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 committee asked to weigh stronger civil asset forfeiture law

      A House committee has been asked to consider closing what’s been called a “loophole” in Missouri law regarding civil asset forfeiture.

Representative Tony Lovasco (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

       Civil asset forfeiture, “allows the government to take your private property without compensation and without the need to convict you or even charge you with a crime,” Representative Tony Lovasco (R-O’Fallon) told the House Committee on General Laws

      “Now you might think that this is a ridiculous process that we wouldn’t allow here in Missouri, and you’d mostly be right,” Lovasco continues, but he says there’s a hitch.  While Missouri law doesn’t allow for civil asset forfeiture without a conviction he said local prosecutors are getting around it through the federal equitable sharing program.

      “This program allows local prosecutors to transfer assets to federal jurisdiction to actually proceed with a case under federal law, which does not have the same due process rights that Missouri’s law affords,” said Lovasco.

      He said the federal program also allows 80-percent of the proceeds stemming from seized assets to go to the law enforcement agencies who seized them, “which creates an unfortunate, perverse incentive to be very, very aggressive at actually filing these cases.”

      Lovasco’s proposal, House Bill 1613, would block Missouri law enforcement and prosecutors from transferring seized property to federal authorities.  It would also stipulate that federal authorities working with authorities in Missouri must give responsibility for seized property to a state entity. 

      The bill would apply to seizures including less than $100,000 in U.S. currency.  Lovasco explained this was a compromise with law enforcement, who told him that most cases involving that amount of money or more are tied to drug trafficking.  He said he doesn’t like this limit but it will make the bill more appealing to some lawmakers.

      The plan has bipartisan appeal including from Peter Merideth (St. Louis), the committee’s top Democrat.  He told Lovasco he strongly agrees with the proposal but he also doesn’t like that $100,000 cap.

      Lovasco said nationwide, the median amount of money that has been seized by authorities is less than $1,300.  In Missouri the number is higher, but he argues that in most cases money has been seized from people who aren’t involved in crime at all.

      He showed his colleagues a blank Uniform Vehicle Stop Report which includes check boxes for listing contraband that is discovered. 

      “Currency is listed as a check box.  We are in a situation where simply traveling throughout the State of Missouri with legal tender could mark you as a target for law enforcement and subject to having your property taken from you without trial.  That is unacceptable.  My bill aims to correct that,” said Lovasco.

      Reverend Darryl Gray of St. Louis told the committee civil asset forfeiture reform is important in the African American communities of the state. 

      “If one of your colleagues is driving down the street going to buy hay with $10,000 in cash and they got pulled over and one of my colleagues is driving down the street in my neighborhood with $10,000 in cash, your friend might go home with $10,000.  Where I live they’re not going home with that $10,000.  That’s another reality, too,” said Gray. 

      “Stopping someone in my community with x-number of dollars, be it $10,000, $5,000, or $1,000, and you take that away based on some suspicion you have and … turns out that no crime has been committed, the effect that has on that person’s family, that is my biggest concern.”

      The only opposition to the bill voiced in the hearing came from St. Charles County.  Lobbying on behalf of the County, Michael Gibbons said the county’s prosecutors and others believe such asset forfeiture is an effective tool in fighting drug trafficking.  He maintains it is done in St. Charles County without abuses described by Lovasco and other backers.

      “We believe that this is a very important tool to combat the kind of crimes that we’re seeing.  We think we do it effectively, we absolutely believe we do it the right way and … there’s been no evidence presented today, anyway, that says that we’re not,” said Gibbons.

The committee has not voted on the legislation.

Bipartisan effort seeks best way to help Missourians who owe for unemployment overpayments

      One week after hearing from the Department of Labor about the state’s efforts to seek repayment of erroneous unemployment payments from struggling Missourians, a bipartisan slate of House members is debating the best way to provide relief.

      The Special Committee on Government Oversight has heard that of roughly $150-million in overpayments, only a small portion – roughly a quarter or less – came from the state’s unemployment trust.  State statute requires the Department to get that paid back. 

Representatives Scott Cupps and Jered Taylor (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The larger portion comes from federal covid relief, the repayment of which the federal government has said states can choose to waive.  Missouri Governor Mike Parson (R) has told his Department he wants it to be paid back.

      The committee held a hearing on six bills – three filed by Republicans and three by Democrats – and a resolution filed by a Democrat, to deal with the issue.   

      The big question before lawmakers is whether to require that Missourians pay back overpayments out of the state fund.  Committee members from both parties say they would like to waive all repayment, but some are questioning whether that can be done.  They are unanimous about finding a way to waive the federal repayments, but some think the state portion might have to be recouped.

      Shell Knob Republican Scott Cupps said a priority for the Department is to maintain the integrity of the state’s unemployment trust.  His bill is one of those that would waive repayment of federal funds, but require Missourians to pay back state overpayments.

      “If you’re sitting there staring at a letter that says you owe $4,200 back that’s probably not something you’re going to be able to digest real easy.  Where if it says, ‘Hey, you owe $500 back and we’re going to be able to put you on a payment plan where you pay $50 a month for a couple of years, that’s probably something you can digest a heck of a lot easier,” said Cupps. 

      Cupps, who sits on the House Budget Committee, is one of those concerned that to waive the repayment of state benefits, the state would have to replenish the fund.  This could come from other core budget functions, such as schools or transportation. 

      St. Louis Democrat Peter Merideth, also a Budget Committee member and sponsor of the resolution, noted that Governor Parson has proposed putting $500-million in federal CARES Act relief funds into the state’s unemployment trust.  He suggests that would be a way to waive repayment of state overpayments while maintaining the fund.

Representatives LaKeySha Bosley, Ian Mackey, and Doug Clemens (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I think that we need to not wrap ourselves in circles trying to figure out where this money’s coming from and simply recognize that if we think this is an important form of the relief, well the federal government has given us $2-billion in relief money to use right now.  Let’s use that,” said Merideth.

      Cupps and other Republicans said they would consider that option. 

“The main thing that I talked to the Department about was maintaining the integrity of the trust,” said Cupps.  “If it’s already been discussed that we were gonna throw some CARES Act money in there … it is something that could be a tool in the toolbox … it’s something we maybe should look at.”

      Five of the six bills filed are largely the same.  Committee Chairman Jered Taylor (R-Republic), the sponsor of one of them, said his intention is to pare them down into one bill and to have the committee vote next week on that and the resolution.

The legislation dealing with unemployment overpayments includes: House Bill 1085 (Taylor), House Bill 1083 (J. Eggleston – R, Maysville), House Bill 1050 (Cupps), House Bill 1036 (LaKeySha Bosley – D, St. Louis), House Bill 1035 (Doug Clemens – D, St. Ann), House Bill 873 (Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis), and House Concurrent Resolution 30 (Merideth).

Earlier story: House Members Denounce State’s Seeking Payback of Unemployment Benefits

House members denounce state’s seeking payback of unemployment benefits

      House members from both parties are not happy that Missourians are being asked to pay back unemployment assistance they received in error through no fault of their own.

      Department of Labor Director Anna Hui told the Special Committee on Government Oversight overpayments are “kind of built into” the unemployment system.  The Department is expected to make an eligibility determination and get a payment out to an applicant within 14 days, generally based solely on information provided by the applicant.  As additional information comes in, often from the applicant’s current or past employers, it could prove he or she was not eligible.

Missouri Department of Labor Director Anna Hui (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

She said for 2020 that amounted to about $150-million in benefits that the Department paid out and now wants back.

Hui told the committee Governor Mike Parson (R) has made clear that he wants the Department to seek collection of those overpayments, viewing them as taxpayer dollars that went to ineligible individuals. 

      Several legislators said they have heard from constituents who have been asked to pay back thousands of dollars in state or federal relief, sometimes months after they received it.  One constituent was asked to repay about $23,000.

      “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a more fiscally conservative person in here than me, but I think we screwed up as a state government, to ask folks [for that money] back this late in the game,” said Representative J. Eggleston (R-Maysville).   

      St. Ann representative Doug Clemens (D) said for Missouri to ask people already struggling financially due to covid to pay back thousands of dollars is wrong.

      “Need I remind you of our median income in this state?  Most people in my district make $26,000 a year, and you’re asking for $11,000 payback?” said Clemens.  “We’re talking about keeping Missouri’s economy going.  We’re talking about equity and conscience … [It’s] taxpayers’ money, it’s these people’s money, and frankly we’re in a crisis.  They need to keep it. 

      “Because that money’s already spent on mortgage, it’s already spent on food on the table, and frankly we have a responsibility to the common welfare here.”

      Representatives, including Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson), said the reasons given to individuals for their ineligibility were not always clear. She read a letter the Department sent to one of her constituents telling them they had to repay for a “miscellaneous reason.”  Proudie called that “unacceptable.”

      “As a State of Missouri employee and someone elected, I sincerely apologize that this was the caliber of correspondence you got from a state agency because it tells you nothing … how dare us do that?” said Proudie.

Members of the House Committee on Government Oversight, including (front row, from left) Reps. Tony Lovasco, Scott Cupps, Doug Clemens, (next row, from left) Richard Brown, Mark Ellebracht, and Raychel Proudie (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Federal directives have given states the option not to require repayment of assistance from the federal government, which makes up the majority of the $150-million the Department overpaid.  Hui explained that Missouri is choosing to seek repayment of federal relief. 

Proudie thinks the state shouldn’t be expending its resources to pull money from Missouri’s economy just to send it back to the federal government, and Representative Scott Cupps (R-Shell Knob) agrees.

      “It may be as low as only $30-million of it’s from the [state] trust and $120-million of it is federal funds … you are not going to catch Scott Cupps in favor of rounding up money out of Missouri’s economy and sending it to Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden in Washington D.C.” said Cupps.  “The feds are literally telling us, ‘Hey, forgive it.  Forgive it.’”

The Department is required by state statute to collect overpayments out of the state fund.

      Dan Thacker represents a union including about 500 school bus drivers and monitors.  He said many of them make salaries that would put them near the poverty level, yet roughly 400 are being asked to pay back thousands of dollars.

      “Now we want to take $9,000, $10,000 back from them?  Where are they going to get it?  These are hardworking individuals that did nothing wrong or fraudulent.  They simply did exactly what was urged for them by the Missouri Department of Labor.”

      St. Joseph Republican Bill Falkner said any legislative action will have to balance the waiving of repayment by Missourians with protecting businesses, as some of these overpayments are charged to them.

      “There’s consequences to every action that we want to do … we have to keep in mind what we can do for those businesses to protect them so we’re not asking them to pay for a mistake,” said Falkner. 

      Committee members also spoke directly to Missourians during the hearing.  Cupps said the repayment situation is adding to already heightened stress for struggling Missourians.  He wants them to know he and other legislators are paying attention, and are looking for a solution.

      “There’s somebody that could get a letter in the mail that could say that they owe the state $7,200 back, and there could be divorces because of this,” said Cupps.  “I want people to know this:  do not do anything dumb because the state has sent you a letter that says you owe them money.  Don’t do it.  If you’re stressed out about it stop being stressed.” 

Representative Jered Taylor chairs the House Special Committee on Government Oversight (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Liberty representative Mark Ellebracht (D) asked Hui whether it makes financial sense for Missouri to seek these repayments.

      “If all of these people begin to appeal … how much money are we looking at spending here … are we tripping over the dollars to get to the dimes when it comes to actually recouping this money?”

      Hui told the committee that Missouri is on pace to need a loan to support the state’s unemployment trust, likely by around June.  She did not offer a projection of how great that loan might be.  She said this could cause employers to have to pay more, as that loan is repaid.

      Witnesses and lawmakers alike suggested that repayment decisions have seemed arbitrary and inconsistent, with some people being ordered to pay back only federal funds, some to pay back only state funds, and some told to pay everything or nothing. 

      Three Democrats have filed bills to address unemployment relief overpayments:  Clemens, LaKeySha Bosley (St. Louis), and Peter Merideth (St. Louis).  The committee’s chairman, Jered Taylor (R-Republic) and Representative Cupps are developing proposals.