By Jeff Fox
A local legislator’s bill to upgrade 911 service across the state is making progress in the Missouri General Assembly.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, was easily passed out of committee this week and next goes to the House floor. In an interview with The Examiner this week, Gov. Jay Nixon said he had not seen the specifics of the bill but spoke generally in favor of improving 911 service.
“This is not just a bill. This is something deep in my heart. ... This is a life-and-death issue,” Lauer said when emergency services professionals met this week in Blue Springs to discuss the issue. Across the country, up-to-date 911 service is nearly universal, but Missouri – the only state without a cell phone tax for 911 – has gaps in three dozen counties.
Officials say most people assume they can call 911 anywhere and the dispatcher on the other end can find them – electronically and instantly – whether the call is on a land line or a cell phone. That is generally true across the country but not everywhere in Missouri.
In 17 counties – generally in south-central or southeast Missouri – there is no 911 service or there is what officials call basic 911, meaning calls go to an administrative line. The dispatcher – or the person with other duties who also takes emergency calls – is dependent on the caller to know his or her location. Another 19 counties scattered across the state have a somewhat upgraded system, but officials say the bottom line is this: In 36 counties – close to one-third of the state – 911 cannot find you.
Cell phones now account for the overwhelming majority of 911 calls, and that shift is hammering many smaller counties as people drop land lines. Officials say some counties don’t have enough land lines to tax to fully pay for 911 or enough of a retail base for an acceptable rate of sales tax to make up the difference. Forty-six of Missouri’s 114 counties have a sales tax for 911, though none in the immediate metro area except Cass County.
Lauer’s bill would allow counties a third option: Go to the voters for a tax of up to $1.50 per month on each device capable of making phone calls. Mom, Dad and teenager with cell phones, for example, would pay $4.50 a month. Advocates say many counties wouldn’t need to ask for a rate near the $1.50 figure.
Details are still being ironed out, anticipating the oncoming era of smarter and smarter devices in society. Strictly speaking, a “smart” vending machine, for example, could make phone calls to the warehouse, but that’s not the intent of the tax. Another example: GM was concerned about its Onstar devices which can make phone calls. There’s an exemption for that in the bill.
There’s another moving target for policy makers as the world of phones keeps changing – the shift by many to pre-paid phones. Lauer’s bill would impose a 3 percent fee, that is, $1.50 on a $50 phone card.
That 3 percent would generate about $7 million a year, and that would go into a fund to begin helping rural counties that need to upgrade their 911 service.
Some of that money would come back to the county where it was collected, and a slice of it – 10 percent – would go to the statewide poison control program, which is based in St. Louis. Policy makers argue that that’s a good fit, and there’s a political aspect as well. The speaker of the House, Tim Jones, is from the St. Louis area.
“This is the speaker’s agenda, to fund poison control,” state Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, R-Wellington, said at this week’s meeting.
Also, some in the state Senate are expected to push for a consolidation of the more than 100 sites around the state that receive 911 calls.
“This is by far the biggest hurdle in the Senate,” Kolkmeyer said.
Officials at this week’s meeting acknowledged that consolidation is an issue to be tackled at some point. There are others, too. In May, the major telecommunications companies will make 911 by text available – and Missouri is in no position to implement that.
Lauer says that’s important. She points to the example of a domestic abuse victim who dare not be heard making a call to 911.
Lauer got her bill passed in the House last year, but it died – as many bills do – on the floor of the Senate on the last day of the session.
“And on the last day we just (got to) the nth hour, and it just didn’t happen,” she said.
On Thursday morning, shortly after the bill passed out of committee, she said she feels optimistic about the bill’s chances this year.
“I do. We’ve been working this real hard,” she said.