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JEFFERSON CITY • It’s a little-known perk for Missouri legislators.

They can get subsidized or free college tuition.

State House and Senate policies allow representatives and senators to be reimbursed up to 100 percent of a course’s cost if they earn an A, 75 percent for a B and 50 percent for a C or “pass.”

Five House members and one senator have drawn the tuition subsidies since the programs took effect several years ago.

Rep. Jason Chipman, R-Steelville, has received the most: $7,500. He used the money to work on a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He has taken 10 online courses offered by Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo.

“I didn’t ask for the program to be instituted,” said Chipman, who already has one bachelor’s degree. “It was there and I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

A smattering of states offer some type of tuition reimbursements or tuition waivers for state employees, subject to budget constraints. But such benefits appear to be unusual for legislators.

Neither the National Conference of State Legislatures nor the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, had heard of this type of benefit for legislators. It is not included in the biennial state-by-state survey of legislative benefits that NCSL compiles.

In Missouri, the goal of the program is to improve performance and foster “an atmosphere of continuing growth and development.” Legislators who were interviewed said their coursework did just that.

But others questioned why taxpayers should pay for a lawmaker’s college education, especially when the Legislature has made it harder for undocumented students to attend college, shorted a needs-based grant program and is considering relaxing a law that restricts tuition increases.

Faith Sandler, executive director of The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, was surprised to learn of the legislative benefit.

“I obviously think it benefits the cause of higher education in the state if those policymakers have some firsthand experience with what college is like today,” she said. “I’m just averse to the potential hypocrisy of taking advantage of a benefit that we’re denying the financially needy citizens of Missouri.”

Low-profile programs

Dustin Weeden once tried to research how many states offered tuition rebates for state employees. Weeden, who now works for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association in Boulder, Colo., was a higher education analyst for NCSL at the time.

“When we looked into it, we just didn’t get much in the way of responses from states,” Weeden said. “It seemed like there was a lack of easily accessible information about these programs.”

Few outside the Missouri Capitol know much about the Legislature’s tuition benefit, which applies to staffers as well as lawmakers.

The rules are detailed in the House Policy Handbook and an internal Senate document, neither of which are online. So low-profile are the programs that the former legislator who chaired the panel that added legislators to the House tuition plan for staff in May 2014 doesn’t recall the move.

That’s “news to me,” said former Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, who chaired the House Administration and Accounts Committee in 2014. “I distinctly would recall that. That never was discussed in that committee.”

Indeed, there wasn’t a big debate, recalls Rep. Pat Conway, D-St. Joseph and the ranking minority member on the committee. Most discussion was about improving the quality of the staff. As for adding legislators, “I would think if it’s in the manual, we approved it.”

The Senate Administration Committee followed suit in October 2015, modeling its program after one that state agencies can use for executive branch employees.

The policies provide that the state will pay for up to 15 credit hours per fiscal year. Courses must be “job related or be part of a degree program that is consistent” with the chamber’s “mission.” Applicable programs include public administration, business administration, business management, political science, accounting, economics, journalism and computer science.

Combined, the House and Senate have spent $256,715 on tuition for staff and legislators since July 1, 2013. Overall, the state spent about $3 million on tuition for state workers during that period. (That doesn’t count the Missouri National Guard, which has a broader program established by statute. State-funded scholarships for guard members have cost about $14 million since 2013.)

While senators’ tuition reimbursements come from Senate operating funds, House members are required to use their $8,400-a-year office expense accounts.

Those accounts normally are used to pay for items such as travel, mailings and constituent surveys. Paying tuition means spending less on something else. Chipman, for example, said he offered constituents an online survey rather than mailing one to each household in his district.

The tuition reimbursements can be used at public and private schools nationwide.

A review of applications for reimbursement shows that legislative employees have pursued degrees such as a bachelor’s in history at Columbia College, a bachelor’s in computer information systems at Grantham University, a master’s in communications at Purdue University, a master’s in nonprofit administration at Lindenwood University, a master’s in public relations at Webster University and master’s of public administration degrees at Park University, Arkansas State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Private schools typically cost more than the state reimbursement will cover; the House and Senate cap payments at the highest per-credit-hour rate charged by Missouri public colleges or universities, which is generally the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Any scholarships a person receives must be subtracted before reimbursements are calculated.

‘Happy we have it’

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, is the only senator who has tapped the reimbursement program. She has drawn $1,370 for two courses toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Harris-Stowe State University.

In her Capitol office, Nasheed proudly displayed a letter showing she recently made the provost’s honors list.

“I’m just happy we have it available,” she said of the reimbursement program. Nasheed, who was reared by her grandmother in a public housing project, speculated that she is the only senator using the program because “the majority ... probably went to school in their 20s.”

Other legislators who have used the tuition subsidies are:

• Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, who received $6,309 for six courses to finish his master’s degree at Mizzou in educational leadership and policy analysis with an emphasis in higher education.

• Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake Saint Louis, who received $2,917 for three graduate courses taken through Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., the school founded by religious conservative leader Jerry Falwell. According to Hill’s tuition reimbursement application, he is seeking a master’s in public policy.

• Former Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, who got $2,220 to help pay for two courses in government that he took in Washington through a Johns Hopkins University program. Webber is now chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

• House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City. who is wrapping up work on an MBA at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City. She has drawn $1,642 to study “Business Intelligence” and “Organizational Behavior.”

Although the Legislature has reduced the budget for public colleges and universities in recent years and is weighing another 10 percent cut recommended by Gov. Eric Greitens, legislators said they had no trouble defending their tuition break.

“We cover a whole broad subject matter, lots of economic development issues, things that maybe you did not have any experience in when you got here,” Beatty said. “Any kind of education you get that broadens that understanding is helpful and makes you a better legislator.”

The Legislature meets from January through mid-May. Members are paid $35,915 a year, plus $115.20 a day when they are in session for lodging and meals in the capital.

Dave Robertson, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that he was unaware that legislators had access to tuition reimbursement but that he could see some pluses from the public’s standpoint.

“If you’re going to have a part-time Legislature and limited staff, it’s kind of an enhancement if you take a course in your specialty, like education policy or agricultural policy ... to help you strengthen your expertise,” Robertson said.

Kendrick said three of his graduate courses led him to file bills, such as one this year that would establish a state-funded college work-study program. As part of an independent study at Mizzou, he took a “deep dive into what 13 states were doing” with work-study programs.

But a legislator can serve no more than eight years in each chamber, so there’s a limited window for legislators to use knowledge gained from subsidized coursework. More likely, it will help launch them in their next careers.

tool or ticket out?

On the staff side, House Chief Clerk Adam Crumbliss said tuition reimbursements helped the House recruit employees to low-paying jobs, such as legislative assistant positions that can pay as little as $29,000 a year.

“If there’s a way for people to grow and develop, I want to give them that opportunity,” he said. But he acknowledged that some may use the subsidized degree as a ticket out.

In the last 3½ years, the most the House paid an employee for tuition was $16,576 to Celeste Miller, a legislative assistant for Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin. Miller earned a master’s in public affairs from Mizzou, then left the House staff.

In all, nine of the 23 House staffers who drew tuition assistance in that period quit. That includes two who moved across the Rotunda to the Senate.

Crumbliss said he had considered imposing retention requirements for workers who get subsidized degrees. “We want the state to get something out of the plan,” he said.

Some states require a refund if the employee leaves shortly after receiving the degree. But short of litigation, Crumbliss said, it might be hard to collect such penalties.

House officials instead settled for requiring two years on staff before an employee is eligible for the tuition program. The Senate has no such requirement.

Most staffers take flexible online courses or evening classes, so scheduling hasn’t been a problem, administrators say.

The most the Senate has paid for tuition is $15,832 to Jason Groce, a top aide to Nasheed. Groce got the money for 40 credit hours of work on his dissertation for a doctorate at Walden University, an online school based in Minnesota.

Groce said he expected to complete his dissertation, on how faith-based institutions can help prevent bullying, and receive his Ph.D. in public policy and administration by the end of the year.

Groce’s expenses prompted the Senate to fine-tune its policy last year. Doctorates no longer will be financed, though Groce was grandfathered in. Law degrees are still eligible, at the master’s degree rate.

Greta Bax, a top aide to Senator Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, is a Mizzou law student. She has received tuition subsidies totaling $4,335 from the Senate and $3,840 from the House, where she worked for Hummel before he was elected to the Senate.