Mo. Gov. Nixon affirms support for tuition freeze

Thursday, April 8, 2010

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has no plans to sit idly while lawmakers consider whether to preserve a tuition freeze deal he assembled before the state's dire financial status was fully known.

Speaking Wednesday at the University of Missouri's flagship campus, Nixon said the state's public colleges and universities "should be rewarded for coming forward" last fall in a bid to stave off further cuts.

"I'll do everything within my power -- and I don't consider that power insubstantial -- to make sure we live up to that deal," he said.

The agreement, which is subject to legislative approval, would freeze tuition at public campuses for the next academic year in exchange for no more than $50 million in cuts to state funding for higher education.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed a $65 million cut. Nixon says he's hopeful the lesser reduction will be restored by the full Senate or during negotiations with the House, which kept the tuition deal intact in its proposed budget.

He reiterated his call to equalize state scholarships for students at private colleges who are eligible to receive more money than their public school counterparts. Nixon has also suggested eliminating such scholarships, which would save the state $50 million.

Nixon's campus appearance was intended as a public update on his efforts to "right-size and refocus" state government through cuts of nearly $126 million and the elimination of 1,000 state jobs announced in March. He offered similar updates Tuesday at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and later Wednesday at Washington University in St. Louis.

The emergency cuts were needed to plug an expected $500 million shortfall in the 2011 budget released in January, Nixon said.

But when it came time for audience questions, the only topic was the tuition freeze.

Chancellor Brady Deaton said he's optimistic that Nixon will deliver on his commitment to keeping tuition flat at the state's four-year colleges and universities for a second consecutive year.

"His words today were encouraging," Deaton said. "We know that everyone is living within the realities of the situation we're in, but we are very hopeful."

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, was less hopeful.

"I just don't know if we can hold to that original promise," he said. "We're very reluctant to take one section of the budget, wall it off and say it's untouchable."

Like the Senate committee members who rejected the tuition freeze agreement Tuesday, Shields cited the state's worsening financial outlook compared to the fiscal climate when the deal was announced a few months ago. Lawmakers face a May 7 deadline to pass a final version of the budget.

The uncertainty could complicate the four-campus University of Missouri system's hopes to set 2010-11 tuition rates at next week's Board of Curators meeting in Rolla.

The curators typically approve tuition and fees for the coming academic year in April. The board doesn't meet again until June, although members can schedule special sessions if needed.

If the tuition 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 where 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.

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