Holden frees $127 million for education

Saturday, April 10, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Jackson, Sikeston and Poplar Bluff school districts will each get in excess of a half-million dollars restored to their budgets for the current fiscal year after Gov. Bob Holden on Friday ordered the release of $127 million he had previously withheld from local schools and state universities because of Missouri's uncertain financial situation.

Southeast Missouri State University will also get $525,752 that had been deducted from its state appropriation for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Dr. Ken Dobbins, Southeast's president, said the university will use the newly available funds to shore up its reserve balance.

"Because of the uncertainty of next year's budget, we are just going to put that money into our reserves in case of additional withholding next year," Dobbins said.

Cuts in direct aid to local schools the Missouri Legislature made during last year's legislative session coupled with the governor's withholdings forced many districts to raid their savings to cover operating expenses.

Jackson School District superintendent Ron Anderson said the $510,849 his district will get following the governor's announcement will somewhat ease the financial crunch.

"What it will do is help us reduce our deficit spending this year," Anderson said. "It will not eliminate it, but it will decrease it."

The Poplar Bluff school system will get $557,417 of the released funds, the most among Southeast Missouri districts. Sikeston's share of the money is $507,403.

Nineteen other districts in the region will get shares in excess of $100,000. Because of the Good Friday holiday, most area school officials could not be reached for comment.

The amount allocated to a district is based on its student population and the percentage of its overall funding that is provided by the state. Districts such as Cape Girardeau that receive little state aid and smaller school systems will get relatively minor portions of the released money.

During a news conference, Holden said the funds became available due to a combination of factors that became evident in recent days:

A delay in court action on a lawsuit that could cost the state $50 million in tax refunds to Southwestern Bell.

Streamlining by state agencies that yielded $40 million in savings.

The redemption of $36 million less in tax credits than previously anticipated.

An $8 million boost in the amount Missouri is receiving in this year's payment from the national tobacco settlement.

Holden withheld $210 million from education in July, saying the Republican-led legislature failed to provide revenue sufficient to cover approved expenditures. After some extra federal money unexpectedly came the state's way, Holden released $83 million for education in December.

"I have said that I would release the state's withholding to education when it is fiscally responsible to do so," Holden said of his latest action. "I am now in a position to make that release."

Of the total $127 million the governor let loose, $115 million will go to local school districts and $12 million to higher education institutions.

Holden did not cite an expected upswing in state revenue collections as a factor in his decision. While acknowledging that collections are up, Holden said taxpayer refunds are on the rise as well.

Since last spring, House Republicans have maintained that the state had ample revenue to cover education appropriations and that the governor's withholding action was unnecessary.

House Speaker Pro Tem Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, infamously brought that point home in January when he interrupted Holden's attack on Republicans during the State of the State address by yelling "Release the money, governor."

On Friday, Jetton said he felt vindicated by the governor's decision.

"I'm glad he took my advice and released the funds," Jetton said. "I think it is good for kids and for the whole budget process in general."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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