A bipartisan group of state senators bucked GOP leaders Tuesday to fully fund Missouri’s K-12 public schools for the first time in history.
On a 19-14 vote, the Senate approved an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington that brings the Senate budget in line with the House version by adding $45 million to public school funding, bringing the total to $3.4 billion.
Ten Republicans joined with nine Democrats in support of the amendment.
Republican leaders, primarily Senate Appropriations chairman Dan Brown, argued that doing so would throw the budget out of balance and force deep cuts elsewhere. But advocates of the amendment said public education must be a priority, and thus must be fully funded.
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“Budgets are documents of priorities,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican. “The money follows where the priorities are.”
The House included the $45 million in its version of the budget, as well. Because the two chambers are now in agreement, the funding can’t be changed when negotiators meet in conference committee to work out differences.
Several Republican senators bristled at the move, saying the budget shouldn’t be rewritten on the Senate floor. That work should take place in committee, they said.
“I don’t even know why we have a budget committee if we’re going to do this,” said Sen. David Sater, a Republican from Cassville. “Our backs are up against the wall. I wish we could fully fund everything that is essential to our citizens. But we can’t.”
In addition to concerns about having to find $45 million somewhere else in the budget, opponents of the change pointed to the fact that a law passed in 2014 requires the state to cover the costs of early childhood education a year after the formula is fully funded.
That means school districts can start receiving state aid to pay for early childhood education programs starting in the summer of 2018 for up to 4 percent of their enrolled students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Brown said that could cost $60 million, but House budget staff say the number is likely closer to $20 million.
Sen. Jeanie Riddle, a Republican from Mokane, accused proponents of the additional funds of “grandstanding.”
“It’s a game,” she said. “You’re playing it, and I personally don’t like it.”
The Senate hopes to finish up its version of the budget this week to go to conference with the House next week. Lawmakers must approve the 13 bills that make up the state’s $27 billion budget by May 5. If they do not, the General Assembly will have to return for a special session to finish its work.
Public education is included in the second of the 13 bills.
Some lawmakers don’t have high hopes that they will be done next week. Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat, joked on the Senate floor that she is ordering T-shirts emblazoned with “Special Session 2017.”
“I’m taking orders in my office,” she said. “Leave your size and color preference.”