Springfield News-Leader: Legislative roundup: Lawmakers vote to expand charter schools, cut tax credit for elderly

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JEFFERSON CITY β€” The legislative spring break next week marks the halfway point in the first legislative session of a Republican-controlled era in Missouri politics.

The session will continue until mid-May, and odds are low that lawmakers will reconvene for a lengthy veto session. As planned, the GOP majorities in both chambers have moved with confidence to reform laws governing labor, civil courts and education, knowing that what they pass is likely to be signed by fellow Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.

Legislative leaders met with reporters Thursday to talk about their thoughts for the first half of the session and their expectations for April and May.

Education reform starts with charters

Having passed labor and tort reforms, House leadership this week turned attention to education and passed a bill that could allow charter schools to open in Springfield. Currently, these independently operated schools are only authorized in St. Louis and Kansas City.

House Bill 634, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, was debated for several hours Wednesday and Thursday. Dozens of amendments were proposed and three were adopted before sending the measure to the Senate on an 83-76 vote. Springfield-area representatives voted for the bill with the exception of Rep. Lynn Morris, R-Nixa, Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, and Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.

Supporters say it’s best to give students and their families a choice in education, particularly in areas where public schools are under-performing, the Associated Press reported. Opponents, including Springfield Public Schools, say charters would stretch K-12 funding thin.

The bill would allow charter schools to operate in any school district, but there are several caveats, including the requirement that the state foundation formula be fully funded. (An early draft of the House budget adds more than $40 million to Greitens’ budget recommendations to satisfy the formula requirements, though public school officials contend that hundreds of millions more is needed to truly fund state education.)

The state also would have the discretion to shut down low-performing charters after five years, and charters could only set up in districts where a school building’s annual performance report score is 60 percent or less.

In Springfield, several schools’ 2016 scores were under or close to this mark, according to data from the Department of Elementary of Secondary Education, including:

  • Bingham Elementary, 66.4 percent
  • Bowerman Elementary, 50 percent
  • Boyd Elementary, 62.9 percent
  • Carver Middle, 67.9 percent
  • Cowden Elementary, 60 percent
  • Fremont Elementary, 65.7 percent
  • Jarrett Middle, 55.7 percent
  • McGregor Elementary, 60.7 percent
  • Pipkin Middle, 61.4 percent
  • Watkins Elementary, 60.7 percent
  • Westport Elementary, 54.3 percent
  • Westport Middle, 24.3 percent
  • Williams Elementary, 55.7 percent.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it’s expected to be considered among a few other planks of Republicans’ education reform goals. Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, said bills relating to virtual courses and education savings accounts also were ahead on the upper chamber’s agenda.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, said she had some concerns about the charter school bill and looked forward to trying to find ways to compromise on education in general, including cuts to higher education and public school transportation.

‘Circuit breaker’ might be lone tax credit repealed

In an effort to balance the fiscal 2018 budget, the House passed a measure eliminating a property tax credit, known as the “circuit breaker,” used by low-income and disabled seniors who rent living space. House Budget Chair Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, has said that the move could offset Greitens’ proposed cuts to funding for in-home and nursing care.

The credit costs the state about $55 million, about as much as it did when former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, wanted to repeal it four years ago following recommendations from a tax study group. Greitens has a tax reform committee of his own, but that group will not deliver its recommendations until the summer.

House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said cutting the circuit breaker tax credit could allow the state to spend money in a way that attracts federal matching funds.

“It’s a more efficient way that we can allocate it and get it to those seniors that need it,” Haahr said. He also is a member of Greitens’ tax committee and added that no other current tax credit repeal efforts came to mind.

Among the opponents to the “circuit breaker” cut is the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging. That organization’s executive director, Catherine Edwards, proposes preserving the circuit breaker credit while also keeping intact the existing eligibility requirements for in-home and nursing care and finding new sources of revenue to pay for senior services.

“We fully recognize the constitutional mandate to have a balanced budget in the state of Missouri, but balance is the key word in that sentence,” Edwards said in a news release. “Severe cuts to senior programs fall disproportionately on people who truly need the resources that the state can, and should, provide.”

This proposal passed the House, 85-72. As with the charter school bill, most Springfield-area representatives voted for this change, with Moon, Morris and Quade dissenting.

Praise, prison problems and parental leave

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, was quick to compliment the Democratic super-minority, saying that they had been easy to work with and praising the process by which some compromises had been reached without the need to “move the previous question” β€” a parliamentary move to stop debate often referred to as the “nuclear option.”

Greitens’ move to give paid parental leave to employees of the executive branch has won support from some Democrats, with Schupp, the St. Louis County Democrat, applauding the governor’s move and expressing her desire to see leave extended to all state employees. Greitens’ executive action is expected to cost about $1.1 million, according to the Office of Administration.

 

Schupp has sponsored a bill that would allow all non-contractor employees (public and private) to pay into a fund and build up leave time. Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has filed a similar bill.

The new leader of the state’s prison system, which has had its reputation marred by reports of chronic harassment and low morale, has promised to tackle the Department of Corrections’ problems head on. In a letter touted by Greitens on Friday, DOC Director Anne Precythe announced plans to make “aggressive leadership changes,” institute a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment reporting and begin “working to make sure that the Department of Corrections actually corrects criminal behavior.”

Greitens, a former Democrat, burnished his conservative bona fides this week with an appearance at a Missouri Right to Life event in the Capitol. Speaking before an audience of anti-abortion advocates, Greitens reaffirmed his opposition to abortion and bashed “crazy liberals” and efforts to create an “abortion sanctuary city” in reference to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s move to prohibit discrimination on the basis of reproductive decisions.

A few weeks into the session, abortion legislation didn’t appear to be making much headway. But this week, House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, voiced support for a 20-week abortion ban, the Columbia Missourian reported. A House bill to enact that limit has been passed out of committee and awaits debate.

In his Facebook live chat this week, Greitens said he had some concerns with the U.S. House GOP plan to alter the nation’s health care system, though he did not get into specifics. Greitens has repeatedly denounced the Affordable Care Act, at one point characterizing the effects of Obamacare as a “terrible tragedy.”

The Senate decided to postpone a vote on Greitens’ appointments to the Missouri State University Board of Governors until March 30. In a hearing last week, Carol Silvey and Craig Frazier were favorably received by a Senate committee and appear on track for confirmation after lawmakers return to the Capitol.

This Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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