Mo. House OKs 3 proposed constitutional amendments

Friday, April 24, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri House approved three proposed constitutional amendments Thursday that would affirm the right to pray in public, create new tax breaks for some disabled veterans and make it easier to tap a state budget reserve fund.

The three measures now head to the Senate. If passed by the legislature, the amendments would appear on the 2010 ballot unless Gov. Jay Nixon sets a special election sooner.

One of the amendments would give the state more time to repay money borrowed from the Budget Reserve Fund for disasters or budget emergencies.

The fund already can be tapped for cash-flow needs, as long as the money is repaid before May 16 of the same fiscal year. But to use the money for a longer period requires a request of the governor and a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. The money then must be repaid within three years, with the first installment due the year after the money was borrowed.

The proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution would give lawmakers six years to repay the funds and not require the first payment until the fourth year. Sponsoring Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said that without the change it's nearly impossible to use the reserve fund to plug budget holes.

Critics expressed concern about delaying the payments and using the emergency funds to delay difficult budget decisions.

The emergency fund has been used only once under the method requiring legislative approval, when $16 million was used after the 1993 flood.

The proposed prayer amendment would guarantee Missourians' right to pray in public places, including schools, as long as their prayers are voluntary and non-disruptive.

Supporters of the House measure said they were adding to that existing protection but likely not changing what already is permissible. The amendment would require the display of the Bill of Rights in all classrooms.

House members also voted without any dissent Thursday to endorse a proposed constitutional amendment that exempts from property taxes the homes of disabled former prisoners of war. Legislative staff estimated it could cost local governments $186,717 in lost tax revenues, based on an assumption of 500 prisoners of war living in Missouri. But the fiscal analysis said there was no way to know how many of those people are disabled.

Budget Reserve is HJR17.

School Prayer is HJR11.

Veteran Tax Break is HJR15.

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