MPA Capitol Report 2/2/2024

In Legislative News, Legislative Resources On

MPANewsBook: Statehouse News for MPA Members
This report is written by Missouri School of Journalism students for publication by MPA member newspapers in print and online.
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DO NOT PUBLISH: A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS

The Missouri News Network has coverage this week of evolving developments over efforts in the legislature to change the vote needed to approve statewide initiatives, action on education issues such as charter school expansion and student achievement assessments and an update on state efforts to bring internet access to all.

If you have thoughts or questions, contact Mark Horvit at horvitm@missouri.edu or Fred Anklam at anklamf@missouri.edu.

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MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK WEEK OF JAN. 29

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THURSDAY, FEB. 1

Freedom Caucus gears up for initiative petition debate next week

  • MADELINE SHANNON
  • missouri news network

JEFFERSON CITY — Members of the Freedom Caucus said Thursday that they expect to debate initiative reform legislation in the Senate as early as next week.

“This is unprecedented movement,” said Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville. “Because of us pushing in, this has been pushed to the forefront and next week, hopefully, as the floor leader and the Senate pro tem has promised, we’re going to see this through until we get it over into the House.”

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said in a separate press conference Thursday he believes it’s not impossible to “get it done” on initiative petition legislation.

“We’re a little bit behind on some of this stuff, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t get it done,” Rowden said. “We’ll still have some time to move through the process, and hopefully we can do that.”

While several pieces of legislation were introduced this session that would increase the threshold for voters to approve an initiative to amend the state constitution, Senate Freedom Caucus members said this week they are prioritizing Senate Joint Resolutions 61 and 83.

Both resolutions would change the approval threshold from a simple statewide majority, defined as 50% of voters plus one, to a simple statewide majority and approval by voters in at least 82 of 163 House districts.

The voter approval provision is often referred to as a concurrent majority. Members of the Freedom Caucus were adamant about preserving provisions that protect a concurrent majority, calling the current 50% plus one standard “generic.”

If the resolutions pass the Missouri General Assembly, voters would have to approve the changes in a statewide vote. Backers of the changes hope that they can put it on the ballot in August or at some point before November.

They are under pressure to try to change the rules for initiative approval because they are concerned that there will be a successful effort to place a ballot initiative restoring abortion rights on the November ballot.

The battle this year to pass ballot initiative changes resulted in some public clashes on the Senate floor, with Freedom Caucus members complaining that Senate Republican leaders were not moving fast enough on what many Republicans see as a priority.

Hard-right Freedom Caucus members filibustered, holding up essential Senate business like confirming gubernatorial appointments, in an effort to force action. That led Rowden to strip the Freedom Caucus of their committee chairmanships and parking spots in the Capitol.

“The real takeaway from that is I think it’s pretty clear we’ve made our leadership uncomfortable with our tactic style on the Senate floor,” Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said during Thursday’s press conference. “We aren’t going to be silenced by the tactics of our leadership.”

Eigel also put the Republican leadership on notice that the Senate might not have seen the last of such hard-line tactics.

“This should serve as a template for the other big priorities the Freedom Caucus is going to fight for,” Eigel said.

Those priorities include cutting the budget, tax cuts, curbing sports betting, curtailing illegal immigration and passing legislation that prohibits foreign entities from owning Missouri farmland, according to Freedom Caucus members.

Republican leaders of the Missouri House of Representatives have said they’re also looking at initiative petition changes, but are waiting to see what happens with such legislation moving through the Senate chamber. Last session, the efforts to enact reform easily passed the House but died in the Senate.

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WEDNESDAY, JAN. 31

Bill seeks to amend performance assessments for Missouri schools

  • BY DMITRY MARTIROSOV
  • MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK

JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal to change the metrics used to assess student performance in Missouri public schools was heard Wednesday by the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, aims to simplify what the state’s Annual Performance Reports (APRs) look like by putting a sole focus on student achievement and growth.

APRs are used to inform the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by measuring standardized tests, attendance and other metrics for purposes of accreditation and classification.

Under the latest iteration of the Missouri School Improvement Program, or MSIP 6, student achievement and growth combine for 48% of the total score that makes up APRs. Haffner’s bill would increase the percentage to 50% each for elementary schools, while for secondary schools, 60% would account for college readiness and student growth and 40% for achievement.

In essence, Haffner’s bill will do away entirely with the continuous improvement score that makes up 30% of APRs.

Haffner said achievement and growth are metrics that have become the “national norm” and that Missouri is an “outlier” by not focusing on them.

“We need to be measuring what actually matters,” Haffner said.

The education department defines student growth as a “change in academic achievement for an individual student between two or more points in time.” The focus is not placed on improvement from one achievement level to another but on improvement within levels, according to the department.

When asked by committee members, Haffner defined student growth as “measuring one student through two periods of time.”

Haffner also wants to simplify what APRs look like on the department’s website. He said when he first moved to Missouri, it took him three days to find performance indicators for his children’s schools.

“It should be accessible. It should be readily available. It should be transparent to parents,” Haffner said.

But when Rep. Kathy Steinhoff, D-Columbia, asked Haffner what he envisions a school district report card would look like on a website under his legislation, Haffner said differences of opinion among stakeholders convinced him to leave it out of the bill to provide for more flexibility.

Steinhoff expressed concern with the idea of reducing APRs to two broad metrics.

“I feel like we’re taking all of that data that can be very useful to a parent to interpret how their school is doing and bringing it down to one score,” Steinhoff said.

“We’re not saying that they can’t provide that information,” Haffner replied. “What we’re saying, put a concise statement on there as to what really matters to student achievement and their growth.”

“I just believe all of those things matter,” Steinhoff said.

“I do, too,” Haffner replied. “I agree with you.”

Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, the committee chair, said part of the issue for school officials is understanding how the department determines growth.

“The better we can simplify that so everybody understands how we define it, I think will be a step in the right direction,” Pollitt said.

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State goal is internet available to all by 2028

  • BY EZRA BITTERMAN
  • MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK

JEFFERSON CITY — The state hopes to have reliable internet connection accessible to every household by 2028 thanks in large part to federal grants.

BJ Tanksley, director of the state’s Office of Broadband Development, gave an update at a House hearing Wednesday.

A federal program has awarded the office $1.7 billion in funding to extend broadband across the state. Only Texas and California received more federal money as part of the program. Neighboring Kansas and Illinois got $450 million and $1 billion, respectively.

In the governor’s proposed budget released last week, only $2 million of the almost $2 billion going towards broadband is from the state’s general fund.

Last year $261 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money was allocated to broadband development. With that money 60 projects were approved to provide connection to underserved areas. Nine already have been completed, Tanksley said.

“We still have a large number of unserved locations. There is a dramatic (broadband) need for the state of Missouri,” said Tanksley.

A new online map launched by the Office of Broadband Development shows the network access level for every address in the state and that 15% of Missouri households are either unserved or underserved by an internet provider.

Internet providers have strong incentives to develop in urban areas as there are many likely customers. Building in more rural areas is less desirable as the population is smaller and lacks density.

This division can be seen on the map in Columbia as the urban center has a reliable internet connection, which tapers out in the more rural areas of the city and county. The city of Columbia has almost 100% internet connection, while the rural parts of Boone County have only about 78%, according to the map.

The billions in federal grants give companies a financial incentive to build out into underserved areas.

Connecting every home to the internet is going to require public input. The map shows specific addresses, whether a home has internet access, what providers are available, and what speeds can be expected.

In late March, the public will be able to review the map and report if there are any errors in how their home is characterized. For example, if the map says a home or business has access to internet providers, but none are available, the owner can report the discrepancy.

Then the Broadband office will review the claim and determine if it’s valid, Tanksley said. This input is essential as the state needs to be certain what areas need coverage down to the address level, he said.

Rep. Adrian Plank, D-Columbia, who represents much of Boone County, is supportive of the project but said he has concerns about potential ill will when certain communities receive coverage years before others. He said this is especially concerning given that most of the program is funded by grants which may be allocated slower than state funds.

Another federal program is providing the state $24 million to assist in digital equity. The broadband office plans to use this to improve public understanding of the digital economy, cybersecurity, and ways to become a greater internet participant, according to Tanksley.

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TUESDAY, JAN. 30

Opposing rallies highlight fight on initiative petition bills

  • BY MADELINE SHANNON
  • MISSOURI NEWS

JEFFERSON CITY — Two rallies Tuesday in the state Capitol drew attention to a divide over the rights of Missourians to amend the Missouri Constitution through the initiative petition process.

The rallies also served to underscore the divide between those opposing and supporting abortion rights. One group is aiming to generate support for the Freedom Caucus, and the other is drumming up support to defeat legislation designed to make approving ballot initiatives more difficult.

“The initiative petition process has been used by a variety of different groups in this state,” said Kennedy Moore, manager of digital and youth organizing for Abortion Action Missouri. “It’s important that we make sure it’s still there.”

Both demonstrations in the rotunda reflected the conflicting stances on efforts to modify the initiative petition process. Changes would require more than a simple majority vote statewide to allow voters to approve amendments to the state’s constitution.

Senate Republican leadership failed to initially assign various pieces of initiative petition legislation to committees for hearings. This prompted Freedom Caucus members to hold up action on routine Senate floor business, such as approving gubernatorial appointments, in the first few weeks of this legislative session.

The back-to-back demonstrations that packed the Capitol in Jefferson City on Tuesday followed an overnight filibuster on the Senate floor. During the filibuster, conservative Republicans talked until Tuesday morning, despite a committee hearing and planned vote to push the initiative petition bills forward.

Ultimately, several of those bills were combined in committee Tuesday and sent forward for consideration by the Senate, advancing the legislation one step forward in less than a week.

Republican senators voiced support for two pieces of legislation Monday, saying that they’re prioritizing Senate Joint Resolutions 61 and 83. Both would increase the threshold to approve changes to the constitution via a ballot measure from a simple majority of voters statewide to a simple statewide majority combined with a majority of voters in 82 of 163 state House districts.

“Initiative petition reform is the number one priority,” said Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, during the pro-Freedom Caucus rally Tuesday. “We need to protect our constitution. The only way to do that is through initiative petition reform.”

Moderate Republicans and members of the conservative Freedom Caucus continue to be at odds about prioritizing passing changes to the initiative petition process .

The ensuing clash between Freedom Caucus lawmakers and the more moderate Republican leadership led Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, to strip committee chairmanships last week from Senate Freedom Caucus members. That action angered some Republican voters who turned out for a rally on the second floor of the Capitol to support the Freedom Caucus.

“They speak for our religious freedoms, the right for our children to be born without being aborted, discarded like they don’t count,” said Don Brown, a voter who came to the rally for the Freedom Caucus . “They’re on the people’s side.”

Freedom Caucus Republicans have been trying to push initiative petition bills through for several years. Their concern this year is a combination of what they see as the lack of their leadership’s focus on the proposals, and the effort to place an initiative on the November ballot that would amend the state constitution to restore access to abortion.

The efforts to change the rules on approving initiatives have generated opposition from organizations like the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition and Abortion Action Missouri.

“We are here to oppose attacks on the citizen initiative process, and we will be attending the House Elections Committee hearing today on three of those bills,” said Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel at the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

“If we care about the integrity of our elections and we care about instilling confidence in voters, then voters should feel secure in knowing that if they go to the polls and a majority of them vote on something, that their will is going to be enacted,” Lieberman said.

While a House committee held hearings on three initiative reform resolutions Tuesday, Rep. Jonathan Patterson, R-Lees Summit, told reporters this week that House leadership does not plan on advancing its own bills. Instead, he said, the House will wait to see what bill arrives from the Senate.

House leaders were visibly upset when the Senate failed to address initiative reform last session. House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, directly tied the lack of initiative reform to anticipated efforts for a petition to restore abortion rights, which formally began this month.

“If the Senate fails to take action on (initiative petition) reform, I think the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri,” he said last May, at the end of the 2023 session.

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House backs open public school enrollment again

  • BY MOLLY MILLER
  • MISSOURI NEWS NETWORKTop of Form

JEFFERSON CITY — The House of Representatives gave initial approval Tuesday of a bill that would implement voluntary open enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools.

The bill passed the House for the fourth year in a row despite 24 Republican legislators voting against the legislation. Last year, an attempt to enact open enrollment in Missouri’s schools died in the Senate.

Missouri House Bill 1989 allows students and their families to enroll in an out of district school that has opted into the school choice program. The child would be required to attend the school for at least a year with protections in place so schools couldn’t unenroll them from the program.

Bill sponsor Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said, “My purpose of this bill is to give a small amount of parents a choice within the public school system. If their district isn’t offering them what they believe their child will need to be successful, they don’t have any choices.”

Critics of school choice programs in Missouri cite concerns over funding, decreasing revenue for public schools and fear of school consolidation as a result.

According to Pollitt, the local funding for a child would remain local and not follow them to their new school district. Only the state funding would be allocated to the new school instead of the resident school district.

“The bill allows nonresident schools to deny transfer,” said Rep. Kathy Steinhoff, D-Columbia. ”One of the provisions is for disruptive students. We often know disruptive students and their parents are looking for a fresh start, but this bill allows a nonresident school to deny them.”

Before being elected to the House, Steinhoff was a math teacher in Columbia Public Schools for 34 years.

Open enrollment is legal in 43 states, including all of the states bordering Missouri, except Illinois. Currently, only school choice within the same district is allowed in Missouri.

The open enrollment program would be capped at 3% of total enrollment for all participating schools. In addition, a “good cause” provision aims to help students who may be facing extenuating circumstances, like entering foster care or becoming ineligible due to a parental divorce, stay at the same school despite being out of district.

The bill makes it voluntary for school districts to participate in the program and limit how many nonresident students will be accepted for a given year.

The Kansas legislature recently passed legislation making open enrollment mandatory starting with the 2024-25 school year. Opponents of mandatory open enrollment in Kansas have been outspoken about the negative impact of the practice on schools.

Pollitt told House members that his intention is not to make school choice mandatory in the future.

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MONDAY, JAN. 29

Senate committee takes up a slate of resolutions to change the ballot initiative process

  • BY KOMLAVI ADISSEM
  • MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK

JEFFERSON CITY − The push by legislators to change the initiative petition process is gaining steam after a Senate committee heard testimony on twelve resolutions on the issue Monday afternoon.

The hearing by the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee came after the Freedom Caucus held up Senate business for much of the first three weeks of the legislative session in an effort to get a hearing for their resolutions.

After stripping the Freedom Caucus members of their committee chairmanships last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, sent all of the bills to committees.

The initiative petition process, which allows a simple majority of Missouri voters to approve amendments to the constitution, is under fire from many conservatives, who believe the threshold should be higher.

During the hearing, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, asked several of the resolutions’ sponsors about which ones were official positions of the Freedom Caucus.

“I know this is an important issue to you guys,” Rizzo said. “I didn’t know if there was one specific one to speak to that was an official position.”

When his question went unanswered, he added, “So you guys just stop everything on the floor and everywhere else and don’t have one position yet.”

Sen. Jill Carter, R-Granby, said that the group’s preference was the resolutions based on state House districts.

After the hearing, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, confirmed that Senate Joint Resolutions 61 and 83 are the priority for the group. These two resolutions would change the approval threshold from a simple statewide majority, often referred to as 50% plus one, to a simple statewide majority and a majority in at least 82 of the 163 state House districts.

The committee has scheduled votes on the resolutions Tuesday with the expectation that they will be approved and sent to the Senate floor.

One common critique across several of the resolutions was the inclusion of so-called “ballot candy” − the addition of politically popular ideas to more controversial issues in a single ballot measure to help it pass.

SJR 83 includes measures that would ban foreign sponsorship of or contributions to ballot initiatives. It also defines that only people who are legal Missouri residents and United States citizens can vote on a ballot initiative.

“These things are already the case in Missouri,” said Denise Lieberman, the director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “We spent a lot of time talking about candy, and that’s exactly what these measures are.”

“But the fact that they are placed at the top of the ballot summary language in most of these bills tells you everything you need to know that that is intended to hide the true purpose of these measures, which is to upset majority rule and one person, one vote in Missouri,” she added.

Representatives from several advocacy groups turned out to speak both in favor and against the proposed resolutions.

Nancy Coperhaven, the vice president and legislative director of the state’s League of Women Voters, said the group “opposes any attempt to make it more difficult to get a measure on the ballot or to raise the threshold for approval.”

Eigel said that he hopes the ballot measure on initiative petition reform will be approved by the legislature and appear on the ballot before the November election, which is when a ballot question on enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution is expected to appear.

“I want to see it on the ballot, in front of the voters, as soon as possible,” Eigel said. “So right now, the best opportunity is August, and that’s what we’re going to push for. But I would also be supportive of a special election if we do it sooner.”

Eigel had held up 28 gubernatorial appointments while waiting for the resolutions to be sent to the committee. He indicated on the Senate floor Monday evening that he was prepared to approve some of those appointments, but Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, began his own filibuster.

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House committee approves charter school expansion

  • BY DMITRY MARTIROSOV
  • MISSOURI NEWS NETWORK

JEFFERSON CITY — Bills seeking to expand charter schools into three Missouri counties were approved Monday by a House Special Committee on Education Reform.

The proposals were combined into one substitute bill after the committee voted to adopt an amendment by the committee chair, Rep. Bishop Davidson, R-Republic. Committee members voted 7-2 in favor of the bills, with one member voting present.

The bills — sponsored by Rep. Brad Christ, R-St. Louis, Rep. Justin Hicks, R-Lake St. Louis, and Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville — are identical in language except for population provisions to accommodate each of the sponsors’ districts.

The bills aim to expand access to charter schools to St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Boone County.

Reisch said she wasn’t too hopeful about the measure advancing in the upper chamber.

“I have no faith in the (Senate) or hopes that they can get anything done this year,” Reisch said.

But she was supportive of Davidson’s amendment.

“I think by combining three bills into one it will give it a better chance because it affects a broader base of students and parents and constituents,” she said.

Reisch’s bill would allow charter schools to operate within the Columbia Public Schools District without the local district’s sponsorship. The measure states that charter schools may operate in a school district with a population of more than 125,000 but less than 160,000. Columbia’s population is slightly greater than 126,000 people, according to the 2020 census from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The bill’s fiscal note shows an estimated impact of $2,807,469 to $13,335,474, depending on the number of charter schools created and the number of students choosing to enroll. Fiscal notes are an estimate of the direct impact of bills required by Missouri law.

The average cost per student for the 2022-2023 school year for CPS was slightly less than $14,000. Because charter schools are public schools and are funded by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, expenditures will follow the student if they transfer out of CPS and into a charter school, resulting in a negative financial impact on CPS.

Reisch said charter schools are not the focal point of these bills but simply to provide parents another avenue.

“Am I a huge fan of charter schools? Not necessarily,” Reisch said. “I think it’s just another choice for the parents to have.”

Voting against the measure, Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, expressed disappointment.

“I’m dismayed that we can expand charter schools or propose to expand charter schools in Missouri … but we didn’t look hard enough to find the problems with the current charter school system,” Windham said.

Charter schools in Missouri were first authorized in 1998 with the passage of Senate Bill 781, sponsored by Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles. The measure limited their operation to metropolitan or urban school districts within a city with populations of more than 350,000 people. Each of the three bills accommodates that cap by including a provision that adjusts population figures to their proposed region.

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