Analysis: Missouri officials dissuade funding requests

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The sign outside the doorway of Missouri Capitol Room 306 was both prominent and bold.

“Welcome to the House Budget Office!” proclaimed a posterboard emblazoned with the state seal and sitting on an easel.

“Please ask yourself the following:

“1. Am I here to ask the Chairman for more money than last year? (If yes, proceed to question 2)

“2. Have you lost your mind?”

Though somewhat joking, the author of the sign was making a serious point.

From 2008 to 2010, Missouri’s general tax revenues plunged more than $1.2 billion, a 15 percent drop. Although revenues are up slightly this year, Gov. Jay Nixon has cut an additional $300 million from the budget. And Nixon’s administration estimates the state faces an additional $500 million shortfall in the budget year that starts July 1.

When Nixon’s administration sent its annual budget instructions to state agencies, it told them to assume that anything cut from the current budget would remain gone in the next one. And it told agencies not to ask for any additional money from the state’s general revenues, unless it was for a federally mandated program.

Perhaps that is why some people have been approaching Ryan Silvey, who recently took over as House Budget Committee chairman, pleading with him to make a funding exception for their favorite programs.

“I’ve had several meetings over the last several weeks where people say, ‘I understand you have to make cuts, but . we would like more than we got last year,’” said Silvey, R-Kansas City. “I don’t think everybody’s getting it yet.”

Thus the sign, which was on display for the inaugural day of the 2011 legislative session as hundreds of celebratory visitors strolled through the Capitol wearing formal attire and carrying alcoholic drinks.

Put simply: elected officials are projecting sober expectations about Missouri’s budget.

The result is that many spending requests now are mere wishes; many things once described as needs now are treated as luxuries; and many laws outlining state funding for programs are being ignored by the very lawmakers who created them.

Consider education. Facing a lawsuit from school districts and an insurmountable shortfall in the formula that distributes money to K-12 schools, lawmakers in 2005 enacted a new state funding method that reduced the total amount due to schools yet guaranteed they would still get significant funding increases for years to come.

But Missouri shortchanged the school funding formula before it could be fully phased in. Nixon determined the state could not afford the full amount called for during the 2009-2010 school year. And lawmakers canceled a scheduled funding increase of more than $100 million for the current school year. For the 2011-2012 academic year, the $3 billion school formula would need to be increased by $230 million to $255 million to fulfill the law. Instead, Nixon and lawmakers hope merely to avoid cuts and to keep funding steady for another year.

Consider also higher education. In its budget recommendations to Nixon’s administration, the Department of Higher Education included no official request for funding increases. But it attached a list of things that needed more money, if additional money were available.

The unofficial list recommends nearly $206 million of additional spending. That includes a 3.7 percent increase in basic state aid for public colleges and universities — a sharp contrast with the additional cuts that the governor has warned are possible. The list also includes nearly $120 million for building maintenance and equipment.

And the department said an additional $52 million would be nice for scholarships, if the state were to replace money cut from the current school year and provide students the full amount called for under state law.

Nixon cut $50 million from the $83 million that had been budgeted for Access Missouri scholarships, which are based on financial need. The Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority provided $30 million to restore part of that cut. But even so, students are getting scholarships that are slightly less than the minimum amount prescribed by Missouri law. The department said $30 million would be needed just to replace the MOHELA money and keep scholarship funding flat for next year.

Under the Bright Flight academic scholarship, Missouri is supposed to provide $3,000 annually to students who scored in the top 3 percent on their college entrance exams and $1,000 to those who scored in the top 4-5 percent. But that isn’t happening this year. Instead, Nixon cut funding for the scholarships to help balance the budget. The top 3 percent of scorers are getting $1,500 while the next 2 percent are getting nothing. To restore the cut and fully fund the scholarship program would take more than $21 million next year, the department said.

An additional $841,143 would be necessary if the state were to reimburse higher education institutions for tuition breaks given to recent military veterans in compliance with a 2008 law, the department said.

Yet the Department of Higher Education did not officially ask for money for any of those things.

“We felt like it was the prudent thing to do to follow the governor’s wishes on that,” said deputy higher education commissioner Paul Wagner. Besides, he added, “you just kind of look out of touch if you ask for more money this year.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE — David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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