K-12 education gets big wins in proposed FY 2023 budget

      Missouri schools and teachers would receive a number of boosts in the state spending plan approved last week by the legislature; a state budget that is one of the largest ever.  The final total proposed to go to K-12 schools exceeds $10-billion.

Representative Rusty Black (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“It is making an unprecedented investment in K-12 education in the State of Missouri and it is doing that in a couple different ways,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

      The top Democrat on the budget committee, Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis), said, “[This budget proposal] is moving us back in the direction of showing that we as a state, we as a legislature, value K-12 education.”

      More than $21-million was included to boost base teacher pay by $13,000 a year, to $38,000.  The plan is a state/local split, with districts covering 30-percent of the cost for that increase. 

      Another $37-million would restart the Career Ladder program, which rewards experienced teachers for taking on extra responsibilities and professional development opportunities. 

      Representative Ingrid Burnett (D-Kansas City), a former teacher, school counselor and principal, said she was glad to see the state resume funding career ladder, a program that she often took advantage of during her career. 

      “I found it really helpful.  It was part of our family budget.  It was how we paid for things like the summer vacation or braces for the children,” said Burnett.

      Rusty Black (R-Chillicothe), who chairs the subcommittee on education appropriations and also worked as a teacher for 32 years, also appreciated the career ladder funding.

Representative Ingrid Burnett (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “As somebody that received that once, I think there’s value in that for our students, not just teachers.  Students get something out of those extra hours that are spent with them trying to make their lives better.”

      School bussing would also see an increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.

      “There’s an additional $214-million appropriated there and that is, again, an unprecedented level of funding in that regard,” said Smith.

      Merideth spoke for many Democrats in praising that increase.

“Something that we’ve been funding at below 40-percent for the last number of years we’re finally funding at 100-percent.  That’s another 200-plus million dollars going to our schools for their transportation costs,” said Merideth, who said this could lead to additional boosts in faculty pay.  “The fact that we’re fully funding school transportation is going to give schools some flexibility to be able to provide the local match they need and to give raises elsewhere.”

      Black, who was an agriculture teacher throughout his career, was excited by proposed increases to match programs to benefit career technical schools.  Local districts could upgrade equipment or facilities if they come up with 25-percent or 50-percent of the cost.

      Black said this would, “Help students with up-to-date equipment to [be able to] leave school and go into the workforce and see something that’s not 30, 40 years old in the shop at school, and get into a place and oh, it’s got a computer attached to it.”

      Burnett said she was glad to see this level of support proposed for Missouri K-12 education.  She said past years, when less money was appropriated, were like when she was teaching and would be confronted by an angry parent. 

“If the administration doesn’t have your back, you can’t understand that until the administration doesn’t have your back … to help mediate the situation.  To give you support on how to engage with the parent in a way that was not going to be escalatingwhen the administration is not getting that from the state, it’s the same.  You just feel like you’re out there on an island.”

      Black and other lawmakers stressed that much of the funding in the spending plan comes from non-recurring sources, like federal stimulus and COVID response.  Part of the challenge in appropriating that money is in finding targets that will give schools the best chance of long-term benefit, rather than supporting programs that might go unfunded in future years when those funding sources aren’t available.

Representatives Peter Merideth (left, seated) and Cody Smith (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“We just hope the people at the local level making those decisions are doing a good job making those decisions, spending this money that we have one-time to help reduce future costs so that those long-term items maybe with their local budgets, they can do a good job with,” said Black.  “One-time doesn’t automatically mean that it’s not going to be there next year, it’s just not making the guarantee to people that it’s going to be there.  Honestly in my years of dealing with government before this, there is no guarantee.  From year-to-year it’s a new budget and people making decisions at the local level, they know that too.”  

      The Fiscal Year 2023 budget would also provide grants or reimbursements of up to $1,500 to parents and guardians to cover tutoring and other services meant to catch up K-12s students who fell behind due to the COVID pandemic, and would provide pay increases to providers of the Parents as Teachers and First Steps programs.

      That spending plan is now before Governor Mike Parson (R).  If he approves it, it would take effect July 1.

House budget plan keeps Rock Island Trail development funds

      The state House has voted to preserve more than $69-million in federal dollars to support development of another hiking and biking trail on a former railway.  That funding survived two attempts to redirect it over concerns some House members have about its use.

Representative Tim Taylor (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) recommended that appropriation, which would use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  It would pay to revitalize a 78-mile stretch of the former Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad corridor, commonly referred to now as the “Rock Island Trail.”  Work would include the stabilization of tunnels and bridges. 

      Bunceton representative Tim Taylor (R) said his family owns property along the Katy Trail, Missouri’s other hiking and biking trail along a former railway.  He said he’s seen how communities have benefitted from being along that trail.

      “It has brought a sense of small prosperity to our community.  When the railroad left, as it did on the Rock Island, much of the town ceased to exist.  We have prospered and those towns and cities along the Rock Island are going to prosper just like the Katy Trail.”

      The Rock Island corridor runs through Bland, hometown of Representative Bruce Sassman (R).  He said hiking and biking trails are engines for economic development, and this is Missouri’s chance to expand them.

Representative Bruce Sassman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I have been working on this Rock Island development project for 35 years, almost half of my life, and it’s a vision to create a trail system and a trail route that is unlike anything in the country and maybe in the world.  I wish you could see this project through my eyes.  I wish you knew the history of this project,” said Sassman.

      Taylor and Sassman were among those who spoke against amendments that would have blocked that $69-million from going to the trail.  One of those, offered by Chillicothe Republican Rusty Black, would have diverted that money to maintenance that has been deferred on other Department of Natural Resources’ properties.

      “In my eight years up here, every year we have had this fight with DNR about maintaining what we already have.  This is a one-time use of funds that, if we spend it on the trail, is going to further dilute the sales tax money that they get to use to maintain all of the other parks in the state,” said Steelville Republican Jason Chipman.  “What we have already is in bad shape and we could put a big dent in the maintenance needed for all of the other parks that bring in a whole lot of people to Missouri rather than partially work on this one.”

      “I think there’s arguments to be made for and against the Rock Island Trail,” said Representative Dirk Deaton (R-Noel), the House Budget Committee’s vice-chairman.  “I think it’s compelling to me as a conservative, as a fiscal conservative, you’ve got to take care of what you’ve got before you start taking on new things – building new things, acquiring new things, setting up new things, and we do have a substantial maintenance backlog within our state parks and so I think we really ought to address that before we do this, and then you can get to the question of, ‘If we do this.’”

Representative Scott Cupps (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Another amendment was offered by Shell Knob Republican Scott Cupps.  It proposed that the money be withheld from the project until lawsuits involving property owners along the Rock Island route are settled.

      “The rationale for that is there is concern that we will spend millions and millions of dollars on this project and, depending on what happens in federal court, we may not be able to complete it until this is resolved,” said Cupps.  “If you stand up for land owners’ rights and property owners’ rights … then you sure as heck better be a ‘yes’ on this.”

      Cupps noted that there were similar legal disputes for people who owned property along the Katy Trail, which he says weren’t settled until 11 years after that trail opened.

      Lawmakers who want work on the trail to proceed argued that those lawsuits’ outcomes will have nothing to do with Rock Island’s development.

Representative Jason Chipman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “This is not about converting it back to ownership by these folks who are suing.  They simply seek to reclaim the money for land that was never part of their farm in the first place, whenever they purchased it,” said Representative Don Mayhew (R-Crocker).  “These lawsuits, this is a red herring.  It has nothing to do with it.  The state can proceed with this.”

      In the end the House voted down those amendments 53-81 and 62-70, respectively, and then voted to keep the money for the trail project in the budget. 

      Some, like Representative Jim Murphy (R-St. Louis), were glad to move forward that spending proposal.

      “When I leave here I think it’d be nice if I could look at one thing and say, ‘We did this for the future.  We did this for this state.  It’s long lasting.  We didn’t spend it on frivolous things.  We didn’t buy shiny objects.  We built something that our citizens can use now and in the future,” said Murphy.

      The House voted today to advance that spending plan to the Senate.

House bill to relax mandatory minimum sentencing signed into law

Judges will be able to ignore Missouri’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in some cases, under a House Bill that was signed into law this week by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law requires that offenders with one prior conviction serve at least 40-percent of a prison term.  Those with two prior convictions must serve at least half their term, and those with three or more must serve 80-percent.

House Bill 192 contained language that would give judges flexibility in sentencing for some nonviolent offenses.  It was part of a broader look at criminal justice reform that House members have been pursuing over several sessions.

The language was proposed by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

“When Governor Parson signed House Bill 192 that was the most significant mandatory minimum sentencing reform, to my knowledge, that we’ve ever had in Missouri,” said Smith.  “That’s an incredibly rewarding feeling when we know that it’s become clear that harsh mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent crimes only leads to bad outcomes, and this is a way that we can start to help change the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Smith said the number of people in Missouri’s prisons has steadily grown for decades.  He said many of those being incarcerated are non-violent offenders, who have a high rate of recidivism and of committing increasingly violent offenses.

“I’ve heard it said that prison is finishing school for hardened criminals,” said Smith.  “You go in for something that may be relatively innocuous in terms of violence … you come out and you’re a hardened criminal.”

Smith, who is also the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said reducing Missouri’s prison populations would also save the state money.  He notes that as recently as 2017, Missouri was on track to need two new prisons to accommodate the growing number of offenders.

“I believe that the mandatory minimum reform language that’s in House Bill 192 will help deter those costs by keeping people out of prison – again we’re talking only about folks convicted of non-violent crimes – keeping them out of prison is better for them, better for their families, better for society, and also better for taxpayers who don’t have to pay to keep them in prison.”

Ballwin representative Shamed Dogan (R) chairs the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, which handled not only HB 192, but Smith’s original legislation, House Bill 113.  He said the mandatory minimum sentencing changes will allow judges those cases to be judges.

“That is something that will give people more second chances – people who shouldn’t be in prison as long as that mandatory sentence would determine,” said Dogan.  “A judge can look at that person’s overall life; they can look at the particulars of their offense, and really just letting judges do their job, which is to make tough decisions without having their hands tied behind their backs by mandatory minimum sentences.”

Other language in HB 192 will keep counties from putting an individual back in jail for failing to pay the cost of his or her earlier jail term.

The bill’s provisions take effect August 28.

Legislature proposes reforms to end ‘debtor’s prisons,’ mandatory minimum sentences

The Legislature has approved bipartisan legislation that would keep Missourians from being put back in jail for failing to pay the costs of being put in jail; and would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192 aims to end charging prisoners board bills” for their stays in jail.  Persons who don’t pay those bills can be required to come to a “show-cause” hearing and risk additional jail time.  Lawmakers said this amounted to putting people in a “debtor’s prison.”

The bill would allow counties to seek to collect jail bills through civil means, with no threat of jail time.  The House’s 138-11 vote on Monday sends that bill to Governor Mike Parson (R).

Bill sponsor Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield) worked closely with Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht on the legislation.  DeGroot said current law is putting Missourians who’ve committed minor crimes and who can’t afford to pay fines and boarding costs back in jail, where they only incur more boarding costs.

“The people who don’t pay their fines and court costs who got put in jail because they couldn’t afford to bond themselves out, and now all of a sudden they owe $1300 for their week in jail and fines and court costs, and then they come before the judge and the judge says, ‘You owe $1300,’ and they say, ‘I don’t have it,’ and he says, ‘Fine, come on back next month and have at least $100,’ so they come on back the next month and they don’t have it and the judge puts them in jail, or they don’t show because they can’t get a babysitter or they can’t get off work, or they do get off work and they get fired,” said DeGroot.

DeGroot said in one case, a woman who stole an $8 tube of mascara incurred more than $10,000 in “board bills.”

Representative Mark Ellebracht (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ellebracht said the legislation is proof that opposing parties who often vehemently disagree can come together to do good things.

“We worked well together on this issue because we worked as colleagues and we respected each other’s opinion, and we made what I regard as a very, very good bill, and we are correcting a problem that a lot of people face in the State of Missouri,” said Ellebracht.

The Senate added to HB 192 legislation to allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria.  That was the goal of House Bill 113, which the House passed in February, 140-17.

It was sponsored by Carthage Republican Cody Smith.

“It’s been shown in other red states like Texas and Oklahoma that if we change the way we treat folks – non-violent offenders – we can lead to better outcomes by keeping them out of prison, to the extent that that’s possible.  It leads to better outcomes in their lives, their families’ lives.  It leads to savings by not having people incarcerated in state prisons,” said Smith.

Springfield Republican Curtis Trent said both provisions speak to priorities that Governor Parson and Chief Justice Zel Fischer both spoke about when addressing the House and the Senate earlier this year.

“It’s a question of who we want in our prisons.  Do we want people in our prisons who are mainly a threat to themselves – they have poor judgement – or do we want people in there who are truly a threat to society, who are predators, who are going to victimize other people, not just for minor, monetary amounts, but in ways that are truly life-altering, and I think those are the people who we want to prioritize,” said Trent.

It’s now up to Governor Parson whether HB 192 becomes law.  If it does, it would take effect August 28.

Sweeping criminal justice reform package prepared for consideration

The House Speaker has said criminal justice reform is a priority in the remaining weeks of the session, and a bill containing several proposed reforms has just been compiled.  It has the backing of a man made famous by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

Representative Shamed Dogan (left, in red tie) listens as Matthew Charles talks about his release under the federal First Step Act, and his support for HCB 2, the Missouri First Step Act. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Committee Bill 2, also being called the Missouri First Step Act, was assembled by the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice.  It is a compilation of several individual bills, some of which have already been passed by the House.

Trump featured Matthew Charles during his State of the Union Address.  Charles is the first person released from prison under the federal First Step Act, a federal reform bill signed into law by Trump in December.

In 1996 Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine.  In prison he turned his life around and earned an early release in 2016.  Though he was living a productive life, a court decision overturned his release and sent him back to prison until he was released under the First Step Act.

He’s excited about a provision in HCB 2 that would let judges ignore mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes in Missouri.

“It would allow the probation officer as well as the judge to make an assessment on the amount of time that needed to be imposed on somebody for that crime, or the amount of time they will actually serve for that offense, whereas rehabilitation has been taken away from prison for a long time,” said Charles.

The stand-alone mandatory minimum sentences legislation, House Bill 113 sponsored by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage), has been sent to the Senate and awaits a committee hearing.

HCB 2 will be carried by the committee’s chairman, Representative Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin), who has been a proponent of criminal justice reform during his five years in the House.

“These measures are all evidence-based.  They will all help us save enormous amounts of taxpayer money while also improving public safety, and they’ll give people who’ve made mistakes in their lives a chance to be treated with dignity while incarcerated and to have more of a chance of rebuilding their lives whenever they get out,” said Dogan.

HCB 2 would apply the state’s law restricting the use of restraints on pregnant offenders to county or city jails.  That bars the use of restraints on a woman in the third trimester of pregnancy and through 48-hours after delivery while they’re being transported except in extraordinary circumstances, which must be documented and reviewed.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold) sponsors that legislation (House Bill 1122).  She said it’s about the safety of those offenders, but also of their babies.

“It’s making sure that when women are in labor, when women are in advanced stages of pregnancy, and when they have really no risk of harm that we’re really treating people as people and that we’re being appropriate as well,” said Coleman.  “It’s not about trying to be lax on people who have committed crimes.  They’re paying their costs, but a pregnant woman is very vulnerable and we want to make sure that she and her child are delivered safely.”

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (at podium) speaks about her portion of HCB 2, the Missouri First Step Act (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Another piece of HCB 2 coming from a bill sponsored by Coleman (House Bill 920) would require that feminine hygiene products are available to women being held in the state’s prisons or on state charges in county and city jails.

“That is not an issue that I expected to be tackling but you find out certain things and you think, ‘How is it possible that as a state we’re not providing adequate hygiene supplies to those who are in our care and custody?’” said Coleman.

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (R-Hallsville) sponsored House Bill 189, to allow people convicted of felonies to work in certain businesses that sell alcohol or lottery tickets, such as grocery or convenience stores.  That is also included in HCB 2.

“Where I’m from in Boone County we have 1.5-percent unemployment.  This is the second lowest in the country.  We cannot find enough employees.  We would like to put these felons to work,” said Toalson Reisch.  “We need them to avoid recidivism and make better lives for themselves and their families.”

Two of the other pieces of HCB 2 would restrict the use of drug and alcohol testing by privately operated probation supervisors (House Bill 80Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis); and would keep courts from putting people in jail for failing to pay the costs associated with prior jail time (House Bill 192Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield).  Both of those stand-alone bills have been sent to the Senate for its consideration.

HCB 2 includes language to allow for the early parole of certain inmates over the age of 65 (House Bill 352, Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles); to stop the confiscation of assets from a person who hasn’t been convicted of a crime (House Bill 444, Dogan); and to prohibit discriminatory policing (House Bill 484, Dogan).

HCB 2 awaits a hearing by a House committee before it can be sent to the full chamber for debate.

Earlier stories on two of the bills that are part of HCB 2:

House votes to prevent jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills (HB 192)

Missouri House endorses elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes (House Bill 113)

House approves budget plan maintaining $100-million boost to transportation

The Missouri House has proposed a $29.2-billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  Among other things it maintains Appropriations Committee Chairman Cody Smith’s (R-Carthage) plan to apply $100-million of General Revenue to road and bridge projects.  That would be in addition to the money in the state’s Road and Bridge Fund, which is dedicated to transportation.

House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

If that proposal becomes law it would be the first time GR dollars have been used for transportation infrastructure.  Smith said the state’s road funding has been falling behind for years, and with other proposals to support it having fallen short – including a gas tax increase that was rejected by voters in November – it’s time to consider unprecedented sources.

He also said his plan is a better option than what Governor Mike Parson (R) proposed, to use bonds to support $350-million for bridge projects, which take years to pay off.

“Going further into debt comes at a high cost.  We already spend, on average, about 24-percent of the road fund on debt service as it is,” said Smith.  “This plan, paying as we go, could save us as much as $100-million over the course of 15 years, and it’s really that simple.”

Democrats say this approach creates uncertainty for the Department of Transportation, which wouldn’t know year-to-year how much money the legislature might decide to give it.

Kansas City representative Greg Razer (D) said the plan also would set a precedent that transportation would compete with other state priorities that are already funded with GR dollars, including education and medical care.

“The day will come when we have our director of transportation, people with disabilities, the presidents and chancellors of our universities all coming and trying to fight over the same pot of money,” said Razer.

Representative Greg Razer, D-Kansas City (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Razer and other Democrats said the state should not get away from using only the Road and Bridge Fund to support transportation.

“It’s something that has served us well for nearly a century,” said Razer.

Democrats say $100-million won’t go very far toward meeting the transportation infrastructure needs across the state.  Festus Republican Becky Ruth said a lot of options that have been considered might be short-term solutions.  She said this one would be a good start.

“Right now we have to do something, and that’s what the people of Missouri [have] asked us to do,” said Ruth.

“When our school busses are travelling on roads and crossing bridges and many of those bridges are in poor condition, I want you to stop and think about those children sitting on that school bus.  I want you to stop and think about the families driving in their car down the road.  I want you to stop and think about all of the people that use our highways day in and day out to get to their destinations – to go to work, to return from work – and they want to be able to do that safely,” said Ruth.

Smith said it is his intention to propose the use of General Revenue in future budget years to cover the projects that would’ve been paid for in the governor’s plan.  Each year, then, that would have to be decided upon by the General Assembly.

The 13 budget bills that make up the House’s spending plan now go to the State Senate, which will propose changes to it.  Then the two chambers will attempt to reach a compromise on a budget to be sent to the governor before the constitutional deadline of May 10.

House Budget head unveils road and bridge funding proposal as part of F.Y. ’20 budget

The Missouri House’s Budget Committee Chairman has unveiled his plan for paying for road and bridge work in the state, in place of the plan proposed by Governor Mike Parson (R) in January.

House Budget Committee Chairman Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Cody Smith’s (R-Carthage) plan is to use a $100-million from the state’s General Revenue Fund to support the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which is the Department of Transportation’s plan for road and bridge improvements for the coming years.

Parson’s plan called for using $351-million in bonds to replace or repair 250 bridges throughout Missouri.  The bonding would have been paid back with about $30-million from the state’s General Revenue fund for 15 years.

Smith said it is important to focus on creating a plan that would funds transportation infrastructure but not put the state further into debt.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service every year … when we have an opportunity to make a similar impact on the bridges that have been identified as in need of repair over the course of four years and thereby save the state $100-million over 15 years I think we out to try to take that opportunity,” said Smith.

The Department has paid more than $700-million in debt payments in the last two years, and its average payment is $313-million a year.

Smith proposes spending $100-million in general revenue on roads and bridges in the next four years’ budgets or more.  That would be subject to the appropriation process in each of those years.  Smith potentially will be the House budget chairman throughout that time, and therefore would be in a position help make that happen.

State budget experts say General Revenue has never been used to pay for transportation infrastructure.  That is usually done with funds earmarked for that purpose.  Smith said it’s time to consider a fundamental change.

“The budget is a reflection of the state’s priorities and amongst those priorities should first be the core functions of government and I’d certainly put transportation infrastructure amongst the core functions of government,” said Smith.

Representative Kip Kendrick is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Columbia representative Kip Kendrick is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  He called Smith’s proposal bold and a part of a larger discussion about how Missouri’s transportation infrastructure should be paid for, but funding it with general revenue would pit it against other priorities supported by that fund, like K-12 and higher education.

“A hundred million dollars in general revenue, I believe, sets a potentially bad precedent.  I don’t know how you ever unwind that,” said Kendrick.  “I think we need to be looking at long-term solutions and dedicated funding streams to address our infrastructure problems at the state level.”

Smith said weighing the various priorities of the state against one another is the job of the legislature.

“That is exactly what we’re doing here.  We’re talking about how we prioritize transportation versus education versus public safety – that is the process that the General Assembly goes through and I think that’s a natural and appropriate process,” said Smith.

The Missouri Department of Transportation says it is about $8-billion short of being able to fund its transportation needs in the next decade.

Missouri voters in November rejected a 10-cents-per-gallon tax increase to pay for road and bridge work.

Smith’s plan is part of his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  He unveiled that plan Wednesday.  Over the coming weeks the House Budget Committee will propose changes to that plan, then send it to the full House for debate during the week of March 25-29.  Before the state budget is finalized it must be approved by both the House and the Senate, then the governor could approve, reject, or delay funding from it.