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Parson set to sign bills on school choice, police chokeholds, gas tax hike

Gov. Mike Parson will hopscotch the state this week signing bills into law ranging from private school scholarships to a gas tax increase to a ban on certain police chokeholds.

The flurry of signings mark the final official acts of the 2021 legislative session. 

Perhaps the highest profile bill Parson plans to sign this week will set up a program that directs donations funded by tax credits to help parents offset the cost of sending their children to private school.

School-choice advocates have tried unsuccessfully for the last decade to pass significant legislation. This year they finally succeeded with a bill to establish the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.” 

It will allow residents to receive a tax credit for donating to certain educational assistance organizations. Those nonprofits would then dole out scholarships to eligible students, prioritizing students with special needs and students from low-income families.

As part of a concession to win support for the program’s passage, provisions were added onto a separate bill that will cut the program in half to start — from $50 million in tax credits issued in its first year to $25 million. Parson plans to sign that bill, too. 

On Tuesday, Parson will hold several events to sign legislation increasing the state’s fuel tax, which is currently the second-lowest in the nation at 17 cents per gallon. 

Under the bill, the tax will rise incrementally by 12.5 cents per gallon over the next five years. The tax — estimated to add $375 million annually to the state road fund and provide $139 million for city and county governments to spend on local roads by fiscal 2027 — was increased in phases in order to avoid having to go on the ballot for voter approval. 

Also Tuesday, Parson will sign legislation to allow college athletes to profit off their “name, image, likeness rights, or athletic reputation” without affecting their scholarships. The governor’s decision comes soon after the NCAA announced it will temporarily allow student-athletes to take sponsorship deals and make money off their own images and likenesses.

On Wednesday, the governor will sign legislation enacting tougher regulations on unlicensed religious reform schools in Missouri. The legislation, which won near unanimous support in the House and Senate, was inspired by horrific stories of abuse and neglect from former students at these schools. 

The Department of Social Services has said they are limited from fully intervening in such homes, despite knowing about some substantiated instances of abuse of neglect.

Calls for change were renewed this session after a series of investigations by The Kansas City Star into Christian boarding schools that had substantiated reports of abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. The Star spoke with dozens of former students who recounted enduring emotional and physical abuse, being used as manual labor and ignored calls for help.

The bill would require background checks for all facility employees and volunteers, that facilities notify the Department of Social Services of their existence and compliance with various health and safety standards and allow parents unencumbered access to see their children.

It also puts in place mechanisms to petition a court and remove children from a facility in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.

Parson will also sign a pair of police bills with a litany of provisions. 

The first bill, SB53, will ban police chokeholds, specifically neck restraints that restrict air flow, and prohibit an officer from having “sexual conduct” with someone they’ve detained or who is being held in jail. The bill will also help to improve background checks on officers.

Kansas City police officers will no longer be required to live within the city, and prisons will be required to provide women in custody with free tampons and pads.

The legislation clarifies a law that stops automatically charging 17-years-olds as adults and provides a pay bump for county sheriffs. It also allows local prosecutors to ask a judge to throw out convictions in innocence cases.

The second bill, SB26, penalizes cities that cut police budgets and bolsters protections for officers under investigation for misconduct. It also makes it a felony for those who vandalize public monuments, causing more than $750 in damage, and allows minors who have served at least 15 years of their sentence to be eligible for parole, except in certain cases such as murder in the first degree.

This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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