Gov. Nixon proposes tuition freeze and budget cuts
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Gov. Nixon proposes tuition freeze and budget cuts

Date: November 17, 2009
By: Stephanie Fleming and Rebecca Berg
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday he will propose a continuation of a tuition freeze for public four-year colleges and universities in Missouri. This time it comes with budget cuts.

In exchange for the freeze, Nixon said he will maintain current higher education funding at just under 95 percent of the current budget. The proposed 5.2 percent cuts would equate to about $42 million, according to a statement by the governor's office.

With many state programs are facing major budget cuts, 5.2 percent may save higher education funding from some of the larger cuts the legislature will have to make.

Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste called the decrease in funding "modest" and said universities are on board with the proposal.

"The universities realize that there has to be some belt-tightening and they realize that this will keep their funding relatively stable as opposed to more drastic cuts," he said.

Holste said Nixon thinks the proposal is an important first step towards achieving fiscal stability in Missouri.

"The governor really believes that this is a way that we can help with continued economic recovery by ensuring that we have a well-educated and well-skilled work force and that we keep college affordable for the middle class," Holste said.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, said he thinks Nixon's announcement may be premature.

"Basically, the governor is tying his hands to a large section of the budget and that just means there are going to be more severe cuts to the mentally handicapped children with developmental disabilities, which I think will be hard to get support for," he said. "To take one giant section off the table by doing a special deal is going to make it that much more difficult to come up with alternatives."

Appropriations Chairman Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said while he agrees with the governor's efforts to freeze tuition, there are other expenses institutions could impose on students instead. "For the proposal to be effective," he said, "other fees like room and board and recreational fees that need to be frozen, too."

State legislators, such as Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County and Budget Chairman Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, said they supported the governor's strategy to make it clear what he wants early.

"I think it's great for Missouri families and students to know they're not going to have to dig deeper in their pockets," Bray said.

Both legislators said it was still early in the process and specifics may change as more details about how the final budget will look become more apparent.

It isn't the first time Missouri public universities have agreed to a tuition freeze. The governor's proposal for the 2010-2011 school year would be a continuation of a tuition freeze put in place for the 2009-2010 school year.

Paul Wagner, the deputy commissioner for higher education in Missouri, said undergraduate tuitions for Missouri students would look the same as last year if the governor's budget proposal is adopted.

"Flat is flat," Wagner said. "Flat last year is flat this year."

Holste said the effects of the freeze last year led to the governor's decision to propose a continued mandate on tuitions.

"This was a big help this year," Holste said. "We want it to continue to be a big help to students and families next year."

The governor's office did emphasize, however, that the tuition freeze would only apply to undergraduate tuitions.  Graduate and out-of-state student tuition changes will be made at the discretion of the universities.

The proposal announced by Nixon Tuesday will be subject to approval by the General Assembly when the legislature returns in January.  Holste said he expects the legislature to decide on the issue by May, which is when session ends, at the latest.

The university and college governing boards will also have to approve the measure before it can be finalized.