Court looks at last-minute legislative changes

Thursday, September 4, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Rushed legislators often make changes to bills in the waning moments of a legislative session. But a lawsuit heard Wednesday by the Missouri Supreme Court contends lawmakers last year may have violated the state constitution by making too many changes.

In the final week of the 2002 session, the Legislature passed a bill to alter the accommodation standard that public schools must follow for special needs students.

But opponents of the bill contend the final version was changed so significantly from the original bill that it violated the constitution -- and that many lawmakers didn't realize what they were voting on.

The Missouri Constitution states that the original purpose of a bill must not be changed, that it must have one subject matter and that the title must reflect what the bill is about.

As originally introduced, the education bill was entitled an act "relating to resolution conferences." As revised and passed, the bill's title declared it an act "relating to the appropriate educational placement of students."

"People didn't know what was in there," said Michael Finkelstein, an attorney for the federally funded watchdog group Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services, during arguments before the state's highest court. "People thought there weren't many changes."

The originial bill set out procedures for appealing decisions on the educational placement of a child.

As revised and passed, the legislation also repealed state standards for providing special education services and replaced them with federal standards.

The Senate approved the legislation on a 27-2 vote while the House passed the bill 146-1. But before the bill was signed into law, 66 state representatives asked Gov. Bob Holden to veto the legislation because of confusion over the bill's content.

Curtis Thompson, an assistant attorney general, said it was no secret what lawmakers were attempting to do by changing the legislation, and that the purpose of the original bill was not altered significantly.

Judge Michael Wolff, familiar with the legislative process from his time spent as chief legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, noted the law could be altered again by legislators next year. He seemed amused that not everyone would have understood what was going on with the legislation.

"It's pretty revolutionary to ask people to know what they're doing," Wolff quipped.

State education officials have backed the changes in the special-needs standards, which they claim are necessary to spare schools from high costs and allow them to follow lower federal standards that many school districts have been using for decades.

In 1973, Missouri lawmakers passed a special education law requiring "services sufficient to meet the needs and maximize the capabilities of handicapped and severely handicapped children."

But in 1974, Congress passed a federal law simply requiring a "free and appropriate public education."

Many Missouri schools never followed the state law, instead abiding by the federal standard.

In December 2001, however, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that a Camdenton school should follow the state's "maximization" standard for meeting a student's special education needs.

The state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. So school officials sought to repeal the state law. Their efforts resulted in the bill passed during the 2002 session.

About 140,000 people ages 3 to 21 received special education services in Missouri, Finkelstein said.

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