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Lawmakers wrestle with possible education cuts

February 03, 2003
By: Heather J. Carlson

State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Funding for higher education and K-12 may be cut to solve the state's estimated $1 billion budget deficit, House and Senate education committee chairs say.

"The situation is such that we probably will need to do some cuts," said Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. But "it's too early to say absolutely."

K-12 and higher ed receive nearly $3 billion of the state's $6 billion general revenue budget, said Paul Wagner, a budget analyst for the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Complicating the budget situation is the huge turnover of legislators this session, bringing three new education committee chairmen.

On the House side, the chairmen of the education and education appropriations committees have plenty in common. They are both Republican businesswomen from St. Louis County elected to the House in 2000. Rep. Jane Cunningham chairs the House Education Committee and Rep. Kathlyn Fares chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee.

On the Senate side, Education Committee Chairman Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, has never served on an education committee. Foster was elected to the Senate in 2000 after serving in the House for seven years.

Russell is the only exception to the new leadership. He has chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees education funding, for the past two years and has been a member of the Senate since 1976.

All four legislators agree finding new money for education this session will be virtually impossible, and maintaining the current funding levels will be a challenge.

In the case of K-12, lawmakers must replace $168 million in one-time monies used last year to prevent any cuts this year. In order to fully fund the Foundation Formula, a complex equation for determining how much aid public school districts should receive, the state would have to chip in another $247 million, said Gerri Ogle, associate commissioner for administration and financial services for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

And that's not likely, Foster said.

"To increase [funding] to the level that the formula would dictate would be very difficult, unless we bring in new revenue," he said.

K-12 education was spared from budget cuts last session, unlike higher education. Missouri's colleges and universities suffered a 10 percent budget reduction last year.

Gov. Bob Holden has threatened to withhold $259 million from school districts and $91 million for higher education this year if lawmakers do not approve the sale of tobacco settlement bonds.

Holden's budget plan for next year proposes no cuts to higher ed, but Republicans say it relies too heavily on tax increases that must be approved by the voters.

"I'm not sure whether people will vote for any tax," Russell said.

That means higher ed could once again be a target for cuts.

Foster said he does not want to see higher ed's budget cut again, but "that's where a lot of your discretionary dollars are."

To prepare for possible cuts, both House and Senate committees are studying the K-12 and higher ed budgets, looking for inefficiencies and prioritizing services. Some lawmakers see the tough budget times as an opportunity to eliminate wasteful spending.

"Frankly, we are way overdue for going over each line item, each program [in the education budget] and deciding what's essential, what's effective and what's efficient," Cunningham said.