Education cuts continue to worsen
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Education cuts continue to worsen

Date: February 2, 2010
By: Trevor Eischen
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Less than two weeks after announcing almost $200 million in cuts to the state's current budget, Gov. Jay Nixon cut an additional $74.3 million Tuesday.

The budget cuts accompanied the release of the state's Jan. 2010 revenue report. According to the report, Missouri collected 12.5 percent less for the past seven months of the fiscal year than the last budget year.

The administration and legislative leaders previously had predicted only a 6.4 percent drop -- a figure that the state budget director acknowledged now is unlikely.

Linda Luebbering said the magnitude of the tax collection decline came as a surprise.

The resulting budget cuts announced Tuesday will affect several government departments and organizations.

Technology programs are among the hardest hit -- $24 million for the federal-state rural broadband expansion project, $637,000 from MOREnet and $29 million from a multi-year program to develop a new-generation statewide public safety communications system. In addition, $2 million would be cut from the Parents as Teachers program.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers discussed Gov. Nixon's higher education recommendation constraints for fiscal year 2011. Commissioner of Higher Education Robert Stein began the meeting with somber statistics.

"As a system, we perform average," Stein said, adding that Missouri higher education ranks 31st in the nation.

In a letter released to Missouri higher education institutions on Jan. 22, Stein wrote that drastic measures to cut spending through means such as closing schools, increasing class size and eliminating athletic programs had been suggested. 

One solution, Stein said, for economic recovery is through a well-funded higher education program. But with economic recession still looming over budget decisions, providing the necessary funds isn't possible.

Stein said higher education should focus more on an all-encompassing budget to help all higher education institutions, not just funding for specific institutions.

Stein physically pointed at Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, and said the focus should go beyond institutions in Columbia and near St. Louis.

Schaefer said stressing transparency in the budget is vital for getting higher education the needed funds.

"As appropriators on this committee, we need to know the details," Schaefer said.

One concern voiced by committee members was a possible increase in tuition fees at institutions.

Gov. Nixon and Missouri four-year public schools made an agreement to freeze tuition as long as the state does not cut state funding to the institutions by any more than five percent.

But the agreement only pertains to in-state undergraduate students, not to out-of-state students or graduate students. Institutions can also raise the tuition on the school's budget books without implementing the increase. If the freeze in tuition agreement were to end in the next year, the increased budget would be implemented immediately.

Schaefer said there is a more transparent way for institutions to obtain funds from the state by petitioning with a waiver. He said the increase without implementation is not transparent enough, especially for students.

"My concern is with the aspect of the deal that is not transparent at all," Schaefer said. "If you put tuition increase on the books, most students won't know that. They're not going to know they're setting themselves up for a tuition increase next year. It's a very back door way of hiding a tuition increase."

Stein said state law does not provide a tuition cap, but a guideline in statute. If a four-year institution tried raising tuition higher than allowed, the state could penalize the institution by taking away five percent of its state funding. No higher education institution has raised tuition above the allowed amount.

One program receiving cuts under Nixon's budget recommendations for the next fiscal year is the Bright Flight program. The program provides $3,000 scholarships to students with test scores in the top 3 percent, as well as $1,000 scholarships to students with test scores between the top 3 percent to 5 percent. Nixon's recommendation alters the spending from $25 million this year to $16 million in fiscal year 2011.

"We don't have money for the expansion of that program," Deputy Commissioner Paul Wagner said.

Stein said higher education and lawmakers would find solutions only through cooperation.

"I don't know all the answers, but we in higher education need all the help we can get with the budget."