Weekly Capitol Update – May 7, 2015

CHARTER EXPANSION, STUDENT TRANSFER BILL PASSES

Lawmakers on May 5 granted final approval to legislation intended to address the ongoing problems with Missouri’s student transfer. However, the bill barely passed in the House of Representatives, where bipartisan opponents maintained the measure primarily focused on expanding charter and virtual schools while doing little to address the transfer situation. As a result, in the event of a possible gubernatorial veto, an override is unlikely.

Under the existing transfer law, students in unaccredited schools districts may transfer to a nearby accredited district of their choice at the expense of their home district. At present there are only two unaccredited districts in Missouri, both in north St. Louis County. Because the districts must pay tuition for their students to attend school elsewhere, one district is on the verge of bankruptcy and the other isn’t far behind. Both were financially stable before the implementation of the transfer law.

HB 42 would somewhat limit transfers to other districts by first requiring students to transfer to an accredited school within their home district, if possible. If no openings are available at an accredited school in-district, then they would be allowed to go elsewhere. However, tuition would remain uncapped under the bill.

The measure also would allow for the expansion of charter and virtual schools to all school districts in St. Louis County and all but three small districts in Jackson County. At present, charter schools, which are taxpayer funded but operate free of many state requirements, are authorized only in St. Louis city and Kansas City.

The House approved the bill 84-73, with just two more votes than required for passage but 25 short of the 109-vote supermajority needed in the event of a veto override. The Senate endorsed the bill 23-11. Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed similar legislation last year.

 

LAWMAKERS SEND MUNICIPAL COURT REFORM TO NIXON

The House of Representatives on May 7 voted 134-25 to send the governor legislation that would further restrict how much revenue local governments may derive from traffic fines and court fees and impose various reforms on municipal court operations. The Senate approved the bill 31-3 a day earlier.

Existing law caps revenue from traffic fines and fees at 30 percent of a city’s operating budget. SB 5 would lower the cap to 20 percent for most Missouri cities and 12.5 percent for municipalities in St. Louis County, where accusations of police and courts being used primarily to generate revenue have been most common. Critics of imposing more strict requirements on St. Louis County cities say such practices occur statewide.

In addition, the bill would limit combined fines and court costs for minor traffic violations to $300 per offense. Other provisions would prohibit courts from jailing defendants for minor violations or inability to pay fines and bar courts from issuing separate charges for failure to appear in court, although arrest warrants could still be issued to compel court attendance.

The bill also would require St. Louis municipalities – but not other Missouri cities – to adhere to certain minimum operational standards or potentially face serious consequences, including administrative takeover or disincorporation. The attorney general would have the duty of bringing suit to enforce those standards.

 

GOP OVERRIDES VETO OF BILL CUTTING BENEFITS FOR KIDS

The Republican-controlled General Assembly on May 5 overrode Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation that will strip more than 6,300 Missouri children of their welfare benefits when it takes effect Jan. 1. The override came on votes of 25-9 in the Senate on May 4 and 111-36 in the House of Representatives the next day.

SB 24 lowers the lifetime cap on benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from 60 months to 45 months, a 25 percent reduction. Nearly 9,500 current recipients – two-thirds of whom are children – will lose their benefits as of Jan.1 because they will have already exceeded the new 45-month limit.

Republican supporters of SB 24 say reducing TANF benefits will encourage recipients to take more personal responsibility for their situations. Democratic opponents question how children, as the bulk of TANF beneficiaries, are supposed to take personal responsibility for their parents being poor.

SB 24 marks the second time this year lawmakers have overridden a Nixon veto. The first came last month on an elections bill that, among other provisions, prohibits retired school superintendents from being elected to the school board of their former district. The Republican-controlled legislature has overridden Nixon on 24 vetoed bills and 48 line-item budget vetoes since he took office in 2009.

 

NIXON REJECTS CUTS TO UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION

Gov. Jay Nixon on May 5 vetoed legislation that sought to slash the maximum weeks of unemployment benefits by more than a third. A veto override attempt isn’t expected, however, since the vote granting the bill final approval in the House of Representatives fell well short of the two-thirds supermajority necessary to overrule the governor.

“Unemployment benefits not only provide a safety net for workers, they also provide an important boost when the economy is struggling, as those workers buy food, clothing and other essentials,” Nixon said in his veto message. “The unemployment system has proven to be vital to economic stability and recovery. The changes sought by House Bill No. 150 are unnecessary and unfair, and accordingly this bill fails to receive my approval.”

Under existing law, unemployed Missourians can receive a maximum of 20 weeks of benefits, which is fifth lowest in the nation. Missouri is one of just eight states that provides fewer than 26 weeks of benefits.

HB 150 sought to base the maximum weeks of benefits on the statewide unemployment rate during the previous year, with maximum benefits ranging from just 13 weeks if the statewide rate is below 6 percent to 20 weeks if the statewide rate is 9 percent or higher. The bill wouldn’t have accounted for regional differences in the unemployment rate, meaning workers in economically struggling areas would still receive the reduced level of benefits if the state’s overall unemployment rate remained low.

The House passed the bill on a vote of 88-68, falling 21 votes short of the 109 needed for an override. Twenty-six Republicans joined unanimous Democrats in opposition. The Senate passed HB 150 on a straight party-line vote of 21-8. Support was just two votes short of the 23 necessary to override, but four Republican senators were absent.

Nixon also vetoed similar legislation last year. Although the Senate voted to override, the effort failed in the House.

 

NIXON RELEASES $67 MILLION IN FY 15 SPENDING AUTHORITY

State revenue growth continued in April, prompting Gov. Jay Nixon to release another $67 million in spending authority he had restricted in order to keep the fiscal year 2015 state budget in balance. However, roughly $269 million in spending restrictions remain.

The bulk of the restored spending authority is education related. Those items include $16 million for various capital projects at public universities, $15 million for college scholarships and $10 million for local school districts’ transportation costs.

Through the first 10 months of FY 2015, net state general revenue collections increased 7.7 percent compared to the same period in FY 2014, going from $6.7 billion to $7.22 billion. Net general revenue collections for April 2015 jumped 11.9 percent compared to those for April 2014, going from $1.13 billion to $1.26 billion.