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Lawmakers consider bills, budget

With three months left to go in the 2017 legislative session, Republican lawmakers in Jefferson City are facing some tough decisions on bills and budget cuts, particularly regarding the proposed statewide expansion of charter schools and the possible gutting of funds available for home health care.

With Republican Gov. Eric Greitens sitting at his desk pen in hand ready to sign bills that his Democratic predecessor Jay Nixon vetoed, such as the right to work measure he signed Monday, GOP lawmakers are hoping to pass a good chunk of their legislative agenda by the time this session ends in May.

Contacted this week by the Daily Journal, local lawmakers Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington; Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington; Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre; Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto; and Rep. Paul Fitzwater, R-Potosi, offered their take on bills they will be working on in the weeks ahead.

“We’ve got some good pieces of legislation ahead of us and I’m looking forward to getting them done,” Romine said. “Our main goals in the state Senate are three key pieces of legislation — the arbitration bill, the employment discrimination bill and the higher education degree offering program.”

Addressing each of the bills individually, Romine said, “Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution allowing the employee and employer to resolve employment issues. The courts have torn down the original concept of the arbitration process and so this bill will bring things back together and create some standardization in the process.”

The senator explained that passage of the employment discrimination bill would bring back the original language found in the Missouri Human Rights Act.

“When they went to a jury process in 2005, the jury instructions changed the terminology in the Missouri Human Rights Act and dropped it down to a ‘contributing factor,’ we’ve seen a higher number of frivolous lawsuits.” he said. “Contributing factor is such a low standard that we’ve seen an increase in frivolous lawsuits. Bringing the language back to its original intent will create a balance between the employer and employee on what a discrimination factor is.”

Regarding the higher education degree offering program, Romine said, “There was a group brought together by the speaker of the house to study how community colleges could collaborate with four-year institutions and offer four-year degrees like a Bachelors of Science in Nursing. There’s some doctor degree offerings at Southeast Missouri State University and Central Missouri State University that others need to offer, but that’s out of their mission statement.

“Through a collaboration with Missouri S&T or maybe Mizzou, then they will be able to offer those doctor degrees. This is particularly helpful for folks 30 to 40 years old that have a chance to advance their career, but the only way they can do that is to get that higher degree. If that could be offered to them locally, they wouldn’t have to disrupt their family or have to walk away from a job to get a degree.

Romine described the legislative session so far as having “gone good.”

“We’ve slowed things down and the process is deliberate as it should be — particularly on the Senate-side,” he said. “I feel pretty comfortable that my office and staff has established itself as one that wants to get things done.”

Rep. Engler sees the Senate’s ‘deliberate process’ as something else entirely.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen because the Senate has been fairly dysfunctional,” he said. “They’ve done one bill this week, basically. I do know that we’re going to be doing some tort reform. I don’t thing the prescription drug monitoring will get through. I think my bill on the pregnancy resource centers has got a real good chance of getting out of the house. I don’t know if they’ll take it up in the Senate. I also think there’s going to be some work on prevailing wage — we’ve been negotiating some of that.

“The big thing coming up next month is trying to come up with a budget. I met with the budget director today and tried to encourage an ‘early out’ program for some of our employees, to give them some incentive like private businesses do. We have a lot of 30-year-olds and 50-year-olds — but we fired most of the 40-year-olds over 10 years ago. So, we’re going to look at the budget and try to figure out how we can trim it without having to cut the disabled and the seniors and everybody else, but there’s not a lot of fat left after we cut 10,000 jobs and a lot of programming in the last 10 years.”

Rep. Henderson said one of the big issues coming the House’s way in coming weeks is a bill on prevailing wage.

In government contracting, a prevailing wage is defined as the hourly wage, usual benefits and overtime that is paid to the majority of workers, laborers and mechanics within a particular geographical area. Prevailing wages are established by regulatory agencies for each trade and occupation employed in the performance of public work, as well as by the state’s Department of Labor.

“I’m worried about it principally because it’s going to affect a lot of hard working people in our area,” Henderson said. “I understand the other side where people say you’ll be able to build schools and some things cheaper, but on the other end, most of that money is going to middle class families in the district where that money recirculates in the district.”

Henderson is also concerned about a big push on in the legislature to allow charter schools throughout the state.

“I actually don’t have a big problem with charter schools, even as a former educator, if they’re in places where there are failing schools,” he said. “Right now they can only be in St. Louis and Kansas City, which is fine. I hate to say this, but St. Louis public schools, which are better now, some of the districts were failing. They were not giving their kids a good education, so charter schools was an option for those families. But to just say that we’re going to spread them over the entire state and take millions away from public education — I have an issue with that.”

Rep. Gannon, a retired school teacher, was not shy in giving her opinion on charter schools.

“I know that the Republicans tend to support the idea of charter schools,” she said. “I’m a Republican, but I do not support House Bill 634. I feel like there’s some serious issues with the bill in that it will filter money out of our traditional public schools and into the charter schools. 

“Evidence has shown that the track record for charter schools in the state, I think since 1999, speaks for itself. I think the biggest issue is that charter schools are not held accountable as the traditional public schools are, and if my public dollars and your public dollars are going to be used, then I’d like to see local control and accountability.

“Right now, most of these charter schools in the state of Missouri are under-performing. We also know that they are costly and inefficient. Some of our little rural schools are getting high scores. They’re doing a great job on the annual test that they take. Charter schools have not been shown to do a better job than the public schools.”

Rep. Fitzwater also voiced serious concerns regarding the negative affect that charter schools will have on rural schools in his district.

“This bill on charter schools is one people better understand,” he said. “Right now we have a total of 39 charter schools in Missouri and most of them are failing, but they want to go statewide with them. What this is going to do is take money away from the formula and it’s going to take money from my small rural schools. I cannot sit back and allow that to happen.

“Vouchers — there’s another one. There are people up here who want school choice / open enrollment? Allow students to go to school wherever they want? What’s going to happen to my small rural schools? I’m troubled about that and I’m going to stand my ground. I’m not going to back down at all.”

Fitzwater admitted that, while he supported Gov. Greitens in the election, he doesn’t necessarily agree with him on every issue.

“The governor’s budget recommendation is to cut about 21,000 people off the home health care roll,” he said. “What are we going to do with all these people? I’ve been meeting with the budget chair. We’re going to put them in nursing homes? It costs about $900 a month for people who are receiving health care in their homes. You go to a nursing home and it’s going to be $5,000-$6,000 a month. Who’s going to pay that?”

Fitzwater

Fitzwater

Gannon

Gannon

Engler

Engler

Henderson

Henderson

Romine

Romine

Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or kjenkins@dailyjournalonline.com

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