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Senators hold up ESA legislation for hours, Republicans promise to continue to block it

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Sen. Andrew Koenig’s bill establishing a tax credit scholarship was held up by several hours of filibustering Wednesday evening — including by fellow Republicans — and was ultimately not put to a vote.

And those Republicans in opposition have no plans of letting the bill advance.

Koenig’s SB 160 would create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, enabling taxpayers to contribute to “an education assistance organization” and claim a certain tax credit. Parents would be able to utilize the funds in these education savings accounts (ESAs) to help pay for things such as tuition, textbooks, and tutoring for their children.

The tax credit is set at 85 percent, and the annual cumulative amount of allocated tax credits are capped at $15 million for the first two years and $25 million after.

Most of the concerns voiced Wednesday centered around the monetary impact the program would have on public schools and the general revenue as a whole — particularly as it relates to securing fuel for school buses to transport children from lower-income households to school.

“We have a responsibility to provide the best public education possible to the state, and we need as much resources as the state can provide to do that,” Sen. Gary Romine told The Missouri Times after his filibuster. “We’re short [now] … so there’s no reason or justification for taking the funds out of the general revenue to apply towards ESA programs when we need to be taking care of our public education.”

Romine said from a “philosophical” standpoint he would not be able to ever support an ESA bill because of the detriment it would pose to public school funding — no matter what tweaks or amendments are added to SB 160.

Romine and Sen. Doug Libla —  both Republicans — held court for some time Wednesday evening filibustering the bill. Libla explained at length what he called the “income tax fallacy” and spent some discussing various other issues, from his experiences with Craigslist to the Missouri Senate Republican Caucus’ bungling of a tweet honoring its farming members.

Romine said their “goal” was to “talk about the bill as much as we can talk about the bill and the merits or fallacies of the bill — but when you have to kill time with other things, we have the facts to speak for themselves.”

“We figure when we do a filibuster, we like for it to be interesting to the public,” Libla said.

Should Senate Leadership bring the bill back up, Romine and Libla promised it would be met “with the same resistance” — at least from the two of them. (Both said they had other senators in their corner ready to block the legislation but declined to give a specific number.)

Libla even cautioned that the pair filibustered for seven hours earlier in the legislative session this year.

Some Democrats, too, spoke out against the legislation Wednesday. Sen. Lauren Arthur successfully attached an amendment specifically stipulating ESA programs could not discriminate on the basis of religion in case the bill is ultimately passed. Still, Arthur maintained “there’s no way” she would end up supporting the SB 160.

Some lawmakers also expressed concern that people who already planned to send children to a private or parochial school would have access to the ESA program even without a great need for its assistance. Others, such as Republican Sen. Lincoln Hough, noted: “Public schools make up the very fabric of communities.”

“All that added up — it’s not a good bill. It’s not good public policy,” Romine and Libla said.

Koenig, however, defended his bill, maintaining he didn’t want to “attack” public schools but believed parents need another option.

“The reason why we need this is because we know students learn differently. Every public school can’t be everything to every child,” said Koenig, referencing students with illnesses or who are subjected to bullying.

Education “should be about the child … rather than the institution itself,” he said.