JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's budget director said the budget shortfall projected by the top higher education official is actually a quarter of a billion higher.
Commission of Higher Education Robert Stein sent a letter two weeks ago to public college officials across the state laying out potential cuts to address the anticipated budget hole that will result in two years when nearly a billion dollars in federal stabilization funds expire.
The hole he's worried about is potentially even worse.
Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget for next year includes nearly $1.2 billion in stabilization funds, $300 million of which Nixon's office anticipates will come from an extension of federal stabilization funds that the state doesn't currently have.
A tentative deal reached between Nixon and the presidents of public four-year institutions would cut more than $40 million from the higher education appropriation next year, preserving 95 percent of funding, in exchange for freezing in-state undergraduate tuition, pending approval by Missouri's legislature.
Stein's letter presented a variety of scenarios for dealing with anticipated future budget shortfalls, drawn from conversations he had with education officials and experts across the state, including closing campuses, incorporating independent campuses into university systems, abolishing athletics programs and reducing course offerings.
Columbia Rep. Chris Kelly praised the contents of a letter sent by the commissioner of higher education two weeks ago to public college officials across the state but said it would be difficult to implement.
"Every single person that you talk to about Missouri higher education would say there are too many institutions," said Kelly, a Democrat. "Not one single person would tell you their institution ought to lose anything."
Even if none of the suggestions contained in the letter come to fruition, Kelly said it still serves an important purpose.
"His comments will kick off intellectual discussion about these things, and that's good," he said.
Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said she hopes the letter will inspire public colleges to work together to achieve a solution.
"I do believe that the system as it is now is not sustainable for the long term," she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is that some institutions formerly classified as colleges have become universities, with increased funding needs, a process she deemed "name inflation."
Stein said the goal of his letter was not to advocate for closing campuses but to increase the coordination between campuses across the state.
"I'm saying let's not wait until its too late," he said.
By working together, he said, campuses could more efficiently employ limited financial resources and strengthen applications for competitive federal grants. He pointed to coordination among UM campuses as an example of successful collaboration.
In an interview before the legislative session, Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said a duplication of programs among state colleges is part of the problem.
"All these universities want to offer every degree under the sun," he said.
Reducing the number of programs and courses offered across the state is one of the suggestions in Stein's letter. He cited the proliferation of state-approved education programs as an example of this.
But Stein said the regional diversity of Missouri will make the decision of canceling or consolidating programs that much more difficult.
"There's not a single wide brush stroke that's going to work effectively across the state," he said.