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Senate closes week without tackling anticipated education reform bills


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Senate closed out its legislative week by passing a bevy of bills Thursday morning.

Among those passed was Republican state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter’s first bill: SB 196. The bill authorizes the Missouri Department of Natural Resources the ability to provide grants for the restoration and preservation of historic county courthouses in the state.

The Senate also passed SB 194 which would make it a crime to purposefully operate an unmanned aircraft — such as a drone — near a correctional center or mental health hospital by someone who is not acting in an official capacity. It specifically bans the use of drones to harm someone inside one of those facilities or to deliver contraband.

Additionally, the Senate passed SB 45. Called a “compromise” by state Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Republican, the bill addresses therapeutic care for developmental and physical disabilities. The Senate also passed SB 291, which modifies taxes related to emergency communications services. Specifically, this bill relates to the financial contributions of cell phone users to the service.

SB 30 — which was debated by lawmakers earlier in the week — was also passed on Thursday. It allows the use of evidence of one’s failure to wear a seatbelt to prove negligence or to mitigate damages.

The Senate did not tackle a couple of much-anticipated bills related to education reform this week. Sen. Dave Schatz, the president pro tem, told reporters Thursday afternoon that “conversations continue on” regarding education reform bills.

State Sen. Andrew Koenig has proposed legislation established a tax credit scholarship — called the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program — allowing taxpayers to contribute to “an education assistance organization” and be able to claim a certain tax credit. Parents would be able to use the funds in these education savings accounts (ESAs) to help pay for things such as children’s tuition, textbooks, and tutoring.

Another bill, SB 51 proposed by Republican state Sen. Bill Eigel, would expand charter schools in the state.

Despite optimism from Republican leadership that education reform will soon be tackled, Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp told reporters her constituents feel vouchers and ESA programs are “very unpopular.”

The Senate spent time debating a number of pieces of legislation this week. Among them was a bill from Republican state Sen. Mike Cunningham that seeks to change how the minimum wage would be applied to employees who are under the age of 18 and freeze the amount tipped employees make at no less than 50 percent of the minimum wage as set at the beginning of this year.

Senate Democrats strongly opposed the bill, mainly citing concerns that it goes against Missouri voters who approved a measure gradually increasing the minimum wage rate over the next few years in November’s elections. State Sen. Brian Williams told The Missouri Times he’s prepared to fight against the bill, SB 10, because of his “obligation to uphold the will of the people.”

Cunningham, however, defended his bill as necessary to “protect the jobs of young people.” He told The Missouri Times he’s prepared to work with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle to come up with a compromise but will continue to forge ahead with it.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also took a look at Missouri’s more than 60  tax credits this week. The committee found not all the tax credits had funds authorized in the last several years; some have sunset clauses, and one has actually never been used.

The Department of Economic Development took the prize for the most tax credits as it has 32 under its purview.

Additionally, the Senate saw a change in its rules this week championed by state Sen. Jason Holsman, a Democrat.  The change — which was officially adopted Tuesday — allows for a senator to abstain from a vote if he or she feels there is a conflict of interest.

Looking ahead, majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden said the Senate is “on track” ahead of the legislative spring break, adding it’s “not outside the realm of possibility” for the school choice bills to be brought to the Senate Floor next week.