The legislature is taking their annual Spring Break this week, which is widely considered to be “halftime” of the legislative session. We’ve spent the last few days reviewing our progress on all of our priority legislation this year and preparing for the sprint to the finish line when session begins next week.  Here’s a quick update on each of our priority areas: 

Affordable Housing:

We’ll be lending our support to SB 22, our only piece of priority legislation in this area to make it through a full chamber vote thus far. SB 22 is a strong piece of TIF (tax increment financing) reform that makes a number of positive modifications to current law, including updating the definition of a blighted area and putting stronger requirements in place for the use of TIF funds, including severely limiting their use in flood plains. The bill passed the Senate on March 4th, and it has been referred to the House Economic Development Committee after the break.  We will notify AHC members when the hearing is scheduled so testimony can be submitted in support of the legislation.  

Also keep an eye on: SB 131, which would help moderate gentrification by placing a cap on growth in property valuation assessment. The bill is #46 on the Senate Formal Perfection Calendar. 

Criminal Justice Reform:

Let’s start with the good news — we’re excited about the potential of passing HB 316 this year, which would remove restrictions from those with prior felony convictions from working in establishments that sell alcohol or lottery tickets. This would open up new employment opportunities for thousands of individuals across the state who currently aren’t allowed to work in many gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores, and restaurants. And, shortly before the break, there was an amendment submitted to HB 316 (which is currently on the House Perfection Calendar) that adds the language that was previously filed as HB 636. HB 636 authorizes a sentence review for any person who was under 18 at the time of their offense and has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for life with or without eligibility for parole, a term of 15 or more years, or multiple terms when taken together amount to 15 or more years.  

Over the last decade, the United States Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole, but courts have subverted that ruling by just sentencing some juveniles to multiple consecutive terms that clearly exceed life expectancy.  For example, Bobby Bostic is currently serving 241 years in the Missouri prison system for non-homicidal crimes that he committed at the age of 16.  The amended version of HB 316 would ensure that individuals like Bostic receive a sentence review every three years. 

Unfortunately, not all of our priority legislation would have such positive effects.  We’ll also be working hard to block or significantly improve a number of “public safety” bills that significantly infringe on the rights of Missourians. At the top of the list is SB 26, a bill that establishes the crime of “unlawful traffic interference” for groups of six or more people who block traffic on any public road or highway. This is blatantly targeted at Black Lives Matter protestors who have frequently blocked traffic as a way of raising awareness of systemic racism. This bill has passed the Senate and will be heard in the House Crime Prevention Committee on Monday, March 22nd at 12PM.  Testimony opposing this bill can be submitted here.

Also keep an eye on: HB 876 and SB 53, which would ban police chokeholds and criminalize police officers who engage in sexual conduct with a detainee or prisoner in their custody, and SB61, which would expand criminal records eligible for expungement.

Food Security:

As always, our chief priority has been to stop the legislature from putting work requirements on SNAP recipients.  This year, the vehicles for this punitive legislation are SB 138, filed by Senator Rick Brattin, and HB 217, filed by Representative Chad Perkins. These bills are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and they are particularly cruel during a pandemic. During a global pandemic, families are struggling more than ever as many businesses and industries have been crippled in support of public safety. Our frontline workers will tell you that families struggling with food insecurity desperately want to work and to provide for their families. Unfortunately, circumstances surrounding low-wage employment have never been more difficult. We should not be taking food away from families who are struggling to make ends meet. 

When these bills were originally filed, they each had provisions that would remove the SNAP benefits from the entire household, including the children, if the adult subject to the work requirements didn’t meet filing requirements to prove that they were working or seeking work.  The bills have each been amended so that the benefits would only be taken away from the individual failing to meet the requirements. However, we all know that when there is less food for a household, everyone eats less, including the children. Adequate nutrition helps the brains and bodies of these developing kids, and nutrition is key in school success and long-term outcomes. This bill will increase childhood hunger in our state.

SB 138 is currently #33 on the Senate Formal Perfection Calendar.  We have issued an Action Alert urging all Missourians to reach out to their Senators to ask them to oppose this legislation. This bill would have many devastating effects, including costing us $50M in federal funds that are spent in grocery stores all over our state. 

Also keep an eye on: HB 652, a great piece of legislation to provide WIC recipients with vouchers to purchase additional fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets. It’s a win-win for families and farmers!

HIV Justice:

We’ll end on a high note!  For the last three sessions, we’ve been working with HIV justice advocates from around the state to modernize Missouri’s extremely outdated and medically inaccurate HIV criminalization laws. The original intention of these laws were to reduce transmission of HIV, but these laws backfired by incentivizing ignorance of one’s HIV status (avoiding testing/diagnosis), which creates a significant public health issue. Plus, states with HIV criminalization do not have lower transmission rates. In fact, not a single study or peer-reviewed paper– nor any credentialed public health expert — asserts HIV criminalization has actually reduced HIV transmission in any jurisdiction where it exists.

There have been significant medical advances in treating HIV. Persons living with HIV (PLHIV) can take one pill a day and suppress their viral load to undetectable levels. If you have an undetectable viral load, HIV is untransmittable. Current criminal statutes do not take this into consideration and treat all PLHIV as if they are a public health risk, which increases stigma and discrimination.

SB 65, filed by Senator Holly Rehder, and HB 755, filed by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, are identical bills to modernize HIV criminalization statutes in Missouri. Both have made incredible progress thus far, unanimously passing through their committee hearings and now waiting on floor votes in both the House and the Senate. We are looking forward to working hard in the second half of the session to ensure that this legislation passes. Stay tuned for a major social media campaign launching next week to educate the public about the issue of HIV criminalization and garner additional support for the bills. 

In solidarity, 

Mallory Rusch
Executive Director