Legislators, Educators, and Public Meet at SOAR
Tue, 06/08/2021 - 4:39pm admin
Lou Wehmer, guest correspondent
Area legislators including Representative David Evans of the 154th District, Senator Karla Eslinger of the 33rd District, Representative Hannah Kelly of the 141st District, and Representative Travis Smith of the 155th District attended the Southern Ozark Alliance for Rural Development (SOAR) meeting held Friday, June 4 at the Charles Ferguson Building in Willow Springs. They provided the group a post-legislative briefing from the most recent session of the Missouri Legislature and fielded questions from attendees.
Superintendent Bill Hall of the Willow Springs R4 School District led the meeting in the president's absence. The group also included officials from the Licking R-8 and West Plains R-7 school districts and an official from eMints, a non-profit group designed to train educators of children with a focus on technology in the classroom. The University of Missouri administers the program.
Additional attendees included Will Wheeler, representing United States Senator for Missouri Roy Blunt; Megan Nickey, representing United States Congressman Jason Smith, 8th Congressional District; and former Democratic Representative Travis Morrison, who served in the legislature from 1980 to 1984.
Senator Eslinger started the roundtable announcing an accomplishment this session in procuring a two million dollar federal stipend to jumpstart the DESE Workforce Development Advisory Group, which includes Eslinger as a member and David Montgomery of Willow Springs. The group hopes to match industry leaders and the local workforce to existing jobs and stimulate training to generate more and higher-paying jobs statewide. The main goal is to expand job opportunities by making sure workforce education meets the needs of local industry. Eslinger commended the other legislators in the meeting for their help, stating, "We all work very well together, even when we have differences in opinions."
Eslinger said her appointment to the Missouri House Appropriations Committee enabled her to secure some additional funding for vocational training in her district. That funding included two million dollars for career votech centers, such as the welding lab on the Missouri State University-West Plains campus. Additional accomplishments this session included five hundred seventy-five thousand dollars procured for Missouri rural fire departments for workmen's compensation premiums and money to rural fire departments to make sure they have EpiPens available. A Senate bill was also approved to assure a commensurate wage for clients working in sheltered workshops.
RepresentativeTravis Smith discussed his efforts to obtain more and better broadband internet service to South Central Missouri through funding to help WISPs (wireless internet service providers) reach rural customers who are unserved or underserved in hard-to-reach areas. There are five schools in Missouri with no internet access, and two are in Smith's district. He suggested maybe it's time for the government to ensure service to rural areas similar to what was done with rural electrification. Local power cooperatives will need financial assistance to provide that service where appropriate. Smith suggested that the lack of broadband service is now affecting real estate sales and values in unserved or underserved areas in rural Missouri.
Representative Hannah Kelly mentioned her sponsorship and passage of a foster care tax deduction for adoptive and foster parents. It is a benefit allowing twenty-five hundred dollars per person, and up to five thousand dollars for married persons, and the first time in the state's history to be done. Kelly is herself an adoptive parent and former foster parent.
David Evans started a discussion on ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Relief) funding for educators. This program from the U.S. Congress provides financial support for districts and schools impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds for the second phase of the program ESSER-2 should be paid out to schools by the end of this month and is a substantial amount of money. Additional funds will be distributed in the future and are the responsibility of the state legislature.
Further discussion included challenges the legislators are experiencing distributing the large amounts of federal dollars to their districts considering the reality that most will be short-term or one-time events.
Representative Evans mentioned the Gas Tax legislation passed at the end of the session in the usual flurry of last-minute changes and additions to the bill not related to the gas tax. Any changes have to go back to the other chamber for approval, and bills bounce back and forth until agreed upon. A 2.5 cent addition to the cost of each gallon was passed and will be added onto the current 17 cent gas tax Missourians now pay. The bill does have a rebate provision allowing those willing to go the inconvenience of submitting receipts to get the additional tax refunded at the end of the year.
Guests Jim Vokac and Barbara Nyden were present to ask about and support Medicaid Expansion Funding. The Missouri legislature, this session refused to fund the voter-approved expansion passed last year. There is no indication that the Republican-controlled House will approve funding, and a lawsuit has been filed by three Missouri residents who are eligible for expansion coverage. In a mildly animated discussion, the legislators present, all Republicans, indicated their votes were in response to the majority of their constituents' will and the fact that the mandate was unfunded, contrary to current law.
In the latter part of the meeting, former Democratic State Representative Travis Morrison joined the group. Morrison now operates a business near the Arkansas-Missouri border and believes the sales tax situation between the states is unfair. He stated if you are an Arkansas business and sell to a Missouri customer, you have the option of not charging them sales tax. Morrison used the example of a concrete or lumber company delivering to a Missouri customer having an unfair advantage by not charging tax. He stated any Arkansas business might sell to a Missouri customer, and in delivering the product in Missouri, may do so without charging sales tax. Morrison asked the legislators to consider the issue in the future.
The next meeting date of the second Friday in August (the 13th) was set, and the meeting was adjourned.