COMMENTARY

Lee’s Summit schools will suffer under new state law

Guest columnistJune 20, 2014 

The legislative session in Missouri is done, but there is much unfinished business left in this state, including many tasks that directly affect Lee’s Summit.

Perhaps no task left undone is more important than fully supporting our schools. Years ago, the Missouri legislature created a funding formula specifying how much money schools need to function properly. But the legislature hasn’t properly funded this formula for many years, and that trend continued this year.

Gov. Jay Nixon tried to fully fund the formula this past session, but the legislature instead decided to slash state revenues with a new law (SB-509), which will require cuts to education. Because of these actions, Lee’s Summit schools stand to lose not just thousands, but millions upon millions of dollars in funding in coming years.

The justification for depriving our schools of the money owed to them? Missouri lawmakers argued that Missouri needs to be more like Kansas, which similarly cut funding to its schools a few years back.

And what has happened to Kansas since they gutted school funding and toyed with their tax policy? Their credit has been downgraded, their schools have fallen off, and their legislature and governor scrambled this year to repair the self-inflicted wound.

This is not the way to make Missouri a more economically competitive state. If you ask business owners why they would want to move to a certain state or town, they will tell you that they want a location that has an educated, talented work force and sound credit – both of which are now at risk because of this new law.

And if the defenders of the law claim that the law will go into effect only if Missouri revenues increase to a certain level (the so-called “trigger”), know this: the level set by the legislature will likely be reached because of mere inflation. Put another way, the trigger is not a safeguard for our schools: The special interests behind this law obviously drafted this bill so the “trigger” would be met and the harmful budget cuts would go into effect.

The law’s defenders might also point out that the law does not go into effect for two years, claiming that this will provide time to fully fund the formula. But if the legislature had truly wanted to fund the formula, it would have done so already. Given that this new law will cut the budget dramatically and therefore require education cuts, how are we supposed to believe that the same legislators will now fully fund our schools?

Even worse, the bill was so poorly written that there is a risk that courts will interpret the law so as to wipe out Missouri revenues to the tune of almost $5 billion annually. The law’s defenders admitted to their own drafting mistake, but will tell you that judges won’t interpret the law that way.

The problem with legislators predicting how judges will interpret the law is obvious: Legislators do not get to tell the courts how to do their job (remember learning about separation of powers?). I worked under one of Missouri’s finest judges for two years, and I could tell you stories about how sloppy legislative errors resulted in unintended consequences.

Despite having time in the last weeks of the session to fix their admitted error, the legislature did not attempt to redraft and re-vote on the legislation. This speaks to the quality of legislation coming out of Jefferson City these days.

So here’s the bottom line: In exchange for a tax refund that will buy you dinner and a movie, the legislature has probably made Missouri less attractive to business for years to come because our credit will be at risk, made it harder for the children of Lee’s Summit to receive a quality education and made it likely that local taxes will have to go up to make up for the shortfall in state funding. That’s not a deal I would have taken.

 

Ken Duvall, a Lee’s Summit resident, is running for Missouri District 35. This district runs roughly west-to-east from Longview Lake to Hwy 291, and north-to-south from I-470 to Scherer Road.

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