The Missouri Senate returned to the Capitol on Wednesday for the 2014 legislative session. Instead of indulging in the pomp and circumstance that usually marks opening days, the Senate immediately gaveled in and got down to business. Ceremonies and speeches can wait; what citizens need right now is action.
One of the most immediate problems facing our state involves student transfers from unaccredited to accredited districts, as allowed by a state law recently upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court.
This outdated law created utter chaos in St. Louis last September. Students from unaccredited districts flooded into accredited schools that weren’t equipped to handle the sudden influx. On top of that, the budgets in the unaccredited districts were gutted from having to pay for the transfers, as required by state law. While this is currently only an issue in St. Louis, it could soon affect any other school district that loses accreditation in Missouri.
As a senator, as a citizen, and as a former educator, I believe we have a public duty to ensure every Missouri student has access to the best education we can give them, regardless of where they live. It’s one of our most important tasks, and for good reason. The future of our students is the future of our state. True economic growth and a strong educational system always go hand in hand. Not only that, but failing to act on this issue could affect the future livelihoods of thousands of Missouri children. We can’t let that happen.
We must find a solution this session to what is a complicated problem. I expect us to spend a lot of time debating various proposals on how to solve this educational morass, particularly in the Senate Education Committee, of which I’m vice chairman.
There’s also our ongoing goal of fostering job creation. Despite falling statewide unemployment, there are still many areas in Missouri facing double-digit unemployment rates. We have to find ways to encourage existing businesses to expand and to attract new companies to all parts of Missouri, both out-state and metropolitan, urban and suburban.
Like last year, many legislators are focusing on tax reform as a possible way to grow our state’s economy. Legislation has been filed to provide tax relief to every citizen and business in Missouri. For years, we’ve used targeted tax relief to certain industries and companies through our tax credit programs to spur economic development. These incentives are supported by officials on both sides of the aisle, including the governor.
Many believe we should try to encourage that same type of economic growth by giving those kinds of tax breaks to normal citizens and small businesses. If targeted tax relief can grow our economy, why wouldn’t broad-based tax relief do the same? I think it’s a valid question worth discussing. However, we also have to ensure the tax breaks are fiscally responsible and won’t affect essential state services, including our responsibility to education.
There is also the budget to contend with, our only constitutionally required duty as legislators and one of the most challenging parts of the session. We have to once again craft a fiscally conservative budget that stays within our state’s means.
On top of that, we’ll be looking at revising our state’s criminal code, which hasn’t been done in almost 30 years; creating strong ethics law to preserve the integrity of our state government; and likely another attempt at reforming our tax credit system, a task everyone agrees needs done, but not on how to do it.
These are just a handful of the many issues we’ll be working on in the Capitol this year. As always, my focus will be doing what’s best, first and foremost, for the residents of my district.