Government & Politics

Missouri House votes to fully fund K-12 education, spare colleges from cuts

For the second time in state history and the second time in two years, the Missouri House has approved full funding for K-12 schools despite a lean budget year that made it difficult for legislators to provide money for other priorities.

House members voted 133-18 on Wednesday to give schools an additional $98 million to fully fund the foundation formula that allocates money to districts, and an extra $10 million to boost their lagging transportation budgets, after a tug of war between the two chambers over how to spend limited funds.

Senators had hoped to put more money into school transportation rather than fully funding the formula, but negotiators hashed out differences in a conference committee earlier this week. The Senate passed the K-12 funding bill 29-1.

"That's about as good of a situation as you could be in short of fully funding both line items," said Mike Lodewegen, associate executive director of government affairs for the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

The budget was a big victory for K-12 education and for colleges and universities, which were spared from cuts. But legislators couldn't fund every priority with limited funds. Democrats blamed recent tax cuts and warned against more.

Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there were programs in the higher education, natural resources and agriculture budgets he would have liked to fund.

“Golly, your wish list could grow to a billion pretty quick, so you have to live in real-ville," Brown said.

K-12 education

Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, vice chair of the House Budget Committee, called a vote for the K-12 budget bill "a vote yes for record funding for education.”

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said fully funding the formula was one of his priorities as budget chair.

"I think it's incumbent on us to follow through on our commitments and fund them," Fitzpatrick said.

That commitment came in 2016, when Missouri lawmakers capped the growth of the target for full funding, making it easier to fully fund the formula. The cap was part of the original formula passed in 2005 but was later removed.

Lawmakers were also on the hook this year to fund a prekindergarten expansion that was required once they fully funded the formula last year.

Some Democrats argued that the state is still shortchanging education.

"They don't have the funds that they could have had for anything from teachers to classroom supplies to books to reading programs to supplementary staff and paraprofessionals that help teachers in the classroom, so all of those things that it takes to really have a good school," said Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City.

For Kansas City area districts, including Grandview, North Kansas City, Lee's Summit, Liberty, Blue Springs and Raytown, both funding boosts will help their bottom lines. Other districts, including Kansas City Public Schools, Center School District and Hickman Mills, are "hold harmless" districts, meaning their budgets are not affected by changes in the formula funding. They would see a boost to transportation budgets.

Kelly Wachel, a spokeswoman for Center, said the district is thankful legislators boosted both.

"As we know, investments in public education serve all of our state’s children — not only when they are with us during their early childhood, elementary, middle school and high school years, but also when they grow into the citizens and the workforce we need in our communities," Wachel said.

Higher education

The House and Senate agreed to spare the state's colleges and universities from another round of cuts recommended by Gov. Eric Greitens.

Lawmakers passed a budget last year that cut higher education by 6 percent. Because of lagging revenue, Greitens withheld even more, bringing the cut to 9 percent.

Greitens recommended additional cuts of an additional 7.7 percent, nearly $70 million, but House and Senate members agreed to keep higher education funding flat in exchange for a promise from the schools that they wouldn't raise tuition by more than 1 percent for next year.

The House passed the higher education budget bill 119-28. It cleared the Senate 24-7.

Health care

Legislators partially restored the cuts made last year to reimbursements for medical providers who treat Medicaid patients and increased funds for nursing homes, but debate over the health and social services budget bills was tense.

Boosting nursing home funding was a priority for Senate budget lawmakers, led by Brown. Nursing homes will get another $8.30 a day per resident, totaling $17 million.

"That at least gets them kind of even," Brown said.

But an amendment attached to the budget when it passed the House the first time drew the ire of a vocal group of House members. The provision, offered by Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, would bar state funds from reimbursing health services at any providers that also perform abortions, like Planned Parenthood or physicians' offices. He claimed at the time that clinics had been able to skirt bans on government funding for abortions by setting up a "shell game."

Morgan called the provision "bogus" because the Hyde Amendment prohibits use of federal money to reimburse abortion services unless it's a case of rape or incest or the pregnancy would present a threat to the life of the mother.

Critics argue the provision is illegal because Medicaid patients are allowed by law to see the provider of their choice. Planned Parenthood provides health services, including sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, birth control, cancer screenings and annual exams, to more than 7,000 Medicaid patients annually.

"We’ve been here before," Brandon Hill, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said in a statement. "This is just another illegal and unenforceable attempt by the Missouri legislature that disproportionally targets the people who need our high quality care the most.”

Democratic House members also objected to tax credits the state gives to "crisis pregnancy centers" that steer women away from abortion. Critics, including the American Medical Association, say they don't always provide medically accurate information.

Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, argued crisis pregnancy centers offer important support for expectant parents and resources, including pregnancy tests and diapers. They may also provide ultrasounds, which she argued may encourage women to steer away from abortion.

"It's so important that she has those facts, that she's able to see that little life and the development within her," Walsh said.

Balancing the budget

Legislators were able to move through the budget more smoothly than in some years and without painful cuts. Brown said it was one of the best in his time.

“I think nobody just gets whacked on this thing," Brown said. "I think everybody might not be quite where they want to be, but I think it’s very functional.”

Fitzpatrick said he and Brown worked well together this year and didn't have to make painful cuts like last year.

The specter of tough budget years brought on by possible tax cuts, however, loomed large over the House's budget debate Wednesday. Democrats argued other priorities are already being left by the wayside even without further cuts.

Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, urged colleagues to abandon "voodoo economics" of tax cuts.

“These should be years when the budget looks great, and in fact, we all ought to be a little bit worried that in years where the economy is surging, years when the unemployment rate is as low as its been in decades — that even in a year like this and last year we still have trouble paying our bills," Carpenter said. "We still have trouble having a decent budget. What’s going to happen when the next recession hits?”

Missouri Republicans have been working on a slate of possible tax cut bills that critics have compared to cuts since abandoned by Kansas. With a little more than a week left in the session, none of them has passed both chambers.

Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, said the state shouldn't cut taxes when lawmakers can't get to priorities, like transportation or a study of the state's high maternal mortality rate.

"We're all hoping the next bridge that falls down is not in Missouri because we're on that path," Lavender said.