Higher education board faces deep budget cuts

Friday, March 15, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Nearly every state agency is feeling pain as lawmakers continue searching for ways to cut the budget. However, the governing body of the Department of Higher Education looks to feel the hurt more than most.

As the situation stands, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education will see its fiscal year 2003 budget drop by nearly one third from what the General Assembly appropriated for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

That is troubling to public university officials like Southeast Missouri State University president Dr. Ken Dobbins.

"They help us in our efforts to deliver higher education in Missouri," Dobbins said. "If you take that away, who will do that? There will be a vacuum."

However, even deeper cuts could be coming, said state Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston. Myers belongs to the House Budget Committee, which is still reviewing a subcommittee's recommendation of significant reductions.

"We have to look at what it really takes -- bare bones -- to run the coordinating board," Myers said.

As its name states, the board coordinates the efforts of the state's public higher education institutions and sets policy for the higher education department.

Joseph Martin, an associate commissioner of higher education, said a steep decline in funding and staff would make the board's job more difficult. It could also lead to delays in granting approval for new programs and other plans sought by Southeast and other schools.

Oversight needed

However, the most significant impact of a leaner coordinating board would be on its ability to oversee a department with a $1.1 billion budget that must ride herd on institutions that are often in competition with one another.

"I think the responsible thing to do is have some oversight," Martin said. "Instead of having each institution determining what their own best interests are, you have someone with the state system's best interests in mind."

The board's share of funding is a pittance in the context of the department's overall budget, 68 percent of which goes directly to schools.

While those schools are taking a 10 percent budget hit, Gov. Bob Holden cut funding for the board by 15 percent. The House Appropriations-Education Committee then slashed the governor's proposal by 20 percent.

If the budget were passed today, that would leave the board with $890,891 for FY 2003 -- a more than $410,000 reduction from what was appropriated for this fiscal year.

That would force the board to let go about half of its employees. It currently receives money for 23.35 full-time workers. Under the cuts it would only have funding for 12.8 full-time employees.

Martin said the specific positions to be eliminated won't be determined until the budget is completed.

House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, said he trusts the budget committee members in suggesting sharp reductions for the board, particularly eliminating highly-paid bureaucratic posts.

"There are a lot of people that think higher ed is not really a department that's efficient, so the cuts are probably justified," Kreider said.

The committee is expected to send the higher education budget bill, HB 1103, to the full House next week.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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