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Appropriations Committee mulls massive cuts to state schools and colleges

April 15, 2003
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The state's schools would take a third of a billion dollar cut in state aid and its colleges and universities would see their budgets trimmed by 11 percent under staff recommendations to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The proposed cuts in aid to education represent nearly a 13 percent cut from the governor's recommendation, which was based on the amount of money the Department of Education received from the state last year.

The Education Department reported that the proposed cuts would eclipse the budget reserves of many school districts. This could leave many to either slash expenses and staff or seek more funding from local taxes. The department reported that 166 districts statewide had budget reserves of 16 percent or less, and that 16 districts in Missouri are already "financially stressed".

The mood among committee members was grim as they considered the proposed cuts. The Appropriations Committee asked their staff earlier this month to work with state agencies to recommend 15 percent reductions.

Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis City, asked why schools and universities were spared the full 15 percent cut when other state programs had been cut more deeply.

Appropriations Committee Chairman, Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, said higher education especially would be crippled by a 15 percent cut.

"My perception was [Higher Ed.] couldn't absorb a 15 percent cut," Russell said. "I thought we were doing pretty good to get it down to 10.8 percent."

That target wasn't met for either the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or the Higher Education Department, but none of the committee members made a formal motion to cut the departments any deeper or restore any of their funding. Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John Russell set a deadline of the end of this week to have the state's budget recommendations passed on to the Senate floor.

Quentin Wilson, commissioner of the Department of Higher Education, said it was difficult to underestimate the effect of of the proposed cuts.

"This is a huge impact," Wilson said. "We have made significant spending cuts over the past 2-3 years. This is especially difficult when you get down to the bone."

Wilson noted that if the cuts go through, 1,300 students would lose scholarships funded by the state, and that college students could expect to see tuition increases of roughly 16 percent. He added that the cuts would hit the state's neediest students the most, as they are the primary beneficiaries of tuition grants.

The committee agreed to discuss further an accounting device used by the staff to disguise cutting Southwest Missouri State, Missouri Southern, and Missouri Western, less than the state's other higher education institutions. Under the committee's recommendations, the University of Missouri system would lose $44.4 million in state funding.

Wilson said the only way for the state's schools and colleges to avoid a $400 million cut next year was if the public brought significant pressure on the legislature to pass additional revenue increases.

Gov. Bob Holden proposed a budget earlier this year that would avoid significant cuts to the state's schools and universities, but that budget was dependent on passage of $700 million in tax increases. Increases of that magnitude would have to go before Missouri's voters for approval, and the Appropriations Committee agreed earlier this month that it needed to approve a budget based on the contingency that voters wouldn't approve any increases.