Lawmakers may buck higher ed cuts

Missouri university officials warned Wednesday of potential tuition increases, course reductions and employee furloughs if Gov. Jay Nixon’s newly proposed 12.5 percent funding cut for higher education comes to fruition.

Nixon’s budget proposal would drop state aid to public colleges and universities to its lowest level since 1997, compounding the financial strain on schools that already have been forced to trim costs during several consecutive years of flat or declining state funding.

The Democratic governor suggested in Tuesday night’s State of the State address that higher education institutions should adopt “leaner, more efficient operations” and “change their business models.” On Wednesday, a key lawmaker pledged to try to block the governor’s plan and college officials said it won’t be possible to account for the collective $106 million cut merely by administrative efficiencies.

“It is fair to ask how long we can continue to do more with less,” said Steve Owens, the interim president of the University of Missouri system. “After a decade of reductions in state support and implementation of operational efficiencies, we are near the point where either the level of funding will have to increase or the scope and quality of services will have to decrease.”

Owens said the university is still assessing how the proposed funding cut would affect such things as student tuition and employee wages.

Missouri State University would need to fill a budget hole of about $15 million — $11 million attributable to the state funding cut and the rest to rising costs, said interim president Clif Smart. Some of that could be covered through administrative cuts, but it also likely would be necessary to raise student tuition by more than the rate of inflation and to dip into the university’s $60 million of reserves, he said.

Smart was meeting Wednesday with student leaders to discuss the proposed state funding cut and the potential for tuition increases.

“I think our students are willing to pay more to keep the quality high,” Smart said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said Wednesday that he does not intend to follow Nixon’s college-funding recommendation when preparing the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. But the senator, whose district includes the flagship campus of the University of Missouri system, said it was too soon to know how much funding he would propose for higher education institutions.

The governor’s proposed cut is “a huge blow, not just for the education community itself, but I think for the advancement of economic development of the state of Missouri,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia.

Last year, Nixon proposed a roughly 7 percent cut to the core budgets of colleges and universities. The Legislature pared that back to roughly 5.5 percent. But when he signed the budget into law, Nixon imposed additional spending restrictions on higher education institutions — essentially restoring the cut to the level he originally proposed.

Because of that move, House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey said he didn’t know whether it would be worthwhile for lawmakers to try to lessen the 12.5 percent cut proposed this year by the governor.

“Clearly we want to put more in higher education,” Silvey, R-Kansas City, said Wednesday. “We just don’t that he’ll actually spend that.”

One of the many pressures on Missouri’s budget is the need to set aside around $100 million over a two-year period for disaster recovery costs associated with a deadly tornado that hit Joplin last May and with flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Nixon’s proposed higher education cuts do not make any exception for Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, which incurred costs while serving as a staging area for disaster response efforts. The university has pledged to provide $1,000 scholarships for Joplin-area students who graduate from high school in the next couple years.

University President Bruce Speck said the school would not rescind its scholarship offer as a result of the proposed state funding cuts.

But “in a sense, that commitment is a little more painful now,” Speck said.

He said the university will consider a range of options, including employee furloughs, restructuring degree programs and offering more courses electronically.

“We can’t continue to whack here and whack there, we really need to think about how higher education is going in Missouri and how we need to adapt to that environment,” Speck said.

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