Today, the Senate approved Senate Bill 682, legislation I am proud to co-sponsor that expands public notice requirements relating to land purchases made on behalf of any state department. This measure comes on the heels of the controversial decision to purchase land in Oregon County with funds from the ASARCO settlement, which were specifically meant to be used to restore and remediate the Lead Belt region.
As I have written before, my concern with this entire situation lies in two areas. The first is the health and well-being of our citizens took a backseat to the state’s insistence on acquiring land they cannot even afford to maintain. An example of this is the Fredericktown City Lake, which supplies drinking water to Fredericktown residents. As a health concern, this project is a priority for our citizens, and it should have been a priority for our governor.
Instead, the decision was made to spend millions of the ASARCO funds on land that is located 100 miles away from the Lead Belt, for the purposes of creating another state park; adding land to our park system at a time when we are falling short on maintaining what we currently have is absurd. Of course, it is easy to make the wrong decision when there conveniently is no one to argue against it. This brings me to the second area of my concern: the almost complete lack of transparency on the part of the governor, Office of Administration and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about the Oregon County land purchase.
There were several folks in the 3rd District who were prepared to present proposals to the DNR for use of the ASARCO settlement funds and who were patiently waiting to be notified the funds were available. They should have been notified, since they left their email addresses with the DNR and various agencies involved; however, the only notification that a public hearing was going to take place was on the DNR website.
Public hearings exist for the benefit of our citizens, and providing notice of a public hearing on one website is not proper notification. By forcing the government to live up to the increased notification standards in SB 682, our citizens and public servants will have a greater opportunity to know when the state government is getting ready to acquire a sizeable amount of land, provide input and ask questions about how it may affect them.
One final note on the matter, I want to extend my sincere thanks to the Oregon County citizens, officials and Sen. Cunningham, for not only speaking out against the misuse of the ASARCO funds, but also for supporting their fellow Missourians — the men and women who live and work in the areas affected by mining activities.
This week, the Senate gave initial approval to Senate Bill 621, legislation I filed relating to telehealth services. Telehealth allows doctors to practice remotely, via a computer or telephone connection. This increases the availability of health care in every corner of the state, most especially in rural communities that often do not have as much access to specialists and the most advanced technologies.
Although I sincerely wish it was not the case, SoutheastHEALTH’s recent announcement to close the Health Center in Ellington and the clinic in Van Buren has shed light on how expanding telehealth services could benefit Missouri citizens. Please know that I understand the very real concerns and uneasiness area residents are experiencing now that their options for close-to-home health care are greatly limited. As a very recent development, the situation is still unfolding. I will continue to look for a viable, legitimate solution to keep the hospital open. In the meantime, we have asked for the certificate of need to be extended by 90 days.
As I mentioned above, we also began discussing ethics reform this week. When compared to the ethical standards of other states, Missouri has room for improvement. I do not believe any of our state legislators or statewide elected officials would argue that we have done everything we can to discourage conflicts of interest or the perception of impropriety. Most importantly, I believe the citizens who elected us are not yet able to have confidence in the current system, and their trust in our ability to put their interests ahead of our own is of paramount importance.
Although the majority of the Legislature agrees more progress can and should be made, we have been unable to agree on the best way to achieve it. One common proposal is to implement a “cooling-off” period before a lawmaker may become a lobbyist upon leaving office. The question then becomes for how long? Six months? Two years? Should a cooling-off period be a reasonable expectation when you decide to run for office? Is it fair to limit a public servant’s ability to earn a living and provide for their family? That is just one possibility, one avenue to ethics reform; yet it exemplifies how, session after session, we keep reaching an impasse. While I am hopeful this is the year we take a step forward in the right direction, I also understand it is a complex issue with many moving parts.