JEFFERSON CITY • With one month to go in the Missouri Legislature’s spring session, the scramble is on for lawmakers and Gov. Eric Greitens to get their priorities in place before the final gavel comes down.
Before lawmakers leave town for the summer on May 12, House Speaker Todd Richardson wants lawmakers to approve legislation regulating ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
Greitens wants ethics reforms so he can say he is cleaning up the capital city.
And, Republican leaders in the Senate are pushing for more changes to the state’s legal system that they think would make Missouri a more business friendly state.
While each of those priorities could be put on hold until next year if enough roadblocks are erected to halt their progress, one item that must be completed in the remaining time is the state budget.
With $27.8 billion in spending on the line, a Senate panel began debating the blueprint Tuesday with an eye of rushing it to the full Senate by next week.
Among the key items up for debate in the budget is how much money will be going to fund elementary and high schools.
This year, the House inserted $48 million in additional money into the school funding formula and declared that they had fully funded schools.
“We made a lot of tough decisions. But at the end of the day, I think it’s a budget we can all be proud of,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican. “We still fully funded the formula.”
“I’m incredibly proud of the work our budget committee did,” added Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.
Democrats say the claims of fully funding the formula are a smoke screen because the majority party last year rewrote the state education funding law to claim it fully funded public schools even though the change represents an actual $400 million reduction.
The $48 million in new money earmarked for schools is actually less than the $85 million in new money allocated in the current fiscal year. In May 2014, lawmakers left town after having put $115 million in new money toward schools.
What has Democrats even more concerned is that the Senate Appropriations Chairman Dan Brown isn’t planning to go along with the House’s school funding plan.
Rather, he says fully funding schools will trigger an expansion of early childhood programs that local districts cannot afford.
“It will be somewhere in between zero and fully funded,” Brown told members of the Senate budget panel Tuesday.
The Senate also is poised to reject the House’s plans for funding higher education and state employee pensions. And, it is unclear whether the Senate will muster enough votes to eliminate a tax break for senior citizens that will help avert cuts sought by the governor.
Those changes will send budget talks between the two chambers into hyper-drive because the Constitution calls for the spending plan to be finished by May 5 in order to give the governor time to review it before the formal end of the session seven days later.
If lawmakers fail to meet the budget deadline, they would be barred from taking further action on the budget during the final week of the legislative session.
As a result, the governor would have to call a special session to start the budgetary process over in order to pass a spending plan before the next fiscal year begins July 1.
Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch