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Visiting Branson

Callie Austin (left), 17, and Malachi Henley, 20, both of Branson, ride the Saddle Sling at Bigfoot on the Strip in Branson, Mo. on Saturday, May 13, 2017. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Over the objections of local school superintendents, Missouri lawmakers have approved legislation barring schools from starting classes before late August.

The measure, which now heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk, was among scores of bills that moved through the House and Senate on the Legislature’s final day of the 2019 session.

In all, the Republican-controlled chambers sent more than 40 bills to Parson, including one that would place strict limits on abortion in the Show-Me State.

The school starting date legislation would set the first day of school for K-12 districts no earlier than 14 days before the first Monday in September.

It moved out of the House on a 116-25 vote Friday.

Supporters, including Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, argue that earlier school start dates are affecting the tourism industry as more families end their summer vacations in early August.

The change could give tourism-related businesses one more summer weekend to make money.

The legislation was included in a package of school-related changes to state law that moved through both chambers on the final day of the Legislature’s annual session.

In the coming school year, most St. Louis area school districts are set to start in mid-August. St. Louis Public Schools are to open Aug. 13.

Among those favoring the prohibition were amusement park operators and lobbying groups representing hotel owners, campground owners and river outfitters.

Opponents included the Missouri School Boards’ Association, which said the decision should be made locally.

An early start can mean finishing a semester and squeezing in final exams before winter break. It allows more learning to take place before standardized tests are given in the spring. And it can prevent holding classes in June to make up for snow days after a harsh winter.

The legislation is House Bill 604.

Bridge funding plan

Also heading to Parson’s desk is a short-term bridge funding plan sought by the governor after voters in November rejected an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax.

The Republican-led House voted 107-31 in support of the plan, which is designed to pay for repairs to 215 bridges across the state.

“This is not a long-term solution by any means,” said Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia. “We’ve put ourselves in a dangerous situation. We can’t go years without addressing a long-term solution.”

Parson initially sought to borrow $351 million to finance the upgrades to be paid back over 15 years.

Lawmakers balked and agreed to a $301 million bond package that would be paid out over seven years.

“This has been truly a compromise solution,” said House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, a Jasper County Republican.

Parson, a Republican, has made funding bridge projects a priority this legislative session, saying the state must find a long-term plan to fix the state’s roads and bridges.

It will cost about $46.1 million a year to pay back the loan. Interest will amount to about $22.6 million.

The proposal would devote $50 million in general revenue next fiscal year to jump-start the bridge replacement program. An additional $35 million would go toward a cost-share program for infrastructure improvements with counties and cities.

It also allows the state to issue the bonds only if the state wins a federal infrastructure grant. One grant application seeks money to replace the Interstate 70 bridge in Rocheport; another application seeks money for bridge repairs.

Officials have said the state is more likely to win federal money if it commits some of its own resources to the repairs. Parson has said that if the state devotes money toward the bridge repairs, it would free up dollars for road repairs.

While the infusion of state and federal money would be a catalyst to repair long-term assets, the spending would not erase the state’s infrastructure backlog.

Motorcyle helmet law

The House and Senate signed off on a package of transportation-related changes in state law, including one that would lift the requirement that all riders wear protective headwear.

Motorcycle riders under the age of 18 would still need to wear a helmet. Those over 18 could go without if they have health insurance.

During earlier debate, lawmakers agreed motorcyclists should wear helmets, but some said the choice should be a matter of personal freedom.

“I think there’s a limit of what government should be involved in our lives,” Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville said.

Opponents were quick to point out that drivers of other vehicles are subject to their own safety requirements and began listing statistics on motorcycle accidents.

More than 5,000 motorcyclists died in 2017 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA, a branch of the Federal Department of Transportation, found the crashes result in billions of dollars in hospital bills each year, costs that are lower in states that require all motorcyclists to wear helmets.

“We’re going to be paying for this,” Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin said. “That’s where your freedom stops is when it enters my pocket book.”

The legislation package, including other transportation provisions, passed 21-12. The House sent the legislation to the governor on a 94-46 vote.

The legislation is SB 147.

Vehicle emissions test

The House and Senate backed off a plan to end vehicle emissions tests, which have been taking place for decades in the city of St. Louis, and St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz wanted to end the testing because air quality has improved in the region and newer cars emit less pollution.

But, lawmakers refused because doing so could potentially cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding.

Schatz, R-Sullivan, said he didn’t want to leave the Missouri Department of Transportation with a $211 million hole in its budget.

Because of high ozone levels, the St. Louis region is the only area in Missouri where emissions testing is required when motorists go to renew their license plates. Automobiles are the largest source of the chemicals that form ozone, but factories, utilities, the petroleum industry and industrial solvents also contribute.

Ozone is a respiratory irritant that can cause health problems, especially for children, the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases.

In addition to potentially losing federal dollars, a fiscal analysis shows the state would lose $2.8 million in license fee receipts it collects to pay for the program.

The emissions testing language was stripped out of a larger bill that includes an increase in driver’s license fees, to $6 from $3.50 for one year and to $12 from $7 for two years.

Title transfer fees, instructional permits, chauffeur’s licenses and other specialty licenses would increase to $6 from $2.50.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, is designed to help license offices in rural areas cover increasing costs. Along with an increase in the minimum wage, the offices must use specific types of office equipment, Knight said.

The fees have not been increased since 1999.

In addition to boosting revenue for the office operators, the proposal would generate $22.4 million for the state’s highway fund. Cities would receive $4.5 million and counties would see a share of $2.9 million.

The legislation is House Bill 499.

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