Secretary of state warns of online misinformation with South County GOP legislators

Pictured above: Rep. David Gregory addresses the Tesson Ferry Republican Club in July 2018. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft joined local legislators for a town hall last month, discussing online misinformation, medical marijuana, election security, the 2019 legislative session and more.

Reps. David Gregory, R-Sunset Hills; Michael O’Donnell, R-Oakville, and Jim Murphy, R-Oakville, answered questions from constituents alongside Ashcroft Oct. 16 at Grant’s View Library.

Those in attendance at the town hall submitted their questions on forms that were read aloud.

When asked if the state was doing anything to combat misinformation and foreign election interference on social media, Ashcroft said he is focused on educating voters and residents of all ages, school age to senior citizens.

“One of things I’m trying to get the word out is you don’t believe everything you see on Facebook. I’m hoping to get into some high schools… and just talk about the fact that some of the fake stuff online looks more real than the real stuff,” said Ashcroft. “We are working with trying to get information out, especially to some of our more elderly individuals, because the data says they seem to be the ones who share more information on Facebook that turns out to not necessarily be accurate. And also some of our more younger, newer voters who may be more into social media, to make sure they understand Facebook, Wikipedia… It’s not really a source.”

Ashcroft added that part of the responsibility falls on voters themselves to make sure they take the time to research and fact-check.

“What we really need, our republic, our form of government, is dependent upon educated voters. And that’s not voters who believe everything I say… but voters who are willing to take the time to do their own research. Listen to the media you like and the media you don’t like to get a somewhat different view on things,” said Ashcroft. “It takes work to be good citizens, it really does.”

O’Donnell pointed out that Facebook does not police the content of political ads or remove ads that have false information.

“You got a candidate that posted a bogus ad, and Facebook let it ride. They’re not out there policing it themselves,” said O’Donnell. “Clearly there’s no reason to trust anything you see out there.”

Gregory, who was elected to his first two-year term in the House in 2016, will be up for re-election in 2020, as will Murphy and O’Donnell, who were elected to their first terms in the House in 2018.

Ashcroft will also be up for re-election in 2020 for another four-year term as secretary of state.

One question asked what the state would be doing to oversee the regulation of medical marijuana and if it would be as widely available as CBD, a non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis that is sold as oil in lotions, foods and other products.

“I personally always voted against legalizing medical marijuana… The state has since made it legal under certain circumstances. I’m actually very proud of the constitutional restrictions… One of the things I think Missouri did well over a lot of the other states… we’re not letting anyone who checks the box and meets certain criteria sell medical marijuana,” said Gregory. “Missouri said we’re going to restrict it, we’re going to make it very competitive, we’re going to make sure we have the best of the best systems in place to ensure that’s done as right as we possibly can.”

“I would expect growing pains though,” added O’Donnell. “We will have to go through some painful periods.”

Another question addressed House Bill 43 from the 2019 legislative session, which would have increased the penalties for animal abuse offenses.

“I do believe most of the state is against animal cruelty. I simply believe. But I do understand that agriculture and as you get to the rural areas, they get scared that what is that line of animal cruelty when it comes to certain situations,” said Gregory. “But nonetheless, certainly in our region, in the Kansas City region, there was a lot of support for it (House Bill 43).”

Each representative discussed legislation they hope to see pass as their priorities for the 2020 legislative session.

O’Donnell said one of his priorities was a bill he introduced last session. It would provide a new form of financing for utility companies, allowing them to refinance and lower their borrowing costs. The representative also said the Legislature may look into giving Missourians “another choice” on Clean Missouri, an amendment passed by 62 percent of the vote in November 2018 that restricts lobbyist influence, lowers campaign finance contributions and creates a new redistricting process.

“It went through mostly because people wanted the pay-to-play, the lobbyist effect out of our elected officials. But we got some other things with that,” said O’Donnell. “A lot of people didn’t realize they were getting a change in redistricting.”

Both Murphy and O’Donnell pointed out that any change to the amendment would have to go back to the voters, where voters could decide to keep the amendment as is or approve any changes introduced by the Legislature.

Murphy discussed three bills that he would support in the 2020 session: one that would allow monitoring of nursing homes, one to introduce media literacy curriculum in schools and one that would limit the power of prosecuting attorneys.

During the 2019 legislative session, Murphy introduced House Bill 541, which would allow cases a prosecuting attorney determines not to pursue to be forwarded to the attorney general’s office for review.

“This was a bill I put in last year, and frankly it’s become more necessary as the time has gone on, and that’s one that would kind of reign in our prosecuting attorney,” said Murphy to some applause from the town hall attendees. “One of the problems we have is some of our prosecuting attorneys aren’t prosecuting, they’ve now become social warriors. They want to save everybody… Like in St. Louis County, they won’t prosecute anyone now for not paying child support… Well, I don’t think our prosecuting attorney has the right to nullify our state law.”

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said in January that his office would move toward prosecuting child support cases in civil court rather than criminal court. Murphy and O’Donnell held a town hall with Bell in March.

“Besides balancing our budget again, our $30 billion budget, and being fiscally responsible, I would say one of my other top priorities is going to be to enhance the attorney general’s Safer Street initiative,” Gregory said of his 2020 priorities. “Folks, crime is getting absolutely out of control. It’s been out of control in the city (St. Louis city) and it’s coming to the county.… Now it is in part because prosecutors aren’t being as tough prosecuting, but it’s so much more than that. We’ve got to arm our prosecutors with the right tools, and we’ve got to start to get tough.”

Gregory appeared at a press conference earlier in the year alongside Attorney General Eric Schmitt to promote legislation that would have created the offense of vehicle hijacking. Under current Missouri law, there is no formal, uniform charge for carjacking, and Gregory believes that makes it tougher to prosecute, tougher to track and provides no uniformity in sentencing. HB 966 died in committee.

“By God, I’m going to see to it we get it across the finish line this time… We have got to, got to, got to get tough on crime. We’ve got to,” Gregory said.