Statehouse News — Aug. 24 to 28

The following news items, compiled by Jefferson City reporter Sarah D. Wire, are compiled each week for members of the Missouri Press Association. The newsletter is produced by Missouri Digital News.

People under 21 can’t text while driving under new law

A law banning texting for Missouri drivers under the age of 21 took effect Friday as some law enforcement and state government officials questioned the enforceability of the restriction.

The law, passed by the Missouri legislature earlier this year as part of an omnibus crime bill, will enable law enforcement officials to stop young drivers suspected of texting at the wheel.

Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, sponsor of the House bill that included the provision to ban teens from texting, is worried the new law will be difficult to enforce.

“If you’re a law enforcement officer sitting on the side of the road and you see somebody come by and they’ve got their hands on their phone, how does that officer know whether or not you’re dialing a phone number or texting?” Lipke said.

Being able to spot illegal texting from afar is not the only challenge facing law enforcement officials. Patrol officers will also need to identify drivers who may be texting as being under the age of 21.

Lt. John Hotz of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said the decision to pull over a driver for texting will be one based largely on appearances.

“If we see someone who appears to be texting on their device and they appear to be under the age of 21, then they can be stopped,” Hotz said.

As the law is written, texting while driving is classified as a primary offense, meaning drivers can be stopped by law enforcement officers under suspicion of texting alone. Hotz, however, said that only those motorists driving dangerously would likely be pulled over and that safer drivers, even those engaged in text messaging, could be overlooked by law enforcement.

Get a larger story here.

McCaskill holds health care town hall in Jefferson City

More than 400 people gathered at a town hall forum in Jefferson City to ask questions and vent frustrations about the slew of health care bills being proposed in Congress.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., responded to questions submitted by audience members and chosen at random by two self-proclaimed opponents of changes to the health care system.

Although the crowd accepted this plan without objection, once the senator began speaking, members of the audience became emotional and, at times, hostile.

Despite McCaskill’s initial speech about her faith in “good Missouri manners,” the senator later said quietly, “You guys may go down as the most impolite yet.”

Get a longer story here.

Ozark aquifer could dry up in spots

The Ozark aquifer could go dry in places over the next 50 years, according to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The aquifer is a primary source of water in southwest Missouri.

The study showed that pumping from the Ozark aquifer may not be sustainable if a 1 percent annual increase in water-withdrawal rates occurs annually from 2007 to 2057. The aquifer system is in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

According to the report, Missouri used 87 percent of the total water pumped from the Ozark aquifer in 2006.

The Ozark Aquifer supplies water to areas of southwest Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. (Source: ks.water.usgs.gov/studies/OzarkAquifer/index.html)

The Ozark Aquifer supplies water to areas of southwest Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. (Source: ks.water.usgs.gov/studies/OzarkAquifer/index.html)

Two lawmakers plead guilty in obstruction case, resign

Missouri Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis City, resigned Tuesday and pleaded guilty to two federal counts of obstruction of justice relating to his failed 2004 congressional campaign.

Rep. Steve Brown, D-St. Louis County, also resigned and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to obstruct justice. Brown aided Smith in his 2004 campaign.

Federal authorities say Smith tried to hide his role in coordinating the distribution of negative campaign materials by a supposedly independent group against his primary opponent, Russ Carnahan.

Smith states in his resignation letter, “I withheld my knowledge of these facts during the Federal Election Commissions 2004 investigation, misleading investigators and filing a false affidavit.

“The FEC cleared our campaign of wrongdoing. But in 2009, the government received new information and reopened its investigation. When questioned, I stood by our 2004 account and encouraged my close friend to do so, misleading the authorities. Today I am taking full responsibility for my mistakes, and have pled guilty to obstructing justice.”

Smith’s 2004 campaign treasurer, Nick Adams, also pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The three men face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 10.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the head of the FBI in St. Louis has said there are more Missouri-based public corruption cases to come.

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