Nixon cuts education, other funding to cover disaster expenses

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Southeast Missouri's record flooding and the Joplin, Mo., tornado -- the deadliest twister to hit the U.S. in decades -- have taken a huge toll on a revenue-weak Show Me State budget. And K-12 and higher education will have to foot a big portion of the bill.

Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday cut funding for education and other programs to help offset Missouri's mounting tab from a disastrous spring that claimed thousands of homes, businesses and farms, and scores of lives.

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 $23 billion-plus budget in early May, just days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up the Birds Point-New Madrid levee and unleashed a swollen Mississippi River on an estimated 130,000 acres of fertile farmland and rural homes. A couple of weeks later, a tornado 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 revenue -- which was not anticipated in the budget -- for disaster response and recovery efforts.

On Friday, he cut $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 revenue -- $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.

The deeper cuts won't impact Southeast Missouri State University's fiscal 2012 spending plan because the institution's budget review committee wrote the document assuming a 7 percent reduction, said Kathy Mangels, the university's vice president for finance and administration.

"We've been prudent ... so while we welcomed the opportunity to have additional funds, particularly considering the past couple of years and our challenges, this doesn't put us in a dire situation," Mangels said.

Still, the deeper cut than the Legislature approved will hit Southeast's wish list, so to speak. And chief among that list are lower-income students.

The difference between the 5.5 percent budgeted reduction and Nixon's 7 percent, will cost Southeast about $700,000. Much of that money, about $450,000 was being marked for need-based aid. In May, the university's board of regents approved raising tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates by 4.8 percent in the 2011-2012 academic year. With federal aid programs drying up, the popular Pell Grant Program targeted for deep cuts and uncertainty surrounding the Access Missouri grant program, regents said the university must make a concerted effort to fill the funding gap for low-to-moderate income students.

The board is expected to revisit the matter at its June 29 meeting.

Mangels said Southeast won't raise tuition higher or to take away a 2-percent merit increase for university employees, the first raise in two years.

Kathy Love, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said the state's public colleges and universities went into the legislative session knowing 7 percent was the governor's working figure. Of course, it could have been much worse. Late last year, amid dire revenue projections, cuts of as high as 20 percent were being bandied about.

"I think everyone acknowledges the extreme circumstances of this year's floods in Southeast Missouri and the tornado in Joplin, that these were unforeseeable and extraordinary expenditures," Love said.

Nixon's $172 million in budget cuts also include a continued freeze of $100 million for construction projects at public colleges and universities.

The reductions also 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.

Wade Bartels, chief financial officer for the Jackson School District, estimates the reduction in busing aid could cost the district between $40,000 and $50,000 next school year. Jackson's total operating budget in the 2010-2011 school year is right around $41 million.

"There's only so much of the pie, and this does take a small piece of the pie away," said Bartels. The district, which operates its own bus system, is one of the largest school districts, geographically speaking, in the state.

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 administrators could plan accordingly -- unlike last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

mkittle@semissourian.com

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