Democrat filibuster against bill to limit lawsuits collapses

Sunday, March 16, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In a spectacle not seen in the Missouri Capitol in years, Senate Democrats spent 30 hours filibustering legislation aimed at reining in high-dollar civil lawsuits.

The debate stretched over three consecutive days with the filibuster finally collapsing Friday evening and the Senate giving the measure preliminary approval on a party-line vote.

The bill is priority for majority Republicans, who say frivolous lawsuits are costly for businesses and force good doctors, who are unable to keep up with the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance, to quit their practices.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, called the first-round vote a victory for Missourians.

"With our vote today, we have begun the process of fixing many of the problems with our legal system that create runaway lawsuits, which are driving doctors and jobs out of our state," Kinder said.

A second vote is required to send the bill to the House, which has already passed a similar, though more restrictive, measure that is awaiting Senate action.

The bill would make it more difficult to bring certain lawsuits and cap damage awards for pain and suffering. Opponents say it would prevent injured parties from winning just compensation.

Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, said insurance reform is needed to provide doctors with relief from high medical malpractice rates.

"The bill in its current form has provisions that do nothing to advance that goal, and I would veto it," Holden said.

According to information provided by a Senate staffer, the longest filibuster in recent years was in May 1999 when the chamber spent 38 hours over six days debating a bill that would ban a certain type of late-term abortion. However, the staffer was unsure if that time covered all stages of the process or just first-round debate as was the case last week.

The longest recent filibuster on first-round passage was last year when the chamber spent 17 hours over two days on a bill to provide state subsidies for a St. Louis Cardinals ballpark. It took three more hours to give that measure final approval and forward it to the House, where it died without debate.

Tax holiday

Kinder's bill to give Missourians a three-day break on sales taxes in August cleared the Senate last week.

Kinder and his usual political adversary, Senate Minority Floor Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, have been pushing the proposal for years. This year, however, it has the endorsement of Holden, who said it would stimulate economic activity by luring out-of-state shoppers who would come to Missouri to take advantage of the tax break and spend money on other taxable goods and services while here.

The measure, which requires House action, would temporarily exempt state and local sales taxes on purchases of clothing and school supplies of up to $100.

Its $5 million cost to the state in lost revenue would be offset by a new tax on nonresidents who win big in the state lottery or at Missouri casinos. That provision would raise an estimated $7 million.

No spam

The House has passed legislation that would make it illegal to send unsolicited commercial e-mails.

The bill would create a "no-spam" list similar to the state's existing "no-call" list that targets unwanted telephone solicitations.

Spammers who send e-mails to Missourians who signed up for the no-spam list with the Missouri Attorney General's Office would be subject to a $5,000 fine.

"Studies show that more than 40 percent of the e-mail businesses and private citizens receive nowadays can be classified as spam," said state Rep. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

Pearce said the bill, which he is sponsoring, would go far in cutting down on unwanted solicitations, particularly those for pornography.

Some lawmakers, however, are concerned the effort could backfire, giving foreign-based spammers outside of the reach of Missouri law a ready-made list of active e-mail accounts.

On a related topic, a Democratic bill to close loopholes in the state's no-call law died on the House calendar last week for lack of action.

Abortion waiting period

Women wanting an abortion would have to wait 24 hours after consulting with a physician before having the procedure performed under a bill the House has forwarded to the Senate.

Supporters say the measure would give women time to reconsider whether they want an abortion.

"As a physician, I say this is only a very modest wait for very, very heavy decision," said state Rep. Wayne Cooper, R-Camdenton. "This is a decision that has many, many consequences."

Since abortion services are only available in three Missouri cities -- Columbia, St. Louis and Springfield -- opponents said it places an undue burden on rural women who would have to make multiple long-distance trips.

"The message coming across is that women are somehow different and less capable of making an informed decision about an intimate decision that affects them," said state Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia. "I resent that implication."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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