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House won't fix school funding for seven years

May 04, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

Jefferson City -- A House committee approved an overhaul in how Missouri funds public schools Wednesday that Republicans say would balance the underfunded and highly criticized system. The plan, however, wouldn't take full effect for more than seven years.

One day after Gov. Matt Blunt demanded action, suburban Republicans who last week blocked the bill reversed their votes. The shift proved strong enough to muscle the plan Blunt says will fix the state system on to the House floor.

After winning back a wage increase for teachers in areas with higher standards of living, a measure knocked out by rural Republicans last week, the suburban lawmakers threw their support behind the measure.

The plan would increase the total amount of money the state spends on education by nearly $1 billion dollars but that money would be phased in over a seven year period. Critics say the worst off can't wait that long.

"I believe that seven years is too long," said Rep. Yaphett El-Amin (D-St. Louis). "I have issues of equity right now."

El-Amin said the state should look to new funds of revenue to fill the gaps. House Republicans counter that Missourians won't accept a tax increase.

"To me, this is factoring in reality into the whole equation," said Rep. Allen Icet (R-Wildwood), who changed his vote to a yes. "Hopefully, [schools] understand we're doing the best we can."

Without a new source revenue -- increased cigarette taxes and an end to gambling limits have been suggested -- the Republicans behind the House plan are banking on economic growth to foot the bill.

"The phase-in will help fund the formula," said Rep. Brian Baker (R-Belton), the bill's handler. "I believe we'll be able to afford this."

Wednesday's reversal stands as yet another example of the political power wielded by Gov. Matt Blunt.

After his swearing-in this past January, Blunt galvanized the Republican majority to send him a number of controversial measures that failed in past sessions. The list includes changes to workers' compensation law long sought by the business lobby, the privatization or elimination of a number of state jobs and deep cuts to Medicaid and other social services.

Joining those may soon be changes to the school funding formula, which nearly half of the state's schools charge is unfair in a pending lawsuit.

After a in-fight between rural and suburban Republicans nearly sank the plan last week, Blunt spent the weekend lobbying legislators. Tuesday he spoke out publicly, urging lawmakers to pass the plan before the session ends May 13 with a threat to call a special session if the measure fails.

"They didn't call to twist my arm," Icet said. "They called to hear my concerns."

Democrats at the hearing complained the measure is being forced too quickly. Columbia Rep. Jeff Harris, the Democratic floor leader in the House, led an attempt to slow its movement through stalling tactics and a call for the bill to be tabled. Baker parried their efforts by cutting debate short and forcing a vote without any discussion on the bill.

"This was a game of counting the votes," El-Amin said. "We let numbers rule, not need."

The bill passed 15-8. Rep. Martin Rucker of St. Joseph was the only Democrat in support.