Student lobbyists are planning on pushing for prison education and automatic voter registration among other priorities for the 2019 legislative session.
The Associated Students of the University of Missouri has been advocating for issues on behalf of students of the UM System for decades. The student lobbying organization has been setting its priorities in advance of the session, which begins Jan. 9.
While the Prison Education Programs may seem indirectly related to students, Natalie Butler, executive director and board chair of ASUM, said it is a unique route that helps to make a more sustainable budget for higher education. Through such a program, UM would offer classes for prisoners, possibly online.
Butler and the state Department of Corrections said the recidivism rate in Missouri, the percentage of chance that an inmate will return to prison, is around 50 percent. The department needs to spend about $22,000 on each inmate every year. With the average seven-to-10 years sentence, it costs the state $154,000 to $220,000 to house and maintain a prisoner.
The expenditure for corrections is a large portion of Missouri’s budget. Butler said when facing a tight budget, lawmakers tend to take money from higher education because it’s not mandatory spending. The state’s contribution to higher education has been reduced in recent years, so more financial burden has been put on students.
The goal of the Prison Education Programs is to lower the recidivism rate by helping inmates get a high school or an associate degree to be productive members of society when they are released, Butler said. Ultimately, that improvement could help Missouri save money.
Butler said by freeing up some money from the department, state funds could funnel back to the education system, making higher education more affordable and accessible. Butler also said they have the support from the UM System.
According to the Department of Corrections’ website, it has partnered with universities including Washington University and Rockhurst University to provide offenders with the opportunity to take courses and earn a college degree.
“We are eager to give offenders and staff access to higher education programs,” said Karen Pojmann, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, in an email.
She said current programs are offered at no cost to inmates.
“The department does not have funds to support higher education programs in our facilities,” Pojmann said. “A program provided by the UM System would be wonderful, but it would have to be made available at no cost.”
Another task for ASUM in the spring is advocating for menstrual product tax reform. Butler said the organization has cooperated with the MU chapter of PERIOD, a national organization which has been working on this issue for several years.
Butler said while drugs like Viagra don’t have sales tax, menstrual products like tampons and diapers are taxed at a little over 4 percent, and they are medical necessities. Previous Missourian reporting has found that sanitary napkins and other feminine hygiene products are not covered under a tax exemption for products considered basic necessities.
She also said based on the information they have gathered, they estimate people in Missouri spend $10 million to $15 million on menstrual products tax each year. The statistics used for the estimation include the average amount of money each person spend on menstrual products tax and the 2017 census of Missouri.
“People need them to function and live their everyday lives, so we don’t believe it should be taxed,” she said.
But she also understands that removing the tax may not be the best choice because it would have a significant impact on the state’s finances. As a result, Butler said they will start by raising awareness of providing affordable and accessible menstrual products. The student lobbyists will educate lawmakers on the issue and advocate reform of tax. At the same time, they plan to work with campus administration to offer menstrual products in all gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.
In addition, Butler said ASUM will ask the Missouri Secretary of State and other departments to create an Automatic Voter Registration. The idea is when people get their driver’s license at age 16, they will automatically be enrolled to vote when they turn 18.
Butler said some states already have this system, and it has increased voter turnout. As a student organization that spends a lot of time registering students to vote, such a system would greatly help its efforts.
“It’s a great way to ensure that Missourians are having the access to their right to vote,” Butler said.
There are two ongoing priorities for ASUM in spring, Butler said. One is the K-12 STEM programs funding, which asks the Department of Higher Education to designate funds for the program. The other asks for two voting student members to be included in the UM Board of Curators.
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