Bill cuts higher ed funding, hold public school monies flat

Missouri’s education system would get little new money — and in some cases, less — under a budget plan passed Wednesday by senators constrained by state revenues that have yet to fully rebound from the recession.

The proposed $23.2 billion operating budget for next fiscal year is about the same size as the plan lawmakers had approved for the current year. But growing costs in some programs, such as the Medicaid health care plan for the poor, mean that other areas such as public colleges and universities may take a cut.

Senators on Wednesday gave final approval to a budget bill paying the state’s debt, meaning it can advance to the governor. They also passed bills funding the rest of state government from July 1 through June 30, 2012, but those will have to be reconciled with versions passed last month by the House. The state Constitution sets a May 6 deadline for lawmakers to agree on a final version of the budget and send it to the governor.

The Senate budget plan would cut basic aid to higher education institutions by 4.8 percent next academic year, marking the second consecutive year of declining state aid. But the Senate’s proposed cut actually is smaller than the 7 percent reduction originally suggested by Gov. Jay Nixon and passed by the House. Senate budget writers lessened the proposed funding cut as part of deal with higher education officials to soften the financial hit to students. Many institutions already are planning tuition hikes next year, but they agreed to try to increase scholarships or reduce course fees in exchange for a smaller state funding cut.

Like the House budget plan, the Senate’s version would hold basic aid for public school districts flat at $3 billion next year — an amount that falls about $180 million short of what is called for under the state’s school funding formula. The Senate budget plan also would give schools $118 million in busing aid. That’s $35 million less than schools were supposed to receive this year. But it’s about $20 million more than they actually got after Nixon made budget cuts, and also more than the House included in its budget plan for next year.

“We’re playing kind of a game on the Missouri public when we say we’re holding education funding harmless” by keeping basic aid flat when busing aid is still less than it should be, said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said lawmakers were doing the best they could considering the state’s general tax revenues have yet to return to their 2008 high, before the recession led to declines in state income and sales tax collections.

“There’s still more that we could do as a state of Missouri, for both K-12 and higher education. But again, we have to live within the confines of the budget we have,” Schaefer said. “We’re not going to spend more than we have.”

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