level. Columbia passed such an ordinance in December.

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