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Senate approves cuts to higher education

April 26, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The Senate has approved $48 million in cuts to higher education.

About $40 million of the cuts would come from the operating budgets of the state's public colleges and universities with $18 million coming from the UM System.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, said he was working with the governor's office to eliminate the cuts by removing an automatic transfer of higher education dollars into a reserve fund.

In passing the cuts, the Senate defeated an amendment that would have capped tuition increases at 1 percent for colleges receiving any money to make up for the cut.

"I'm tired of these people in ivory towers," said Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County. "We work hard to get tax dollars for them, and I'm tired of giving them to fat cats."

Gross said he agreed with Callahan, but voted against the amendment because he said even if funding is restored to last year's levels, it is a cut of sorts because many expenses have increased.

"Now is not the time to go in and further restrict their flexibility to deal with their budget," Gross said.

Even though the Senate defeated the proposed tuition freeze, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were skeptical that additional money for higher education would help students. Although there were no provisions added to the appropriations bill, there were several calls for additional state oversight of colleges and universities to ensure the schools prioritized better and did more thorough searches for savings.

"These universities are raising tuition higher than our cuts," said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. "They're using these hard economic times to really gauge students."

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said the state bore some of the responsibility for tuition increases that threatened the financial future of the state by making it too expensive for even the middle classes.

"The corrections budget is almost greater than the higher education budget," he said.

"Pretty soon, the money families save isn't going to be enough to keep up with the rising cost of tuition."

The House budget and governor called for appropriations equal to last year.

The Senate also avoided a vote on a controversial amendment that would force legislators to give up their state-funded health care plans. The amendment was proposed by Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, who had served in the House until this week. House Democrats proposed a similar amendment during budget debates earlier in the session.

"I take a lot of offense when people tell me that I should lose my health insurance," said Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Franklin. "I'm no prima donna."

Floor Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, providing the paperwork for Barnitz to opt out of the state health care plan, encouraged the rookie senator to "lead by example" and take himself off the plan whether the Senate passes the amendment or not.

The Senate sustained a $113 million increase to the foundation formula. The formula is used to disperse state money to local schools. But appropriations committee recommendations to eliminate the Safe Schools Initiative and reduce funds for A+ schools and the Parents as Teachers programs were reduced. The governor had called for a $5 million increase to the Parents as Teachers program.

Speaking while he signed into law a measure to cut about 100,000 people off Medicaid by increasing the income threshold, Gov. Matt Blunt warned the restoration of cut Medicaid cuts could result in a line item veto.

The Senate restored more than $196 million of the governor's proposed cuts to the Department of Social Services. Blunt said he would examine each restoration separately but would veto if too many programs were restored.

The House's version budgeted money to pay for wheelchairs, artificial limbs and eye exams. The Senate went even further by lowering income level for eligibility and restoring podiatry and dental care.

With the Senate slotted to spread some of the House's cuts to other areas in the budget, Blunt said his threat to veto stemmed more from the need to reduce the size of the program than other cuts within the budget.

"I think we need to create a program that is sustainable for the Missouri taxpayers," he said. "We shouldn't just try to figure out a way to sustain a program for the next 12 months. We really need to make some substantive and meaningful changes within the state's largest welfare program so that it's fiscally sustainable this fiscal year and into the future."

In addition to increasing funding for social services, the Senate also called for cuts to the departments of education, higher education, revenue, transportation, agriculture, natural resources, economic development, health and the budgets for elected officials, the General Assembly and the judiciary.

With the Senate and House proposing different areas for reduction and increase, the two bodies will need to work out their differences. A completed budget is due May 6.