July 2, 2015 – Weekly Capitol Update

NIXON VETOES CHARTER SCHOOL EXPANSION BILL

Gov. Jay Nixon on June 26 vetoed controversial legislation that sought to expand charter schools and provide public funding for privately operated virtual schools. The bill, HB 42, originally had been intended to fix the numerous flaws with Missouri’s student transfer law, but Nixon and other critics contend the measure as finally passed did little to address those issues and instead made it harder for students in struggling schools to transfer to better districts.

“Rather than solving the problems with Missouri’s current school transfer law, House Bill No. 42 exacerbates them,” Nixon said in his veto message.” Consequently, it should not become law.”

This year marked the fifth straight that the Republican-controlled General Assembly has failed to successfully enact legislation resolving the transfer issue since the Missouri Supreme Court originally upheld the constitutionality of the transfer law in 2010. Previous efforts either failed to clear the legislature or were vetoed due to the inclusion of unrelated provisions that critics felt would undermine public education.

Under the transfer law, students in unaccredited school districts can transfer to a nearby accredited district of their choice, with their home district required to pay tuition and transfer costs. Normandy and Riverview Gardens in north St. Louis County at present are the only two districts subject to the law. Although both had long struggled with academic performance, they had been financially stable until tuition for transfer students began siphoning off substantial portions of their revenue, leaving insufficient funding to support the students who remained.

HB 42 did nothing to control the tuition rates charged by receiving districts, some of which charge Normandy and Riverview Gardens far more than their actual costs to educate students. Instead, the bill would limit the opportunities for students to transfer to other districts by first requiring that all openings at accredited school buildings within unaccredited school districts be filled before students could seek opportunities elsewhere. It also would require hundreds of students who have already transferred to return to their home districts for at least one semester.

HB 42 would authorize charter schools to operate anywhere in St. Louis County and in all but four small school districts in Jackson County. Under existing law, charter schools are allowed only in St. Louis City and Kansas City. Charter schools are public schools that operate free from most of the state laws and regulations traditional public schools must follow. Although a few charter schools in Missouri have been successful, most have enjoyed limited academic success and several have been forced to close.

In addition, HB 42 would allow parents to enroll their children in privately operated virtual schools at taxpayer expense. Such virtual schools wouldn’t be subject to any oversight or regulation from the state or local school boards regarding quality or academic rigor.

The House of Representatives voted 84-73 to grant final passage to the bill in May. That tally provided just two votes more than needed for the simple majority needed for passage and 25 votes short of the 109-vote supermajority that would be required for a veto override. As a result, lawmakers aren’t expected to attempt to overrule the governor when they convene for their annual veto session on Sept. 16.

 

HIGH COURT UPHOLDS VALIDITY OF BALLOT MEASURES

The Missouri Supreme Court on June 30 upheld the validity of two constitutional amendments voters separately ratified last August expanding gun rights and establishing a constitutional right to farm. The plaintiffs in both cases had argued the Republican-controlled General Assembly crafted unfair and misleading ballot language for the measures designed to deceive voters. The court ruled the language for the two measures was legally sufficient and fair.

Although legal challenges to ballot language are common, they usually are brought before an election. These cases mark the first time the court has considered ballot language challenges after voters have approved a statewide ballot proposal.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson and other plaintiffs attempted to challenge the ballot language for the gun measure, Amendment 5, prior to the Aug. 5 primary election. Due to the unusually short timetable between when the measure was certified for the ballot in June and Election Day, however, the litigation was unable to run its course before the statutory deadline for making ballot changes had passed.

Since the plaintiffs were denied full review due to no fault of their own, the Supreme Court ruled in July 2014 that they could pursue the issue after the election if voters ratified Amendment 5, which they did with 60.9 percent support. The plaintiffs argued the language was unfair and misleading because it omitted mention of important substantive changes while improperly implying the amendment would establish a new state-level right to bear arms, a right that already existed in the Missouri Constitution.

Voters barely ratified the right-to-farm measure, Amendment 1, with 50.1 percent support. Although the General Assembly approved the legislation placing it on ballot more than a year before Election Day, opponents made no attempt to challenge the ballot language prior to the election despite having ample time to do so.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the challenge could still be brought post-election since it hadn’t been already litigated. In dissent, Judges Laura Denvir Stith and George Draper said a post-election challenge wasn’t timely in this instance since the plaintiffs chose not to raise the issue prior to the election.

 

JUDGE SAYS SENATE COMMITTEES CAN BAR RECORDINGS

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem on June 30 dismissed a lawsuit that claimed some Senate committee chairmen routinely violate Missouri’s Sunshine Law by refusing to allow video recordings of public hearings. The lawsuit was brought by Progress Missouri, a political advocacy group which frequently records legislative committees but was barred from doing so on several occasions during the 2015 legislative session.

Under the Sunshine Law, citizens have the legal right to record meetings of public governmental bodies. Although the House of Representatives’ internal rules require its committees to follow the law in regard to recordings, Senate rules give committee chairmen the discretion to allow or prohibit recording as they see fit.

Beetem ruled that since the Missouri Constitution grants the Senate, as well as the House, the authority to “determine the rules of its own proceedings,” the Senate has the authority to allow committee chairman to prohibit the recording of hearings, the Sunshine Law’s requirements to the contrary notwithstanding.

 

NET REVENUE COLLECTIONS GREW 8.8 PERCENT IN FY 2015

Net state general revenue collections for the 2015 fiscal year increased 8.8 percent compared to FY 2014, going from $8 billion last year to $8.71 billion this year. Net general revenue collections for June, the last month of the 2014 fiscal year, increased 22.9 percent compared to those for June 2014, going from $685.7 million to $842.7 million.