JEFFERSON CITY - A deadlock on tax breaks for private and parochial school costs has stalled legislative action on the governor's proposal to cut the sales tax on groceries.
House-Senate conferees met twice Tuesday, but were unable to work out an agreement.
At issue is whether to include a $2500 tax deduction for parents to send their children to any secondary school -- public, private or parochial.
The Senate approved that proposal, the House did not.
Also before the conference committee are deductions for retired pension holders, parents with dependent children, and Gov. Mel Carnahan's "Challenge Scholarship" for higher education. Carnahan's proposal for higher education would give parents a $1500 tax deduction for a student's first two years of college.
Senate conferees vow they will not agree to the governor's higher education proposal unless the bill also includes the deduction for primary and secondary education costs.
"Everyone is scared that some poor Catholic kid is going to get a little bit of bucks out of here is ridiculous," said Sen. John Scott, D-St. Louis. "You want to hide under the constitution."
House Speaker Steve Gaw and Gov. Carnahan warn that deductions for parochial school costs could be held in violation of the state constitution's ban on direct or indirect government support of religion.
Carnahan has threatened to veto any measure that includes the money for parochial school costs.
"Certainly the Challenge Scholarship invites the argument over parochial schools," Carnahan said. "But if I wanted to do nothing, I'd just avoid the church-state fights."
Gaw raised before the conference committee the option of dropping both education proposals.
"I have supported the Challenge Scholarship all along, but the food sales tax benefits every person in the state," Gaw said later in an interview.
As Scott stood up in the committee meeting and threatened to walk out, he and the other four Senators talked about "poor Catholic kids" who should not be excluded from tax breaks for education.
Several times this session, the House and Senate has erupted into passionate debate about how far Missouri should stretch its constitutional separation of church and state.
Going so far as to call the governor a "religious bigot" in recent days, Sen. John Schneider, D-St. Louis County, said he will not allow the joint committee to approve any tax cut package without the parochial school amendment. Schneider is among the most passionate voices for the provision, but is not actually on the joint committee deciding the package's form.
Carnahan scoffed at the notion that religion plays any part in his opposition to the deduction.
"There is no place in the debate for that talk," Carnahan said. "It is simply unconstitutional."
Despite the religious undercurrents, the Senate's tax cut proposal is open-ended to include up to $2,500 in tax cuts for school tuition, supplies or transportation to any school - public or private.
"I've gotten every indication that the governor will veto the bill if it comes to him with the (parochial school) provision on it." Gaw also said he believes a majority of House members question whether state money should go to fund parochial schools.
Senators said they simply think the House and Senate should have the right to take a vote on the proposal.
Scott D-St. Louis said the House and Senate joint committee will have to accept funding for parochial schools or the sales tax cuts bill won't be passed this legislative session.
"Sending the kids to a private school is a very heavy burden on the people who do that," Scott said. "We want to give to those parents a tax credit up to $140 for doing that. That is the very least we can do."