Session comes to a close in Capitol

JEFFERSON CITY — Amid all the battles over taxes, judges, health care and personal freedom, perhaps the biggest victory in this year’s legislative session for St. Louis’ Jewish community was a 37-word addition to a bill addressing illegal immigration.

The single sentence makes clear that nonprofit agencies are not expected to enforce immigration law by checking the legal status of people seeking food, medical attention or aid to escape an abusive situation.

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Given the far-flung social programs operated by the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Family & Childrens Service, the lack of such an exemption could have had disturbing consequences, said David Winton, the lobbyist for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

“This could have ended very badly for us,” Winton said. “Every one of our programs would have needed new processes in place to check people’s immigration status. It would have made us an arm of the government and made people afraid to come to us. We’ve worked for 100 years to make people comfortable when they come to us they know that we are there to help.”

The exemption for non-profit agencies was one of several notable accomplishments during a session that focused largely on regional issues. Lawmakers again approved $300,000 for the Jewish Family & Children’s Service child abuse prevention program. And they provided $150,000 for the Jewish Federation’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities program, which helps residents remain in their homes as they grow older.

Because the session was largely devoid of major controversies, it also provided opportunities for several local lawmakers to have significant impact on individual issues.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Gibbons, a Kirkwood Republican, pushed through a sweeping revision of the state property tax laws that protects landowners from higher taxes caused solely by rising property values. It requires cities, counties and other taxing jurisdictions to roll back their tax rates when property assessments increase and requires earlier notice to residents of their tax liability.

The rollback requirement, however, does not apply to the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, whose minimum tax rates are set by the Constitution. The legislation also increases eligibility for the state’s property tax subsidy programs for low- and moderate-income elderly residents.

Rep. Jake Zimmerman, an Olivette Democrat, stepped up to become a major voice in support of stem cell research and Medicaid funding to provide health care for the poor. He also won passage of a bill that would help college students save money on textbooks.

Rep. Neal St. Onge, an Ellisville Republican, pushed through highly contentious legislation that requires repeat drunken driving offenders to have ignition interlock systems installed on their cars. The systems require drivers to blow into a machine to determine whether they are sober before the car will start.

Rep. Jane Cunningham, a Chesterfield Republican, burnished her credentials as one of the House’s leading social conservatives. The House approved her proposal to amend the state Constitution to prohibit judges from ordering an increase in taxes. But the idea died in the Senate as critics pointed out that Missouri courts have already ruled that state courts have no power to order an increase in taxes. Rep. Rachel Storch, a St. Louis Democrat, received House approval for a bill to provide up to $10 million a year in tax credits for science and technology research. But senators, concerned about the state’s budget situation, never took up the measure.

Legislation that would prevent life insurers from denying or limiting coverage because of travel to Israel fell just short. The bill passed the Senate April 30 and came out of a second House committee on May 15, the next-to-last day of the session. It was placed on the House calendar, but was never brought up for debate. The proposal would prohibit life insurers from denying coverage, refusing to renew a policy or charging a higher rate based on an applicant’s past or future travel destinations unless the insurers have data to show that the destination presents real danger. Supporters pointed out that such discrimination is unfair when Israel’s homicide rate is more than a third lower that the rate in the United States.

Several contentious bills that received a lot of attention never made it far. Cunningham’s bill to require state colleges and universities to promote political and religious perspectives in classrooms died a quiet death. The proposal, which received a plug from actor Ben Stein, would require instructors to discuss alternatives to evolution in science classes. But it never came to a vote in a House committee.

Rep. Wayne Cooper, a Camdenton Republican, pitched a bill that would require public schools to encourage students and their teachers to critique theories of evolution. But it died before reaching the House floor.

A bill to make women seeking abortions run a gauntlet of new requirements was approved by the House, but it died in the Senate. The proposal also would have made it a crime for a person to coerce a woman into having an abortion.

Senators questioned how they could make it a crime to persuade someone to do something legal. One senator compared it to inciting someone to commit free speech.