GREITENS WANTS ANOTHER ROUND OF DEEP HIGHER ED CUTS
Missouri’s public colleges and universities would endure deep funding cuts for the second year in a row under the $28.75 billion state operating budget Republican Gov. Eric Greitens proposed on Jan. 22 for the 2019 fiscal year. Under the governor’s plan, appropriations for public colleges and universities in FY 2019, which begins July 1, would be lower than they were in FY 1998 – more than two decades ago.
Greitens’ higher education budget calls for an additional $68 million in cuts from two- and four-year institutions while making permanent in the upcoming budget an additional $36 million cut he unilaterally imposed for the current fiscal year, for a total reduction of $104 million from FY 2018 appropriated levels.
On K-12 education funding, during the current fiscal year lawmakers were able to claim to have fully funded the statutory formula for distributing state money to local public school districts for the first time in decades. The claim of full funding, however, was largely an illusion since to achieve it the Republican-controlled General Assembly first had to rewrite the law to reduce the cost of claiming full funding by $400 million.
But even the illusion of full funding of public schools hasn’t lasted long as Greitens proposed providing only about half the $99 million that would be needed under the rewritten formula to claim full funding in FY 2019. Greitens also recommended making permanent for next year $13 million of a $15 million cut to local districts’ student transportation costs that he unilaterally imposed for the current fiscal year.
The governor is constitutionally required to present lawmakers with a proposed spending for the upcoming fiscal year, but his recommendations aren’t binding on lawmakers, who are expected to modify or reject many of the governor’s proposals. The legislature must pass the various appropriations bills that make up the state budget no later than May 11.
Greitens’ budget announcement during a news conference in his Capitol office marked his first public appearance since admitting on Jan. 10 to an extramarital affair in 2015 before becoming governor.
Until a pair of interviews with select media outlets two days earlier, Greitens hadn’t personally addressed allegations that he had threated to blackmail his former mistress with a nude photograph he had taken of her. In those interviews, he said there was no attempted blackmail but avoided giving “yes” or “no” answers as to whether he photographed the woman in a state of undress.
Greitens was repeatedly asked about the issue during the budget news conference and couched his words carefully, saying, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “There was no photograph for blackmail. There was no threat of using a photograph for blackmail.” He did not, however, deny taking a photograph.
BUDGET COMMITTEE QUASHES PLAN FOR SHORT-TERM LOAN
The House Budget Committee on Jan. 24 seems to have quashed a proposal by Republican Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration to take out an unprecedented $250 million short-term loan during the final months for the current fiscal year to help manage cash-flow.
During testimony before the committee, Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman and State Budget Director Dan Haug said the loan would ensure the state has sufficient cash on hand to timely send out Missourians’ tax returns and make other payments. The interest on the loan would cost an estimated $2 million, which critics said wouldn’t be wise expense given the state’s tight finances.
After Democratic committee members critically questioned the wisdom of the state essentially taking out a “payday loan” for cash flow, House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said the committee wasn’t going to include the loan in the supplemental spending bill for FY 2018, which ends June 30. “We’re not going to do this,” Fitzpatrick said bluntly.
The administration planned to run the loan through the Missouri Health and Education Facilities Authority. However, state law says proceeds from MOHEFA bonds can only be used to finance health care or educational facilities and also prohibits the General Assembly from appropriating such MOHEFA funds in the state budget. As a result, the Greitens’ administration’s proposal appears to violate state law.
CHIEF JUSTICE CALLS FOR EXPANSION OF DRUG COURTS
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer on Jan. 24 asked lawmakers for assistance in expanding drug treatment courts to handle criminal offenses arising from the growing opioid addiction crisis. Fischer made his comments during the annual State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the General Assembly.
“Like they have shown in other intersections of drugs and crime, we anticipate our treatment courts will be on the front lines of the opioid battle,” Fischer said. “By continuing to reduce drug use and keeping addicted offenders out of prison, those offenders can continue to work and provide for their families.”
Fischer said drug courts, which emphasize treatment and sobriety over punishment, are more cost effective than incarceration. However, he said existing funding is insufficient to provide access to many offenders and that there are no treatment courts at all in 15 Missouri counties.
The judicial branch is also working on reforms to the criminal justice system, Fischer said, including ensuring that defendants aren’t incarcerated while awaiting trial simply because they are too poor to afford bail.
“It seems obvious and important that – before a trial is held and guilt or innocence is determined – we reserve our jail space for those who pose the most danger to the community or risk of fleeing the jurisdiction, and not those who simply may be too poor to post bail,” Fischer said. “Studies show even short stints in jail increase the likelihood of missing school or losing jobs and housing.”
SENATE LEADER EXPECTS BOARD PICKS TO BE BLOCKED
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard will schedule a confirmation hearing in late March for the governor’s five nominees to the Missouri State Board of Education but expects his fellow senators to block their appointments, the Missourinet reported on Jan. 19. If the Senate prevents the nominees from being confirmed, under the Missouri Constitution they will be prohibited for life from ever again serving on the panel.
In a series of moves over the summer and fall, Republican Gov. Eric Greitens appointed a majority of the eight-member state school board and, once in place, they immediately fired Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Commissioner Margie Vandeven over the objections of the three remaining veteran board members. Greitens has yet to publicly explain why he wanted Vandeven’s ouster, which was opposed by many senators who now control the fate of Greitens’ nominees.
In a Jan. 18 press conference, Richard, R-Joplin, said he anticipates all five nominations will be killed. Richard said he attempted to prevent that by asking the governor to submit new nominees to the board, but Greitens insisted on sticking with his previous picks.
Because Greitens originally appointed the five while the Senate was in recess, they were able to begin serving immediately. Greitens later withdrew and reappointed the nominations after the Senate in a ploy to extend the confirmation process. However, the move meant the nominees can’t serve until and unless confirmed. As a result, the board at present only has three members, two short of the quorum needed to conduct business.