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House passes foundation formula

May 11, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - While Gov. Matt Blunt stood in a side gallery trying to hold House Republicans together to pass an overhaul to the school foundation formula, down the street, the lead attorney in a lawsuit helping to push the overhaul said it wouldn't matter.

Jefferson City attorney Alex Bartlett, who is representing more than half of the state's school districts in a suit arguing state spending for education is neither equitable nor adequate, said he believed most of his clients would continue to push the lawsuit even if the proposed formula is enacted because the proposal would struggle to keep up with inflation over the implementation period.

"Unless there is a substantial change focusing more on adequacy, I see it necessary to proceed in the courts," he said. "I just don't see this as enough to fix it. There is no new funding stream for education that has been proposed and consequently I see it primarily as just a half measure at this point."

The proposed formula split Republicans along rural and urban lines during a battle to get the bill to the House floor from committee two weeks ago. A weekend of phone calls and conversations between the governor's office, House leadership and Republicans on the committee who had defected and several changes that added more than $100 million in cost helped get the bill to the floor.

Blunt, lobbying in the House for the first time, has made the change one of his top priorities. He said he was observing the debate from one of the side galleries to work through concerns about the legislation.

"Things happen quickly, and if people have concerns, I want them to be able to voice them to me directly," he said.

The proposal would set a minimum per pupil minimum and distribute money based upon demographics. The current formula largely considers local property taxes.

After 10 straight hours of debate, negotiations between the House and Senate began less than 10 hours after the House passed the proposal. Negotiators have only two days to come to a consensus and garner support from both bodies until the end of the session. Blunt has said he will call a special session to complete the formula if time runs out.

Aside from working through differences in the language of the measure, legislators said paying for a formula that costs more than $900 million to fully implement must be addressed.

Blunt and Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, who was put in charge of the bill in the House, said natural economic growth would generate the money. But the bill's sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, has said he favored the combination of economic growth with a repeal of loss limits and an increase to the gross receipts taxes gambling boats pay.

Included in a slew of proposed changes was an amendment by Rep. Brad Roark, R-Springfield that would ban gay straight alliances and similar clubs in schools.

"I honestly believe Missourians frown upon that life style," he said.

While Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia voted in favor of the amendment, which was ultimately approved but was not added to the bill, Democrats said the issue had nothing to do with school funding.

"Now if we want to stay all night that's fine, I can roll with that," said Rep. Connie Johnson, D-St. Louis City. "But if we're all concerned about the kids let's get about it, be about it."

The House's version uses a regional scope in addressing wage differences across the state rather than the senate's county by county version, adds a weight for summer school enrollment if statewide enrollment drops by 25 percent, prohibits superintendents from receiving retirement benefits while serving as a superintendent and makes the decision of a commission created to study property tax assessments non-binding.