JEFFERSON CITY - Parents would get tax breaks for sending their children to either private high schools or to Missouri universities under a tax-cut plan approved by the Senate Thursday.
It didn't take long for the Senate to squelch an attempt to eliminate Gov. Mel Carnahan's "Challenge Scholarship" to give parents a $1500 tax cut for a student's first two years of college.
However, the Senate took several hours in the afternoon debating an amendment proposed by Sen. Franc Flotron, R-St. Louis County, that would give parents a $2500 tax break to send their child to any secondary school - public, private or church-run.
Flotron's proposal eventually was added to a Senate tax package that includes a break for parents with dependent children, retired pension holders and a two-cent reduction on sales tax on groceries.
The omnibus tax-cut package, eventually approved by the Senate, is designed to bring state tax collections below the constitutional limit. The Senate's version would be among the most sweeping tax reductions in state history.
The Senate version now goes back to the House which had approved a much simpler tax bill that would have lowered the sales tax on groceries by three cents per dollar.
The Senate approved a smaller, two-cent, reduction in order to have funds to finance other tax cuts. One tax cut amounts to $800 for each dependent child starting in 1998. The deduction would amount to $1,200 by the year 2000.
Flotron's private-schooling tax break faced opposition from Senators who argued the idea infringed too heavily on the separation of church and state.
"The state cannot and should not support established religion," said Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia. "Once we open the door, it's a floodgate. They will always want money. The separation of church and state has been held as good public policy since the beginning of this country."
Flotron, however, argued that by giving students more access to private schools, public schools will be forced to become more competitive. Flotron also said $130 million is saved every year from children attending private, instead of public schools.
"These parents sending students to private schools are providing a service to taxpayers," Flotron said. "I think competition is the best thing we can do for public schools."
Supporters of the bill said all schools, public or private, should be funded to preserve urban neighborhoods.
Though Flotron and several supporters of the bill said they were not trying to push their Catholic religious viewpoints in the schools, Senators in opposition to Flotron's amendment found they had to defend themselves against accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry.
"It is not religious bigotry to support the constitution of the state," said Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles. "It would destroy the ideal of a publicly funded school system."
The state should not try to fund two separate systems with public money, he said."It undermines the constitution."
Before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 16, the House and Senate will agree and vote on a final tax-reduction plan that will probably not include all the elements in the Senate package. The Senate's version reduces taxes beyond what the constitution requires to meet its revenue limit.