Missouri Senate reverses course, restores education spending cuts

Thursday, April 15, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri senators reversed course Wednesday and decided to preserve a deal freezing college tuition and to fund a program that gives teachers a salary boost for extra work, such as after-school tutoring.

The education issues were among the first topics debated as senators began work on the operating budget for the 2011 fiscal year that starts July 1.

Although the proposed budget contains numerous cuts, the full Senate opted against two of the highest profile reductions made last week by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

That committee had cut all $37 million for the public teachers' Career Ladder program from next year's proposed budget. But the full Senate voted Wednesday to restore the funding.

That budget committee also cut $64.8 million from the state's two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Senators on Wednesday decided to restore $14.8 million, which keeps in place an agreement between Gov. Jay Nixon and the schools to freeze current tuition rates for in-state undergraduates if higher education budgets were not cut by more than $50 million.

To lessen the higher education cut, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Rob Mayer said the exemption for insurance premium taxes would be dropped for managed care providers. Mayer, R-Dexter, said that could raise up to $20 million. He told reporters the idea came from Nixon's budget office.

Despite deciding to keep the higher education deal, lawmakers scolded Nixon and the schools for agreeing to it in the first place.

"The next time you cut a deal, you better include everybody who is part of the equation," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

Nixon proposed a $23.86 billion operating budget in January but later said that needed to be trimmed by about $500 million because of declining state tax revenues and uncertain federal funding.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had hit that target. Included in its cuts was the elimination of more than 1,000 government positions.

But several of the chamber's spending hawks tied up the chamber for several hours to call for even deeper budget cuts. They warned that Missouri's budget woes would get worse in the future and that this year's difficult round of budget trimming would appear easy in comparison.

"We haven't even seen the tsunami that's coming next year," said Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis.

One of the highest profile programs that had been targeted for elimination was Career Ladder.

Mayer said his change of heart came in part because teachers already have done the work that entitles them to the salary boost.

"When somebody works for you, you pay them what you told them you would pay them. And you pay them as promptly as possible," Mayer said.

Career Ladder was created in 1985 and pays teachers an extra $1,500 to $5,000 annually for taking on extra duties, such as after-school tutoring. The program's cost is shared by the state and local school districts. Last year, about one-quarter of the public K-12 teachers participated in the program.

Unlike most state programs, teachers are paid for their work in the following budget year. That means trimming money from the program would prohibit the state from paying teachers who already have done the work.

Sen. Gary Nodler, the Senate Appropriations chairman last year, voted to restore Career Ladder but said funding for programs should not be pushed off to the next year's budget.

"We should not be about the business of funding entitlements where people believe by making an expenditure they impose upon the Legislature an obligation to make payment," said Nodler, R-Joplin.

Lawmakers must approve a final version of the state budget by May 7.

Budget is HB2001-2013.

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