Otto Fajen, Missouri NEA Legislative Director, at the capitol building in Jefferson City.
I spoke early this afternoon with Otto Fajen, Missouri NEA Legislative Director, in front of the capitol building in Jefferson City.
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Show Me Progress: So the, uh, the, uh, how would you assess the, the legislative session?
Otto Fajen: Uh, how would I assess? Well…
SMP: In, in, in large terms, in overall terms…
Otto Fajen: Yeah, overall terms?
SMP: And its success and the things that are obviously in your area of interest.
Otto Fajen: Yeah, in overall terms it really has been remarkably, for all of the heat and light and energy put into trying to move legislation, it’s been remarkably unproductive.
Otto Fajen: You know if you look at, and it’s, in a certain way that’s predictable when you have a legislature controlled on both sides by one party and a governor of the other party. There’s going to be a natural inclination on the part of the legislature not to give the governor of the other party what he wants, not to give him his victories. So if you looked at the things he wanted, not all of which we, you know, necessarily took a strong position on but, the tax credit bill, the jobs, they call it the jobs bill, that was one of his big priorities. So that hasn’t passed. Let’s see what else have been there. The, the use of the federal money has come in and it was actually, in a certain sense, it allayed one of our biggest fears ’cause we, have been, we, we pay careful attention to the balance of state revenue. It’s why we spend so much time talking about tax justice and adequate taxation, it’s ’cause they can’t do anything in terms of investing if they don’t have the money.
SMP: If there’s no money or if there’s…
Otto Fajen: And we saw, as they’ve pointed out, if you didn’t have the federal money, we’d be looking at eight hundred million plus in general revenue deficit. We’d be looking at major cuts…[crosstalk]
SMP: In everything.
Otto Fajen: …In higher ed. be, You’d probably would really struggle not to cut K-12, which has a constitutional mandate protection and litigation going on right now. But even then they might be hard-pressed not to cut that. Higher ed would probably be getting slaughtered. Other, you know, social services, we’d be cutting funding there. Which in many cases would probably be also cutting federal matching money, it would be just a disaster…
…SMP: Where do the, uh, where does the use of tax credits come into, this kind of, does it exacerbate the problem?
Otto Fajen: It exacerbates the problem, and the problem, and, and what was interesting was some people that we are not always on the same page on, were really right on message on this, this session. People like Senator Crowell from Cape Girardeau, Senator Lager from up northwest, they really were speaking at enormous length on the fact that the tax credits are essentially equivalent mathematically to an appropriation but they’re done in a way that the legislature has no control over it. They off…, they pass this bill, they hand over control of this tax credit to say the Department of Economic Development and in some cases there are no limits. And so it’s, it’s kind of like writing a blank check. Things are going to happen, credits are going to be issued, things will happen and then when it comes time to collect revenues, “Oh, wait a minute, here’s a whole big chunk of revenue that we thought we were going to have, that we don’t have.” And obviously when it doesn’t come in you can’t appropriate it for what you thought you were going to appropriate it for. And so they pointed out that that has really undermined our ability to maintain funding for K-12 and higher ed.
SMP: In, uh, so now in more specific terms, what has happened with your agenda for, uh…
Otto Fajen: For education?
SMP: Yeah, for education.
Otto Fajen: If you look at what’s across the goal line, so to speak, there’s not much. On the other hand, there is still, there are still some big bills in play which have a big mix of some pieces that are, would be helpful and some really dreadful ideas that are, that are not very workable. We got Senate Bill 291, seems to be kind of the, the rat ahead in the race to get through the House. And it, it has, it’s this book that I have here has like two hundred and seventy-five pages or so. All kinds of stuff, including improvements to school, modest improvements to school funding using the gambling stuff that we hope will come in. Other, other improvements to policy and one of the pieces is a clear statement on professional teaching standards in K-12 schools. So there’s some real positives there. There’s the Quality Rating System for early childcare. Some real positive pieces. Then they’ve got some real negative pieces stuck in there, too. They’ve got some really awful language that relates to the school employees that would make it basically to where school employees would be innocent until, er, guilty until proven innocent. When it comes to allegations against them. Really could allow a, a resentful student to take a school employee who is innocent of any wrongdoing out of public education for their whole life. So, we think that’s going to come out before the end of the day but it’s really, as it stands in the bill right now, it would be a huge problem.
SMP: So the b..the bill is…
Otto Fajen: Senate Bill 291.
SMP: It’s, but it’s, it’s got almost everything in it?
Otto Fajen: Just about everything you, that’s been talked about. [crosstalk]
SMP: And so it’s, it’s the kind of thing where somebody can literally vote for it and not know what they’re voting for?
Otto Fajen: Yeah, or I mean, you know, the vote on it almost, almost hardly becomes meaningful, yes or no, because there are things that you, you know, almost everybody has something they hate. We have several pieces we hate. We have several pieces we really like. A governor, governor, bill like this were to come to his desk, what is he supposed to do with it? Does he sign it or veto it? You know, I, I, if I were, if I were governor, I would almost consider saying, you know, anything over a hundred pages I’m just going to veto because it’s got, you know, it’s not the proper legislative process. You know you really are supposed to try to send more identifiable things that you can have a clear vote on and whether vetoing it or not vetoing it means something.
SMP: And, and is this normal for the process? Or is this, is this bill in and of itself in the form that it’s taken something that’s unique?
Otto Fajen: It, it has become, it is always been a poss…possibility that you had a reliance on big bills but you’ve, we’ve seen a trend as we’ve seen more polarization in the people who are here, especially the people who are, like have a really extreme ideology that doesn’t fit with our basic Missouri values, that you start to see more things being blocked, more things that ought to be reasonable seem…you know, they get stym…stymied so when you can’t get the original bill, you find a way to glom it into the omnibus bill and then it gets pulled out towards the end of session. [wind noise] But we’ve seen, we’ve seen that increase and increase and we’ve seen the legislative, like the mile markers for when bills get to a certain point. Every year it kind of gets later and later and they’re working on, for instance working on their own bills, later and later in the session. And not turning to the other chamber until later and later in the session. Bickering between the chambers, even more than they used to, so.
SMP: All right,
well thank you very much.