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Legislature passes foundation formula

May 12, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With Thursday afternoon's final approval of a new school foundation formula, legislation affecting drunken driving, underage drinking and abortion remain the final significant unresolved issues of the 2005 session.

The school foundation formula, which was a top legislative priority for leadership in both the House and Senate and Gov. Matt Blunt, shifted from a division along geographic lines into one of the most partisan issues of the session. Helping to fuel the change was a move by Senate Democrats to walk out of debate in protest during discussion over the negotiated version of the formula. Debate in the House over the same language was also shut off after about 30 minutes.

Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis City, said that with the senators not receiving a copy of the negotiated language until a half hour before floor debate on the language began, meaningful debate was not possible.

"It would be ludicrous to sit and go through this," she said. "I, and my caucus, will not participate in this sham."

Because there are enough Republican senators to constitute a quorum reducing the effect of the protest, Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said Democrats were being unreasonable.

"Again the Democratic Party turns their back on their constituents and have taken their football and gone home," he said.

With the last three floor votes falling almost completely along party lines, Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, the House handler of the measure, questioned the Democratic commitment to pass the formula.

The final version, now sitting on the governor's desk awaiting his signature, costs $832 million and would be implemented over seven years.

It also creates a $15 million grant fund to be distributed to school districts with fewer than 350 students, increases appropriations to schools for summer school if statewide enrollment drops by 25 percent, makes the decision of a commission designed to study property tax assessments non-binding and bars full-time superintendents from receiving retirement benefits.

The measure's sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the passage was a major step forward because student need rather than the local property tax rate would now dictate how much money came to a school district.

But Democrats said the lawsuit filed by more than half of the state's school districts had pressured the General Assembly into acting too quickly.

Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Louis County, said he would not support the formula because the rush to complete it had created a 7-year implementation period that would mean his middle school aged son would reap little benefit.

"For the majority of his education, he will not have a fully-funded formula for the basis of his education," he said.

Columbia Public Schools would receive $1.37 million additional dollars from the $44 million it is slotted to receive under the budget completed last week. But it would not receive additional money after the 2008 budget. While acknowledging that of the Boone County school districts Columbia benefits the least, Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said he voted for the formula because he said he believed changes could be made next session to the new formula.

"Big suburban districts, which includes Columbia, can't benefit under any new formula based on property taxes," he said.

Robb, a former MU economist, said he expected significant changes to the new formula before it is even fully implemented to move it even further away from property taxes as a funding source.

"The sooner we get that puppy out of our hair, the better we will be," he said.

While more than $100 million cheaper than the House and governor's favored plans, the $832 million price tag continues to be problematic for Democrats.

While Shields attempted to engineer a plan that would limit the number of gaming boats while increasing loss limits and the gross receipts taxes the boats must pay, a filibuster begun by Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, and continued by Sens. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County, and Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, has made this idea seem doubtful.

Even if the proposal clears the Senate, it would face a difficult road in the House.

"Why would we depend on people losing money rather than being fiscally responsible and looking to see what the state can do?" Baker said.

Although the governor's and leadership's priorities were completed before the end of the session, a measure increasing the penalties for underage drinking, an extensive crime bill and a measure that would limit abortions and prohibit people from taking minors across state lines for an abortion without parental consent remain on the table.