Missouri Senate panel cuts $500 million from proposed budget

Friday, April 9, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Senate committee declared Thursday that it has cut more than $500 million from Missouri's proposed budget for next year -- meeting a target set by Gov. Jay Nixon to bring it in balance.

The Senate Appropriations Committee wrapped up its work after making hundreds of spending cuts, ranging from just a few dollars for some programs to tens of millions for others. Among the biggest and most contentious cuts Thursday was the elimination of a $37 million program that pays teachers extra money for after-school tutoring.

"We're in a horrendous economic time, and we're having to do things we normally would not support and would not want to do," said committee chairman Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

The governor had proposed a $23.86 billion operating budget in January for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. But he said last month his plan needed to be trimmed by about $500 million because of declining revenue and uncertain federal funding.

Senate committee staff said Thursday that the panel had cut $506 million of general revenue expenses. Nixon's administration backed many of those cuts.

"Gov. Nixon appreciates the Senate rolling up their sleeves and making some real progress on the budget," said gubernatorial spokesman Jack Cardetti.

But Nixon hopes to reverse one cut in particular. The Senate reduced higher education funding by more than 7 percent -- jeopardizing a deal brokered by Nixon in which colleges and universities agreed to freeze tuition so long as they weren't cut by more than about 5 percent.

The budget is to go before the full Senate next week. It must then be reconciled with a version already approved by the House that is about $200 million smaller than Nixon's plan. Lawmakers must pass a final version by May 7.

Through two weeks of hearings, the 11 members of the Senate Appropriations Committee frequently expressed angst over cuts they were making. That was especially true for the elimination of the Career Ladder program, which was established in 1985. The program pays teachers between $1,500 and $5,000 annually for performing extra duties, such as tutoring and developing curriculum.

Last year, 17,958 of the state's 70,689 public school teachers received extra pay from the program, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Teachers in two-thirds of Missouri's 523 school districts participated.

The elimination of Career Ladder funding could force public schools to either dip into their own funds or shortchange teachers for the extra hours of work they have done during the current school year.

"I think the local districts will grapple with that," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association. "Some will probably see if they can come up with some additional funding to offset the state cut, others will probably come to the conclusion they can't afford to do that."

The House previously voted to fund the program. So lawmakers ultimately could provide anywhere from no money to the full $37 million when negotiators craft a final budget.

Career Ladder payments are a reimbursement for work already completed. For example, teachers performing extra duties during the 2009-2010 school year normally would receive their state payment this coming July, which is the first month of Missouri's 2011 budget year.

Sens. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, and Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, argued that Missouri essentially would be reneging on a contract by eliminating the $37 million payment. They noted that many school districts -- like the state -- are facing their own budget problems.

The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees warned education officials last summer that there was no guarantee the Career Ladder program would be funded in the next budget.

Mayer said school administrators had plenty of notice. But Barnitz said many districts already had reached contracts with teachers to perform extra duties by the time they received that notice.

Both the Senate and House versions of the budget would keep basic school aid flat for the 2010-2011 academic year, rejecting a more than $100 million increase called for under the formula that calculates how much each district is due.

The Senate plan would cut deeper into school busing aid and the Parents as Teachers early childhood development program. It also eliminates funding for the Scholars and Fine Arts academies, a pair of three-week summer programs for gifted high school students.

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