Senate panel backs deeper cuts to Missouri colleges

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Students at Missouri's colleges and universities could face tuition increases next school year if cuts approved Tuesday by a Senate committee are upheld.

The Senate Appropriations Committee decided to cut nearly $65 million from the budgets of public colleges and universities.

That would negate a deal struck last fall by Gov. Jay Nixon and higher education institutions to freeze tuition in exchange for no more than $50 million of state funding cuts during the 2010-2011 academic year.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said the state's financial problems have worsened since last fall and deeper cuts are needed to balance Missouri's more than $23 billion operating budget for next year.

But the committee's decision is not final. The Senate version of the budget must be reconciled with a House-passed plan that upheld the tuition-freeze deal by making $50 million in cuts. Lawmakers face a May 7 deadline to pass a final version of the budget.

Nixon intends to "strongly urge legislators to uphold the tuition freeze deal" when House and Senate negotiators meet in coming weeks, said Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti.

"Gov. Nixon believes that freezing tuition for Missouri students for a second year in a row is vitally important as Missouri rebounds out of this economy," Cardetti said.

Mayer said making larger cuts to public higher education institutions was a better alternative than cutting deeper into public school busing or to college scholarships for students at private institutions. Nixon has proposed to eliminate all scholarships for private school students, which would save the state about $50 million.

The higher education funding cut approved by the Senate committee would reduce Missouri's aid by about the maximum amount allowed without needing federal permission under the terms of the federal stimulus package.

Steve Knorr, vice president of government relations for the University of Missouri system, said he expects the Senate panel's funding cut -- and the potential for tuition increases -- to generate a lot of discussion during a Board of Curators meeting next week.

If the tuition-freeze deal falls apart, universities still would be bound by a 2007 law that limits tuition increases to the rate of inflation, with a little extra for institutions at which tuition already is below average. For the 2010-2011 school year, the tuition cap would be slightly less than 3 percent, though institutions could seek a waiver from state higher education officials to charge more.

While cutting higher education, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed with the House to hold flat basic funding for public K-12 school districts.

The Senate panel also agreed Tuesday to 10 percent cuts in aid to the Missouri State Historical Society and to Amtrak passenger train service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, called both services "luxuries."

"It's a nice thing to have when you have money, but we have no money," Purgason said.

Senate committee members did agree to increase funding in at least one area -- advertising for the Missouri Lottery.

Since 2002, the lottery's advertising budget has declined from about $8.2 million to $1.3 million, said executive director May Scheve Reardon. The Senate committee's plan would increase that by $8 million based on predictions from lottery officials that each $1 in additional advertising expenses should generate $3 in sales proceeds to be transferred to education.

Reardon said the lottery hopes to attract new players by expanding the types of games advertised, airing TV and radio ads in a greater number of media markets and for longer periods of time, and potentially by placing ads on the Internet and on convenience store gas pumps.

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