JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Thursday allowing fees to be charged for a popular early childhood education program and giving school districts more flexibility in deciding how to spend money during tough budget times.
Nixon also signed several other bills that increase the amount for state spinal cord research grants and gradually cut the rates telephone companies charge one another.
Most of the new laws take effect Aug. 28. However, provisions designed to help school districts with their budgets become effective July 1. Under those portions of the legislation, school districts would not need to meet state standards for things such as teacher professional development if state funding drops.
The Missouri budget that takes effect next week keeps basic state aid to schools flat even though a funding formula called for an increase. Nixon also is blocking funding of some state assistance for busing.
The state budget also makes deep cuts into the Parents as Teachers early childhood education program. That program currently is free, but Nixon signed legislation that would allow families to be charged a fee. Families whose children have not yet entered kindergarten would remain eligible for annual development screenings.
Bill supporters hope the fee could help sustain the program.
Sue Stepleton, the president and CEO of the Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis, said the details of setting up a fee system in Missouri for the program still need to be worked out. She said it can work, but there are not examples for which Missouri can follow.
Stepleton said she hoped fees for Parents as Teachers would be temporary with state funding for the program increasing as the economy improves.
"We understand the state's fiscal situation, and even though it's my own belief that Parents as Teachers has taken way more than a proportional hit out of the budget crisis, it is what it is," she said.
Another bill signed into law Thursday would lower what telephone companies charge other phone providers for connecting calls from one part of the state to the other. That could cut telephone bills for Missourians who make lots of long-distance phone calls but make local phone calls more expensive.
The new phone access charges would apply only to the largest companies.
Missouri's access fees for in-state phone calls are among the nation's highest and much higher than the rate set by the federal government for calls between states. The fees generally are built into the rates charged to phone customers.
Telephone access rates will be cut by 6 percent of the difference between their interstate access rates for each of the next three years.
The governor also signed a bill boosting spinal cord research grants from $50,000 to $250,000. The grants are awarded by MU. They are funded by a $2 court fee charged on every criminal or infraction case.