Parson ends signing spree with school choice, police, student athlete and gas tax bills

Galen Bacharier
Springfield News-Leader
Gov. Mike Parson ceremonially signs SB 262 at the James River Freeway/Glenstone Avenue-Republic Road Interchange Project on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a slew of legislation into law this week, finalizing the year's legislative action with bills creating school choice vouchers; raising the gas tax; allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness; altering police regulations and more.

The landscape of school choice in Missouri could shift dramatically under a bill signed by Parson on Wednesday. It allows parents to receive tax credits in exchange for donations to certain education nonprofit organizations — which would also give out scholarships to help pay for children of those parents to attend private schools.

Students from low-income households or with special needs would be prioritized for the scholarships, which will most likely begin being distributed for the 2022-23 school year. The program is set to issue $25 million in tax credits within its first year.

The creation of the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program marks a win for advocates of school choice, such as the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, who have frequently pushed for the state to pass favorable legislation.

It could also reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars collected by the state each year, drawing criticism from those seeking a more robust public school system. Melissa Randol, executive director for the Missouri School Boards' Association, said the law "further erodes opportunities to fund needed investments" in public schools, and cited the state's ranking as 49th in average starting teacher salary.

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Police regulations and protections

Parson signed a pair of bills involving police this week — one of which puts in place stricter regulations on officers and another that further protects them during internal investigations.

The former, a broad criminal justice reform package, bans police chokeholds "unless such use is in defense of the officer or another" from injury or death, and forbids officers from having "sexual misconduct" with someone who has been detained or is being held in jail.

It also strengthens background checks for officers, increases pay for county sheriffs and allows prosecutors to request that a judge throw out a conviction in cases where a person has been proven innocent. The package received broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate during the legislative session.

Cities that cut funding from police budgets can be sued by the state under the other law enforcement bill signed by Parson this week. The legislation also bolsters protections for officers under investigation for misconduct, and seals records of the investigation from the Sunshine Law — meaning the only way for those records to be released is by court order or subpoena. It also makes vandalizing public monuments and causing over $750 in damage a felony.

The increased protections for officers, sometimes called a "police bill of rights," was pushed throughout the session by Republican lawmakers, who attached its language to several other bills. It received pushback from Democrats and advocates who expressed concern during session that it was designed to intimidate protesters.

Student athletes and tuition increases

Student athletes will be able to profit off their name, image or likeness after Parson signed a bill doing so on Tuesday. The law comes after the NCAA suspended its rules regarding the issue on July 1, opening the gates for college athletes to take on sponsorships and brand deals they were previously unable to accept due to being defined as "amateurs." Missouri joins 26 other states that have passed the law, which will take effect in the Show-Me State on Aug. 28.

The bill also removes the cap on Missouri colleges and universities raising their tuition — a departure from previous policy that they could only increase to compensate for inflation, state budget cuts or to keep rates in line with Missouri's average. Colleges and universities can begin setting their new rates in July 2022.

Tuition can also be altered depending on academic programs under the new law, allowing the institutions to charge more for more expensive or prestigious degrees.

Gas tax

Missouri's fuel tax will increase for the first time in decades after Parson signed off on a raise this week. The tax, which currently stands at 17 cents per gallon, will increase 2.5 cents a year for five years, bringing the end tax to 29.5 cents per gallon. The initial 2.5-cent hike will take effect in October.

Money raised from the tax increase will go toward improving Missouri's roads and bridges, a measure that Parson said "all Missourians benefit from." A conservative group has sought to put the issue to a public vote, a similar move to what several Republican lawmakers attempted during the legislative session, who said the tax disproportionately impacted low-income families. Tax increases have generally not been popular among Missouri voters — a 2018 ballot measure to increase the fuel tax was rejected by a majority.

Once the increase goes into effect, many Missourians will be able to receive a refund on the increase through an online application on the Department of Revenue's website. The department has recommended that those seeking refunds keep their gas receipts.

Regulating unlicensed schools

Unlicensed boarding schools in Missouri will now be more closely monitored by the state under a bill signed this week by Parson, which goes into effect immediately.

The legislation requires these faith-based schools to officially register with the state, submit to inspections and require background checks for all employees. Previously lax regulation in Missouri had attracted schools to move to the state after being investigated or shut down for abuse or neglect, a 2020 investigation by the Kansas City Star found.

Catalytic converter theft

The U.S. saw a rise in theft of catalytic converters from vehicles over the last year, as recyclers say there was money to be made in selling metals to refineries. A new law signed by Parson this week puts a higher penalty on the theft of both converters and certain metals in Missouri.

Theft of a converter will now be labeled "stealing," with the first offense being a Class A misdemeanor and all subsequent offenses within a decade Class E felonies. The bill also requires refineries to provide proof that converters or metals were acquired legally, with fines issued after multiple violations.

Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at gbacharier@gannett.com, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.