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School Bond Issue in Final House Hearing

February 20, 2001
By: Ben Paynter
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - School districts would have an easier method to get bond issues passed under a measure given preliminary approval by Missouri's House Tuesday.

By voice vote, the House endorsed a bill that would lower to a simple majority the vote needed to pass a school bond issue if it appears on a general election or municipal election ballot.

"This is the most cost efficient way to see schools in good condition," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joan Barry, D-St. Louis County.

"It will provide a safe and healthy environment in which children can learn."

Currently, the majority needed to pass school bonds is 4/7ths for municipal and general elections, and two-thirds for all other elections.

The proposal to lower the voting standard to a simple majority faces one more House vote before going to the Senate. If it clears the legislature, the constitutional amendment would require statewide voter approval in November 2002 to take effect.

The primary goal of a school bond is to provide money for school construction and repair, said Brent Ghan, spokesperson for the Missouri School Board Association. He said that Missouri schools are crumbling under the current voting system.

"In recent years, school districts have received over 50 percent of the vote, but have failed," Ghan said. "Rapidly growing districts need new buildings to have reasonable class sizes. Old buildings need to be replaced or renovated significantly."

The amendment would directly benefit large growing suburban areas in St. Louis, Columbia, and southern Missouri, Ghan said.

"School districts all over the state have been supportive of applying this level to majority rights," said Rep. Vicky Wilson, D-Columbia.

"We are not fulfilling our responsibility to young people if we create artificially high hurtles before improvements can take place," she said.

Opponents of the bill said that lowering voting majorities may lead to an increase in taxes.

"If they went out for a tax increase in a low turn out election, or withhold information,

I am concerned that voters might not get fully informed," said Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County. She said that the public could wind up voting for a tax increase that would not be in its best interest of its district.

But Rep. Carl Hendrickson, R-St. Louis County, said that the funds for the bonds can be allocated from numerous sources.

"We can do that without increasing taxes one iota," Hendrickson said.

Barry noted that the public already holds constitutional majorities in deciding tax increases and appointing legislators. She would like to apply this standard to school bonds.

"All the amendment does is give people the opportunity to vote on the right to have a simple majority," Barry said.

Two similar amendments have passed out of the house in the past two-years, Ghan said. Neither has cleared the Senate.

"We've had this situation before," he said. "It has never come to a vote in the Senate.

Wilson said the amendment is a much needed salve for school districts across the state. She has hope it will pass from the Senate to the general election ballot.

"We've been operating for years that you should go with the will of the majority," she said.

"When you need a kind of super majority, it is very easy for a tiny group to hold the will of the majority hostage, particularly in a low turn out election."