Missouri legislators began churning through bills Thursday, including one now headed to Gov. Eric Greitens that bans forcing public works projects to use union workers.
Not everything is a done deal, as bills that would establish education savings accounts for certain students and allow a vote on increasing the St. Louis Zoo sales tax still need to be heard by the House.
Speed is key, however, considering two weeks remain in the 2017 session and mounds of bills are left to be voted on. Here’s the rundown of Thursday’s action:
Project labor agreements
Senate Bill 182 cuts all state funding for local governments that require project labor agreements, or when non-union construction workers must pay union dues when working on a local construction project. Already, state projects ban PLAs; this bill affects Missouri's cities and counties.
The PLA bill, sponsored by GOP Sen. Bob Onder from Lake St. Louis, is the second piece of anti-union legislation this session to be sent to Greitens, who made it clear in his State of the State address that these bills were priorities. The first was right to work, which prohibits unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues starting Aug. 28.
One union leader's reaction was muted, saying that PLAs typically include guarantees that certain disputes don't shut down a construction site.
“We’re going to do the best we can to minimize the effects,” according to Mark Dalton, the assistant political director for the St. Louis-Kansas Carpenters Regional Council. “Really, over the years, we’ve been an organization that has been able to secure jobs … just based on the quality of work we’ve produced in the timely fashion with our skilled workers.”
Dalton also said the outlook isn't dire: “I really think we can get through this little bit of attack by the legislature without too much of a hiccup."
Education savings accounts
Senate Bill 313, which now goes to the House, establishes a tax credit program — called education savings accounts, or ESAs — that foster children, children with disabilities and children of military personnel can use for private school tuition. The ESAs would be capped at $25 million.
The measure also requires individual schools, not school districts, to be accredited by the state; expands the school transfer law to allow students to attend charter and virtual schools; and allows students to transfer to either public or private nonreligious schools outside an unaccredited school district.
Republican Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, who sponsored the bill, said other states, like Florida, have seen good results for less money. He added that public education doesn't necessarily need to come from public schools.
"I think it's about ... the best options for kids. If public money is being spent to educate kids, that is public education," he said.
But Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, says the bill misleads taxpayers.
“This creates a dark bureaucracy that is going to squander our public funds that we need," she said.
If the bill passes out of the Missouri House, it will accomplish a longstanding priority for “school choice” advocates.
Back in 2007, the GOP-controlled House rejected an effort that would have provided a 65 percent tax credit for donations to organizations that dole out scholarships for children in underperforming school districts. While the bill had strong support from then-Gov. Matt Blunt, it attracted substantial opposition from Republicans concerned about its impact on public schools.
Republican lawmakers effectively dropped tuition tax-credit efforts when Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon took office because Nixon promised to veto anything he regarded as a “voucher” program.
Michael McShane from Show Me Institute says the ESAs allow parents more flexibility.
“Families need to have the ability to piece together multiple providers” to educate children with disabilities or special needs, he said.
But Brent Ghan with the Missouri School Boards Association called the measure a "roundabout way of providing a public subsidy to private schools that are not accountable to the public.”
Under Senate Bill 49, voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County will be able to decide whether to further fund the city's Zoo with a one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax. This measure also needs to be heard by the House.
St. Louis Democratic Sen. Gina Walsh sponsored the bill and says it's meant to protect the Zoo.
“We see the Zoo; we see all the exhibits above ground but underground things are crumbling,” Walsh said. “It’s a 100-year-old infrastructure that needs to be replaced. I wanted to keep the Zoo free, and this was a good way to do it. “
Zoo president and CEO Jeffrey Bonner testified in March that the organization is spending $2 million annually on infrastructure, much of which is deteriorating due to age. The St. Louis Zoo opened in 1904.
Jason Rosenbaum and Ryan Delaney contributed to this report.