Lawmakers, Jewish groups set priorities for legislative session


A challenging budgetary environment is expected to cast a long shadow over the new Missouri legislative session that opened earlier this month, according to both Jewish advocacy groups and area legislators.

“The budget reality in Jefferson City clearly is taking front and center but we still are hopeful that there will be some positive bills,” said Darien Arnstein of the National Council of Jewish Women. “We are going to really work to hold the line to keep many important programs funded to the fullest extent possible.”

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Arnstein, the state public affairs chair for the St. Louis section of the group, said that NCJW had its eye on a number of proposals that could come up between now and the session’s end in May. Several health initiatives have gained the organization’s support, such as one that would mandate informing parents of sixth-grade girls about the availability of vaccinations for the HPV virus and the virus’s connection to cervical cancer.

Other bills NCJW will support include a Senate plan to fund prostate cancer screenings for uninsured men, a House proposal to allow physicians to treat chlamydia and gonorrhea in a patient’s partner without an existing doctor/patient relationship, and the Prevention First Act, which aims to curb the spread of sexually transmitted infection and unplanned pregnancy through a package of programs dealing with issues ranging from sex education to assistance for rape victims.

The group will also oppose a host of proposals primarily related to abortion that Arnstein said are designed to impede access to reproductive care as well as other bills that would attempt to create opt-outs from possible federal health care legislation.

However, Arnstein suspects the General Assembly’s primary focus may be directed elsewhere.

“I’m not sure how much time the legislature will be able to focus on any of these bills, either the ones that we think are good or the ones that we are working to oppose,” she said. “I think they will be spending an inordinate amount of time trying to put the budget into balance.”

Top local priorities

Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues and social justice for the Jewish Community Relations Council, agrees that the budget paradigm will be a difficult one.

“The JCRC’s legislative priorities will include continuing to support efforts to increase access to quality affordable health care for all,” she said. “We also want to make sure that the budget includes funding for necessary social services in the state, particularly for people with disabilities, the elderly and those in poverty.”

Locally, Wechsler said that the group’s board also voted to support a St. Louis County initiative on the April ballot that would hike sales taxes to go to support the area’s Metro transit system. That decision will still have to be finalized at the JCRC’s Feb. 9 council meeting.

“We were very involved last year in the public transit issue,” she said. “It’s important to us because many of our Jewish institutions are dependent on public transit.”

David Winton, government affairs consultant for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said that at the state level the federation was looking to protect tax credits, which affect the non-profit community.

“There is a huge conversation going on in Jefferson City about the unfunded liabilities that are associated with tax credits for things like historic preservation or incubator tax credits,” he said. “It involves hundreds of millions of dollars and there are several programs that directly impact the non-profit sector.”

Winton said it was important to shield tax credits in the Neighborhood Assistance and Youth Opportunities programs from the danger of a tight budget year.

“This year there’s going to be a hard push to make all these programs subject to appropriation,” he said, “which means they are always on the line every single year as opposed to the stability of having a set amount of money available to the state’s non-profit sector to leverage private donations.”

In addition to looking into whether excess federal weatherization dollars might be used for synagogue and agency infrastructure improvements, Winton said that the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) and a child abuse prevention project piloted by Jewish Family & Children’s Service were two examples of initiatives the federation would be advocating for. NORC is overseen by the Jewish Federation and receives about $125,000 in state funding.

“Obviously, with the type of budget cycle we have right now, everything’s on the table,” he said.

Helping the elderly and

job creation

Local Jewish members of the General Assembly also spoke about the fiscal challenges ahead.

“Last year, the area agency on aging’s funding was played with quite a bit and ended up being cut,” said state Rep. Jill Schupp, D-82nd district. “We need to make sure that programs like Meals on Wheels, which is really a lifeline for some, are not eliminated or cut back especially as people are losing their jobs and struggling.”

Schupp, who represents the Creve Coeur area, said job creation would be a big priority for the session. House colleague Rep. Rachel Storch, D-64th district, agreed.

“There are definitely going to be some significant economic development initiatives as Democrats and Republicans work together to turn the Missouri economy around,” said Storch, who represents the University City area.

Storch, who was the only Jewish member of the legislature when she was elected in 2004, said it would be difficult to move forward on problems like health care but remained hopeful that some issues of agreement could be found.

“I think we are talking about some common ground areas where we can make some real progress for the state but it is an election year and we’re dealing with very difficult economic circumstances so we’ll just have to see how the session plays out,” she said. “There are just no guarantees right now.”

Stacey Newman, D-72nd district, is the newest member of the legislature having attained office after a special election in November. Newman, whose district covers Richmond Heights, Clayton and Maplewood, said health care seemed to be a hot topic in the upcoming session. She noted there was a three-hour discussion on the House floor on a non-binding resolution about the Congressional health care. “Definitely health care is on everyone’s mind in terms of what is coming out of Congress,” Newman said.

Ethics reform in the wake of the Smith-Brown debacle

State Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-83rd district, said he had reviewed Governor Jay Nixon’s budget proposals and the figures left him cautiously optimistic about the prospects for NORC and other programs.

“I think there are a lot of people in the community who are breathing a sigh of relief right now,” he said.

Zimmerman, who represents the Olivette area, credited strong advocacy by community leaders for the apparent good news and said he hoped the numbers would stick. Still, he said it’s a lean financial year by any yardstick.

“My preliminary assessment is that our community fared pretty well,” he said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done between now and May to make sure that those priorities remain intact.”

Zimmerman has been active in other areas as well, including in pushing ethics reform legislation in the wake of last year’s scandal involving state Sen. Jeff Smith and state Rep. Steve Brown. Smith was sentenced to prison on obstruction of justice charges. Brown received probation. Both men are Jewish.

“Ordinarily, ethics reform wouldn’t be any more important for the Jewish community than it has been for anyone else in the state,” Zimmerman said, “but I think it’s inescapable in light of what happened with Jeff and Steve that all of us reexamine our core assumptions about the democratic political process and we look at what it takes to ensure that misdeeds don’t happen in the future, as a community we are entitled to feel that we should hold ourselves to a higher standard and be the loudest voices for holding everyone to a higher standard.”

Finally, Zimmerman said he is in conversation with St. Louis area rabbis regarding possible changes he may propose to Missouri’s consumer protection laws regarding kosher food. He said the present statute, intended to prevent misrepresentation of food as kosher, is well-intentioned but may provoke a lawsuit on constitutional grounds since it sets up the government as arbiter of who has religious authority in the community. Instead, Zimmerman thinks a “disclosure model” exemplified by similar measures in New York and New Jersey could be more effective.

“That way the state is not saying that this type of rabbi can give a hechsher and this one cannot,” he said. “Instead, we can say that if you claim that your food is kosher you must be prepared to disclose who certified it and what their official capacity is for doing so.” Zimmerman said discussions were ongoing and he would not file a bill on the matter until all affected constituencies were in agreement.