Mo. governor makes more cuts to higher education

By DAVID A. LIEB

Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri’s public colleges and universities took another budget hit Friday from Gov. Jay Nixon, marking the third straight year that higher education institutions have seen their basic state aid reduced.

Nixon announced nearly $9 million in cuts for colleges and universities while signing Missouri’s $24 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. He cited concerns about state revenues, including whether the Missouri Lottery will generate enough new money to meet the expectations set in the budget. For the second straight year, Nixon also cited expenses from last year’s deadly Joplin tornado and other disasters while describing the need to cut other state programs.

The Democratic governor said he believes the budget passed by the Republican-led Legislature is $50 million out of balance. Yet Nixon made just $15 million in cuts Friday, explaining that he believes the economy has been getting better and adding that he will re-evaluate the need for more cuts later.

“It’s what I believe is the fiscally prudent thing to do at this point for our state,” Nixon said.

If circumstances improve, it’s also possible some funding could be restored.

The cut to higher education amounts to 1 percent less than the roughly $850 million colleges and universities expected under the budget. But when combined with previous cuts, institutions will get 12.4 percent less — or about $120 million — than in the 2009-2010 school year.

They could have lost nearly twice that much. When Nixon presented a budget plan in January, he recommended a $106 million cut to higher education institutions for the 2013 fiscal year. He later softened that by tapping a portion of Missouri’s expected revenue from a national settlement with mortgage lenders. Lawmakers then wiped out the rest of Nixon’s proposed higher education cut by making reductions to other programs and shifting money around in the budget.

“Frankly, a 1 percent reduction, while not what we would have chosen, is positive news” compared to Nixon’s original proposal, said Brian Long, director of the Council on Public Higher Education in Missouri.

But Long added: “Higher education has never been generously funded in the state of Missouri, in my opinion, and consecutive years of budget reductions — if this continues — is really not sustainable.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey said the cut shows “this governor is absolutely hostile to higher education.”

Nixon countered: “I fully support higher education in Missouri,” citing increased funding for college job-training efforts.

In contrast to the cuts to higher education, Missouri’s public elementary and secondary schools will get a $5 million increase to their core funding of $3 billion. Nixon said that is a record amount of money. But it is also $437 million short of the amount called for by the state’s school funding formula.

Among other things, the 2013 budget includes a 2 percent pay raise for all state employees earning less than $70,000 annually. But it also eliminates 956 full-time employee positions compared to the current year.

While announcing his cuts, Nixon criticized several spending reductions made by lawmakers, including to early childhood programs. He said additional cuts were necessary because of three reasons — uncertainty over whether the Lottery can generate an additional $35 million; the potential for $12 million in lost revenues due to various tax breaks passed by lawmakers; and disaster recovery expenses that are likely to be $11 million more than budgeted by lawmakers.

Silvey, R-Kansas City, took particular issue with Nixon’s concerns about Lottery revenues, asserting his administration had signed off on the assumption when lawmakers were crafting the budget. Nixon declined to say Friday whether that was true, instead calling it “a very rosy estimate.”

Besides the cuts to higher education, most of Nixon’s reductions are to new initiatives or to existing programs that had been slotted for funding increases. For example, he axed a new $1 million initiative aimed at employing teachers in “underprivileged” city school districts and a $100,000 pilot project intended to help lower-income working parents by more gradually easing them off subsidized child care as their incomes rise.

Many of Nixon’s cuts were for relatively small amounts when compared to the budget as a whole. For example, he withheld $10,000 for a character education program. The Missouri Eating Disorder Council, created under a 2010 law, had its initial funding cut last year by Nixon. This year, Nixon cut just half of the $75,000 lawmakers allotted for the council, which his budget director said should provide enough money for the council to get going.

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