Lobbyists see mostly wins in legislature

BY KIT WAGAR

As this year’s session of the Missouri legislature came to a close this month, Jewish community leaders could take satisfaction in numerous small victories and a few notable ones.

Lawmakers approved creation of a Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission. They rejected several efforts that attempted to breach the separation of church and state. And bills that sought to inject religion into science classes and encourage prayer in public schools were allowed to die quietly.

A legislative session that began with a wide range of contentious proposals by social conservatives ended without any of them receiving serious consideration.

But Marlene Hammerman, Missouri public affairs chairwoman for the National Council of Jewish Women, said she couldn’t celebrate that outcome yet. Several of those proposals received more support than in the past and they are likely to come up again next year unless voters intervene.

“I think we dodged a bullet,” Hammerman said. “I think it depends on the election in the fall whether we get the same bills or a message gets sent that they have gone a little too far and we need to stay in the middle.”

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said she was disappointed that legislation that would have reversed part of last year’s dramatic cuts in the Medicaid program died on the last day of the session. The legislation would have restored health coverage for about one-third of the 9,600 elderly and disabled people who were cut from the program last year.

“A message is sent that those needs are not at the top of the legislature’s agenda,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “We feel that care for the weakest among us needs to be a high priority.”

Combined with proposals to encourage prayer in public schools and introduce creationism into classrooms, the Medicaid cuts set an ominous tone, she said. But Abramson-Goldstein said she remained hopeful that the process of examining such proposals would cause legislators to reject them if they are brought up again.

“In terms of what is the role and responsibility of government to all its citizens, these may have seemed to be good fixes,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “But the outcome has not been what (legislators) thought they would be. Having seen the consequences, we are looking for a government and for legislators who see the responsibility of government in a different way.”

David Winton, a lobbyist for the Jewish Federations of St. Louis, said he would rate the session as something of a mixed bag. The failure to reinstate Medicaid coverage for at least some of the low-income disabled people was a disappointment. And a proposal to establish a credit against state taxes for donations to food pantries also failed on the last day of the session.

“The bill was important because community-based services and keeping people in their homes is at the core of what the Jewish Federation does,” Winton said. He noted that the Jewish Family and Childrens Service runs one of the largest food pantries in St. Louis County.

On the positive side, budget-writers agreed to spend an additional $1 million on home-delivered meals. And a proposal to nearly double the cost of background checks that social agencies have to conduct on employees was defeated.

Winton said agencies support the need to check the background of employees working with the elderly and disabled. But such services are a partnership between the local nonprofit agencies and the state, and such costs should be at least shared, he said. Lawmakers proposed increasing the cost from $5 to $9 for each background check as a way to raise money for the Highway Patrol.

“It sounds like a small amount, but when you apply it to all the agencies it becomes a significant amount,” Winton said. “And every dollar spent on that is a dollar taken away from services to local residents.”

He said activists were able to kill an attempt to reduce tax credits for a variety of youth services and neighborhood assistance programs that have helped build senior centers, day care centers and buildings for community service agencies.

“We spend a lot of time playing defense,” Winton said. “In this environment, you want to take a step forward, but you have to make sure you’re not taking two steps back.”

Among the biggest victories was the nearly unanimous passage of a bill to create the Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission. Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, said the commission should be able to expand programs on history, literature and inclusiveness.

Abramson-Goldstein cited the Holocaust commission and a resolution condemning the widespread killing and torture in the Darfur region of Sudan as significant accomplishments. The resolution, introduced by Democratic Rep. Sam Page of Creve Coeur, was adopted by the House on May 11.

Hammerman said the National Council of Jewish Women was pleased that most of the conservative social agenda was defeated. Those included efforts to limit sex education in public schools, encourage prayer and Bible study in schools and teach creationism in science classes.

Other proposals would have imposed new limits on state taxes and allowed pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions if they disapprove of the medication. Such medications include birth control pills, emergency contraception or drugs to induce a miscarriage.

But Hammerman said lawmakers continue to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. The latest move was passage of a bill that would give a 50 percent credit on state taxes for donations to pregnancy centers intended to persuade women not to terminate their pregnancies.

“I’ve spoken to women who have been to these centers and they are traumatized,” Hammerman said. “They are told they are murderers if they have an abortion and are shown movies that are completely misleading…The whole objective is to get you not to have an abortion, not to help you have a healthy baby.”

Abramson-Goldstein and Hammerman credited community action for blocking several proposals, particularly a resolution that attempted to declare Missouri “a Christian nation.” The campaign included a deluge of e-mail messages to legislators and protests by Jewish and many Christian organizations.

Abramson-Goldstein said the successful campaign against that resolution – which included interfaith protests in Kansas City and St. Louis – could be a blueprint for amplifying the Jewish community’s influence on public affairs.

“Sometimes we forget that we have a voice and that it resonates and is heard by legislators,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “For the Jewish community, it is vitally important to work with people who share our concerns – faith groups and ethnic groups. It needs to be a community of concern. I see that growing.”

To Hammerman, next year’s battles will be shaped by the elections in November.

“What we’re seeing is part of a trend,” she said. “We can either put the brakes on and see it goes no further or we can continue down this path. This session could have been a lot worse. But I can’t say I’m very satisfied with the outcome.”

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected]

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