by Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent
The effort to legalize sports betting in the state begins anew at noon, when lawmakers begin their annual session. For a vocal slice of Missouri’s population, sports wagering is the most important item on the agenda.
There will be eight new senators in the 34-member upper chamber and 38 new representatives in the 163-member House. And there’s plenty more for lawmakers to work on once the chambers get organized.
The Independent spoke with the top legislative leaders of both parties and found bipartisan agreement that something must be done to increase teacher pay and improve access to child care.
Missouri has a massive budget surplus, more than $6 billion. Gov. Mike Parson will reveal his budget priorities on Jan. 18.
But the legislative session won’t be entirely bipartisan hosannas. GOP leaders said hot-button cultural issues — such as limiting transgender students’ participation in school sports and banning “critical race theory” in classrooms — will get lots of early attention.
“I’d like to get at least two of them done before spring break,” said Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, referring to bills pertaining to school curriculum and transgender athletes.
A series of conservative losses at the polls on policy issues such as Medicaid expansion and minimum wage, as well as likely petitions protecting abortion rights, is adding to the Republican effort to the threshold for constitutional amendments proposed by initiative.
Democrats are ready to resist any GOP push on controversial cultural issues, said Missouri Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence. Instead, he said lawmakers should focus on bipartisan issues like school funding.
“Instead,” Rizzo said, “the one thing they want to bring it back to, consistently, are these culture war issues.”
Gambling expansion tops list
The issue of gambling is a triangular debate.
Casino companies and professional sports teams are eager for the revenue from sports wagering and will be back with a proposal that slices up the market to their liking. Video game vendors want lawmakers to authorize a new form of lottery game for people to play in bars, truck stops and fraternal halls.
And companies facing criminal prosecution for placing games that pay prize money in convenience stores and other locations through the state don’t want any bill that would make the law clear on their legality.
Sports betting, said the top legislative leaders of both parties, is what they hear about constantly from family, friends and constituents.
“It is a topic of conversation everywhere I have been,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.
“All the time,” said Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, when asked how often someone brings up the subject of sports wagering.
House Majority Leader Jonathan Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, said the chat is amplified by television ads and billboards plastering the Kansas City area promoting sports wagering in Kansas.
“It is something that a lot of people want to have,” Patterson said. “It seems a little silly for people in Kansas City to have to go over to the other side and place their bets there.”
For example, before the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 27, GeoComply defeated 82,000 attempts by Missourians to access sports gambling sites.
Missouri hasn’t legalized sports wagering, and a gambler must be in a state that has, like Kansas or Illinois, to make a legal bet.
The blocked bets before the Chiefs’ game are among 5.7 million blocked attempts by Missourians to log on to gambling sites between Sept. 1 and Dec. 16, according to data GeoComply provided to The Independent.
The high public interest will push lawmakers to early action, Patterson said.
“I would rank it pretty high because of the fact that our citizens obviously want it,” he said. “There also is a revenue component to it. That money can be used for education. I think the importance is high and it does provide meaningful revenue.”
Blue Ribbon Commission pushes teacher pay increase
Since 2010, the minimum starting pay for a teacher in Missouri has been $25,000. On Sunday, the state’s minimum wage increased to $12 an hour, equal to $24,960.
A teacher who sticks with the job for 10 years and gets a master’s degree must be paid at least $33,000. A person capable of working in a warehouse with no specific education requirement can earn $44,000.
In October, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission made raising the minimum salary to $38,000 its top recommendation among nine proposals to alleviate the teacher shortage being felt by rural and urban districts alike.
Shortages are particularly acute for elementary, early childhood and special education, as well as in specific subjects and high-need schools.
Lawmakers added $21.8 million to this year’s budget to fund a grant program to raise base pay to $38,000. About 12% of the state’s 70,400 teachers make less than that amount, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates.
School districts had to provide 30% of the cost to be eligible. If the state mandates a minimum pay, it must fund it. Paterson said he’s ready for that commitment.
“Missouri is very low in terms of what it offers to first-year teachers and veteran teachers,” he said. “We would like to see what we can do to raise teacher pay on top of the one-time program.”
While policymakers at the state level debate pay rates and other incentives to teach, districts are increasingly turning a funding expedient into a recruiting tool. By going to a four-day week, the 14,000 student Independence School District is offering extra free time as a benefit.
“The main thing, looking at this, is we wanted to see if it would help retain and recruit staff,” Independence Superintendent Dale Herl said last month.
Roughly 12% of the state’s public school K-8 students now attend class four days per week, mainly in rural districts. The move by Independence schools is a symptom of one problem and an extra burden for another, Rizzo said.
It is a symptom that the state isn’t meeting its education funding obligation under budgets and policies set by the GOP majority over the past two decades, he said.
“The Republican Party has been working for decades to destroy the public school system,” he said.
It will aggravate the already difficult problem of child care outside of school, which is keeping a lot of people, mainly women, out of the workforce, Rizzo said.
“It cost us $1.4 billion in lost revenue for a lack of child care,” he said.
Hopes for bipartisan child care solutions
Full-time child care for an infant in urban areas of Missouri can cost $180 to $250 a week, or almost 20% of average household income.
A couple with one child can receive a full state subsidy with an annual income up to $34,500 and a partial subsidy with an income up to $55,700.
The difficulty is finding affordable care, either where it is scarce, as in rural areas, or where demand outstrips supply in urban and suburban areas. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Missourinet recently reported, 400 child care providers have closed with no plans to reopen.
A report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published in 2021 found the disruptions tied to child-care cost the state economy $1.35 billion annually in lost productivity and tax revenue.
The industry has received massive infusions of federal funds to stay open and expand amid the COVID-19 crisis, including $444.1 million in the current fiscal to pay retention bonuses, start-up and expansion costs, and maintain payrolls.
The economy can employ everyone willing to work, Patterson said, and the state needs to promote participation.
“Right now we have historically low unemployment, so the problem is not, are there jobs, but what we hear from employers over and over is finding people to fill those jobs,” he said. “It goes hand in hand with workforce development and the economy as a whole.”
Quade, who said Democrats have “ a really great relationship” with the new Republican leaders, said the effort to solve the child care problem will be bipartisan.
“Child care is at the top of the list for us,” Quade said, “and I am hoping it is going to be for the governor as well.”
Budget surplus offers opportunities
Before lawmakers convened last year, Parson announced he would ask them to raise the pay for all state employees by 5.5% and set a $15 an hour base wage for state jobs. The proposal was intended to cut down on turnover in state jobs.
Parson hasn’t made any of his spending plans known ahead of this year’s session but the massive budget surplus – more $6 billion as of November – is attracting plenty of attention.
Sen. Bill Eigel, who is considering a bid for governor, was out early with his plan to set aside billions to widen Interstate 70 to four lanes in each direction across the state. Rowden, however, in a recent interview with Missourinet, said Eigel’s idea isn’t feasible.
One of the most pressing needs for state money, Democratic leaders said, is public schools. The foundation formula, the process for distributing $3.5 billion in school aid, is tied to a figure called the state adequacy target, which is intended to be a calculation of the minimum amount needed to provide an adequate education.
When instituted in 2006, the adequacy target was supposed to be recalculated every two years. The initial calculation that year was $6,117 per student, which is $9,111 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The current figure, unchanged for four years, is $6,325.
“It is time to invest in Missourians and figure out how to do that in a way that both sides of the aisle can support,” Quade said when asked about Democratic budget priorities.
“What I don’t want to see is all this money go to people’s pet projects,” she added.
Rizzo, who lives in Independence, said he has been trying for years to get Republicans to spend more on education.
“I don’t know how many times I have to yell at people, one of our biggest school districts just went to 4-day weeks,” Rizzo said.
Lawmakers must balance spending choices with saving money to cover potential revenue shortfalls, Patterson said.
The consensus revenue estimate is a dark cloud inside the silver lining of the surplus. Revenues have grown at double-digit rates for more than two years but that is expected to slow dramatically in the spring.
“We do want to spend that money wisely, because revenues will not always be so robust,” Patterson said.
Infrastructure spending will provide a long-term return and a wider I-70 would be welcome, Patterson said.
“As a person that travels on I-70, I am definitely open to any ideas we have about improving it,” he said. “I would still have to be convinced that using general revenue for I-70 would be the best idea.”
Extending Medicaid coverage for pregnant women to one-year after delivery will need both authorizing legislation and a budget appropriation. The proposal, which had bipartisan support as a measure to address maternal mortality, was blocked by Senate conservatives last year.
Patterson said it will “get a lot of attention” in the House this year.
Republicans call for peace on culture war
Republican leaders told The Independent they want peace on culture war issues and are willing to make accommodations with Democrats to achieve it.
“One way to keep from running into all kinds of issues is to bring everybody into the conversation,” O’Laughlin said. “Not just people in your caucus, but people in the other caucus and try to work with people.”
The problem, leaders of both parties said, will be convincing rank-and-file members to accept anything that is less than ideologically pure.
“I would hope discussion would bring thoughtful discourse about how we are educating our children,” Quade said. “But that’s not what it has been. It is usually one side yelling at the other side.”
Republicans have filed 10 bills to limit the ability of transgender minors to play in youth sports. There are bills on how medical providers treat children with gender dysphoria as well as proposed bans on the discussion of sexual and gender identity by school personnel.
The bills do nothing to address real problems in education and punish families already dealing with stressful issues, Quade said.
“I am tired of having these little kids and their families having to come and justify their existence in our Capitol,” she said.
Patterson said he wants the legislation to focus on fairness.
“There’s a way to address it to where we are able to accept and honor those students who are transgender,” he said. “These are not bills that are going after them. We want them to have a place in the school system. There is also an issue of fairness and safety involved in high-level scholastic sports.”
Conservative lawmakers have also pushed a bill they call a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that would allow lawsuits against school districts and cuts in state funding for violations. Some of the more controversial provisions would allow parents to object to and opt out of “any instructional materials” they find objectionable, and for districts to publicly post curriculum and materials taught and speakers and guests used for professional development.
Opponents call the bill an attempt to disrupt and undermine public education.
Other Republican legislation seeks to limit how history is taught to ban what is known as “critical race theory.”
Patterson, a physician and the first Asian-American to lead House Republicans, said his understanding of critical race theory is that it is a “graduate-level academic framework. By definition, that is something that should not be required.”
History, he said, should be taught factually.
“Students should be taught history and learn about the great things that have been done and the things that were not always reflective of our highest ideals,” he said.
If Republicans want discussions that are serious, Rizzo said, he’s ready to have them. But culture issues, however framed, are a waste of time.
And, he said, it isn’t working politically.
“It is almost like they didn’t get the memo,” he said, “that the 2016 anger and fear and hatred doesn’t work.”