Missouri Senate panel trims $500,000 from AG Schmitt’s budget after wave of school lawsuits | Politics

ByLavinia E. Smith

Apr 29, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

JEFFERSON CITY — Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden on Thursday suggested Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, “went a little out of his way for political purposes” in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Would I say that schools handled everything just right? Absolutely not,” the Republican from Columbia told reporters Thursday. “Would I say that probably the attorney general went a little out of his way for political purposes? Yeah, probably.”

Rowden’s comments followed a Springfield Republican’s move Wednesday night in the Senate Appropriations Committee to cut $500,000 the House had added to Schmitt’s office budget. The money was for five additional attorneys in the solicitor general unit.

The pushback is evidence of the uproar caused after Schmitt sued more than 40 school districts over mask rules in January — but budget negotiations are far from over, with lawmakers required to finish work on it by May 7.

Rowden was careful to couch his comments, saying Schmitt had every right to sue public entities.

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“Clearly, there were a lot of unprecedented things that happened in and around COVID and in response to COVID,” Rowden said when asked if he thought Schmitt’s lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools, which Rowden represents, was a good use of resources.

He said there’s probably blame “to go around on both sides.”

Rowden said he couldn’t predict whether any move to reinstate the increase would prove successful.

“We’ll see what the will of the body is,” he said.

Senate Budget Committee Vice Chairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said Thursday he didn’t know why the attorney general’s office needed the money and said he had received numerous complaints about lawsuits targeting local governments.

“I’ve just had a lot of complaints from folks back home saying, ‘I don’t know why our attorney general is meddling in everyone else’s policies,’” Hough said Thursday.

“I haven’t talked to the attorney general’s office, so I don’t know what their justification is for adding a half-million dollars to their budget,” he said. “Generally we’re conservative Republicans, and we like smaller government.”

Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, didn’t say whether the attorney general’s office asked House lawmakers for the increase.

“The House added that money into their budget,” he said in a text message. “We will continue to fight government overreach at all levels with whatever resources the Legislature gives us.”

House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday that Schmitt’s office had originally asked the House for the boost last year “in anticipation that they would have many issues with the federal government under the Biden administration.”

“That is the same this year,” Smith said. “They did approach us.”

Smith said, “I do think that we feel like it’s important that the attorney general in the state of Missouri has the resources needed to protect the rights of Missouri citizens against federal government overreach.”

Smith said Gov. Mike Parson vetoed the similar funding Schmitt’s office asked for last year. In his veto letter, Parson said $505,000 for additional lawyers wasn’t part of his original budget blueprint and that Schmitt had “sufficient” core funding.

Schmitt’s office in March announced an end to dozens of lawsuits he had filed against school districts with mandatory masking policies.

He also dismissed his lawsuit against the city of St. Louis, where masking rules had expired amid falling COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.

Schools widely criticized Schmitt’s lawsuits, saying local districts had the authority under state law to require masks.

“I think Senator Hough is making a point,” said Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan. “He’s a little dissatisfied with the tactics that the attorney general has used.”

Schatz is one of five major Republicans running against Schmitt in the Aug. 2 primary for U.S. Senate.

“I think it’s well within the rights of the attorney general to go down that path,” Schatz said.

“I think the attorney general has made it adamantly clear that he has — has done some things that I think that draws attention,” Schatz said. “And so I think this is something that draws a little bit of attention as well.”

Democrats had taken the lead in poking Schmitt for his tactics.

In February, Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, asked Schmitt during a House Budget Committee hearing whether schools could require shoes, if they couldn’t require students to wear masks.

“I’d have to look at dress code issues,” Schmitt said. “It’s not anything I’ve looked at.”

Sen. Doug Beck, D-south St. Louis County, filed legislation that would require the attorney general’s office to pay school districts and other political subdivisions for costs due to state legal actions, if a lawsuit is terminated in the local government’s favor.

The proposal had yet to gain traction as of this week.

Originally posted at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21.

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