Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon released $7.5 million for public school busing Thursday, reversing a portion of his previous spending cuts while insisting there is still reason for caution about the state's improved finances.
Nixon's decision amounts to a little more than 10 percent of the $70 million he withheld in school transportation aid when the budget year began July 1 and comprises an even smaller fraction of the total $300 million he cut in state spending.
When told about the funds release Thursday afternoon, Jefferson City Schools Superintendent Brian Mitchell said district officials still were looking at how the release would affect the local budget.
"We were cut $600,000 (transportation money) this year, and that gives us $40,000 back," Mitchell said. "It's not like it brings back the level of funding that we had but, nonetheless, that's a good sign that there's money there that (previously) wasn't."
The governor's budget director told The Associated Press about the release of the school money shortly after the AP reported that the state's cash balances were improving and that some lawmakers were beginning to question Nixon's continuation of the school-funding cut.
After initially telling the AP it would not be prudent to reverse the spending cuts, budget director Linda Luebbering later called back to say Nixon was releasing $7.5 million to schools. Her call came as the ranking Republican and Democratic members of the House Budget Committee were holding a news conference calling on Nixon to release the school transportation money.
Nixon's office said the governor had decided to release the funds before learning of the legislators' news conference but had not decided when to publicize the announcement when initially contacted by the AP.
"We are slightly ahead of where we need to be at this point of the year to hit our revised (revenue) estimate. So a little release, we think, is doable, and there's not a lot of risk associated with that," Luebbering told the AP.
The Missouri School Boards' Association said the additional money would be helpful, particularly given projections that fuel prices will rise in coming months.
"It's a much-needed shot in the arm for school districts' budgets that have been facing transportation shortfalls," spokesman Brent Ghan said.
Figures provided by the state treasurer's office show Missouri had $484 million in its general revenue fund at the end of December, which is the halfway point of Missouri's fiscal year. That was up 57 percent from the previous year and was more than enough to offset Nixon's $300 million of spending cuts.
House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey questioned whether Nixon can legally continue to withhold money from schools. The Missouri Constitution gives governors the power to reduce state spending when revenues fall below the estimates used to craft the budget.
"I'm not ready to say everything's rosy, but the (spending) withholdings at this point are voluntary," said Silvey, R-Kansas City. "He's voluntarily withholding money from education, and that needs to be addressed."
Rep. Sara Lampe, the ranking Democrat on the budget panel, joined Silvey in calling upon Nixon to release the money.
"My concerns are getting boys and girls to school," said Lampe, of Springfield, a former school teacher and administrator. "If the money's available, we need to put money back into transportation. It's that simple. The numbers are showing us that the money's there."
Told after their news conference that Nixon had released $7.5 million for schools, Silvey and Lampe both expressed some relief.
"It's a start," Silvey said. "It's a shame we had to have a press conference for them to have any action."
The budget approved by Missouri lawmakers assumed the state's general fund would have more than $7.2 billion for the 2011 fiscal year, Luebbering said. Fearing revenues would fall short of that mark, Nixon withheld $300 million of spending when the fiscal year began in July, including $70 million for school busing aid and $50 million intended for college scholarships.
Cash-balance sheets show Missouri's finances have been up for each of the first six months of the fiscal year when compared with the same month the previous year. State tax revenues also are up compared to last year.
But Luebbering said there are no plans, at this time, to release any additional money cut by Nixon.
The state's recently revised forecast of $7 billion for the general fund still is below the amount upon which the budget was based, Luebbering said. Additionally, state expenses for mandatory programs such as Medicaid are more than $100 million greater than what was budgeted, she said.
Bob Watson of the News Tribune contributed to this report.