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Ignoring Greitens, House moving to restore proposed cuts to education

Ignoring Greitens, House moving to restore proposed cuts to education
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JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri lawmakers were poised Tuesday to formally abandon several key initiatives floated by embattled Gov. Eric Greitens as they worked through the final details of the state’s $27.8 billion budget.

“I think this is a good approach to the budget,” said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, regarding the House’s decision to pump an additional $99 million toward schools. “I think we’ve got a good product here.”

Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, spent much of Tuesday shepherding the package through the Republican-led chamber.

The day-long debate featured a number of attempts to add in special earmarks for pet projects. Most, including one that would allow undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition, were turned down.

Fitzpatrick had originally sought a complete ban on tuition hikes. The lone exception to the tuition hike cap is cash-strapped Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

“I think what we’re doing here represents a good compromise,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Glad that we could do all we can this year,” added Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, who is the ranking Democrat on the budget panel.

For K-12 schools, Greitens had requested a $50 million increase for the school aid formula, but lawmakers ignored the governor and added $99 million to the fund that helps school districts.

The blueprint also adds $163 million for the Department of Transportation to use on construction projects.

Transportation officials have said they need more than $800 million to upgrade the state’s roads and bridges. Lawmakers could debate raising the state’s 17-cent per gallon gasoline tax to raise more money as early as Wednesday.

State employees who earn under $70,000 annually will see a $700 per year pay raise as part of an effort to boost the pay of a workforce that is the lowest paid in the nation.

The House also is planning to sign off on a proposal by Greitens to spend $2.9 million on a consultant to design a program to boost career advancement opportunities for state employees.

In an interview last week, Greitens’ chief operating officer, Drew Erdmann, said the request for the money stems from a 2017 survey of workers that found a lack of direction and leadership at various state agencies.

“We don’t train people well,” Erdmann said. “We’ve got to have direction.”

While Greitens won on that request, the House turned down his bid for $25 million to spend on building infrastructure for new or expanding businesses.

Lawmakers also rejected his proposal for a $250 million loan fund to make sure people get their income tax returns on time.

The budget also calls for changes to the Department of Health and Senior Services because of a spat between members of the House and the agency over a deadly tick-borne virus.

The House budget plan would eliminate 10 employees in the director’s office and cut the administration’s budget in half. They also would move the public health lab to the Department of Public Safety.

Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, is angry that the agency has not provided enough data on the number of people who have tested positive for antibodies for the Bourbon virus. Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died from complications of the virus last summer after an infected tick bit her.

The failure of some of the Republican governor’s initiatives  comes as he faces a May 14 trial on felony invasion of privacy charges related to a 2015 extramarital affair he had with his former hairdresser.

Greitens also is being investigated by a House committee, which could determine whether he should be impeached.

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