Nixon cuts Missouri education funding

Friday, June 10, 2011

ST LOUIS (AP) -- Gov. Jay Nixon cut funding for education and other programs Friday to help offset Missouri's mounting tab from a disastrous spring in which a deadly tornado and widespread flooding destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and farms.

Nixon announced $172 million in cuts from the budget set to take effect July 1, including reductions in aid to colleges and universities, student scholarships and busing for public elementary and secondary schools.

Lawmakers passed a more than $23 billion budget in early May, just days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up a southeastern Missouri levee and unleashed a swollen Mississippi River on an estimated 130,000 acres of fertile farmland and rural homes. A couple of weeks later, the nation's deadliest tornado in decades tore through Joplin, destroying more than 8,000 homes and businesses. The death toll has risen to 151 people.

Nixon has committed $50 million of state general revenues -- which were not anticipated in the budget -- for disaster response and recovery efforts.

On Friday, he cut a nearly equal amount of $57 million from other parts of the state budget. Nixon said the disaster aid must be a priority.

"When tornadoes hit, when floods hit, the state has a vital role to help recover and rebuild communities," Nixon told The Associated Press while in St. Louis for a bill signing ceremony on legislation reauthorizing a prescription drug subsidy for seniors and the disabled. That drug program escaped the budget cuts.

The largest reduction in state general revenues -- $16.8 million -- will come from the operating budgets of public colleges and universities. The result is that most institutions will receive a 7 percent funding cut next school year instead of the 5.5 percent reduction originally budgeted by lawmakers. The University of Missouri system and Missouri Western State University will get an 8 percent cut, because they have backed tuition increases larger than what the governor believed was appropriate, said Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering.

Missouri Southern State University, located in Joplin, also has backed a tuition increase that's more than Nixon would like. But Luebbering said Nixon decided not to cut more of its funding because of the tragedy the community has experienced. Missouri Southern has served as a staging area for some of the tornado recovery efforts.

Brian Long, director of the Council on Public Higher Education in Missouri, said Nixon's cut to universities was disappointing but not too surprising, because the governor had proposed a 7 percent cut when he outlined his budget plan in January.

"The (university) presidents are realists and keenly understand what it takes to balance a budget," Long said. But as a result of the state cut, "every institution will have to dig a little deeper to balance their own budgets in the coming year."

Nixon also cut $3 million from Missouri's scholarship programs, which Luebbering said would still give them $2 million more than they received this year. However, scholarships already had taken a hit in the 2011 budget.

The governor's cuts include $8 million from the nearly $108 million that lawmakers had allotted for school busing aid. Luebbering said that reduction was necessary because Missouri Lottery proceeds for education aren't likely to meet budget expectations.

Before the nation's economic downturn began, schools had been getting $168 million annually to help subsidize their busing costs, said Roger Kurtz, executive director at Missouri Association of School Administrators. He called Nixon's cut "a little disconcerting," but added that he appreciates that it came before the school year started so that administrators could plan accordingly.

"The one thing that I don't think a lot of people understand is if school districts don't get that transportation funding, the only place they can go to get it is from their instructional budgets," Kurtz said. "Cuts in transportation funding do impact other operations within the school district."

Nixon's $172 million in budget cuts also include a continued freeze of $100 million for construction projects at public colleges and universities. That money was supposed to be transferred to the state from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, but the transfer has been on hold for a couple of years because economic conditions and changes in federal student loan laws have put pressure on the agency's finances.

Lawmakers had again included the projects in a capital improvements bill because they wanted to reaffirm that they still expect the buildings to someday be completed. But Nixon's cut to the funding came as no surprise.

Among the other budget cuts Friday were $13.9 million that Luebbering said was not needed for the state's Medicaid program, $6 million from the judiciary's budget, $2 million from the Parents as Teachers early childhood program, $800,000 from the Legislature's budget and $200,000 from the state film office.

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