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Feb. 11, 2010 Volume 31, No. 19

Area legislators warn of budget question marks in state funding

Ducks in a row?

Lawmakers provide update as new session begins

At an annual event sponsored by the Mizzou Alumni Association and MU’s College of Arts and Science, area lawmakers gathered in Columbia Jan. 28 to discuss the new legislative session in Jefferson City and issues that will be debated there that have an impact on higher education in general and Mizzou in particular.

This year, given the state’s ailing economy and its plunging tax collections, there were more questions than answers about state higher education appropriations. “We’re scratching the ground to see what numbers are there and what aren’t there,” Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, told the crowd. “I know I’m preaching to the faithful here.”

Schaefer, who is vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that early in this session the Senate president pro tem, Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, promised to fully fund K-12 education in the state.

The question, Schaefer said, is whether more state money for elementary and secondary education will come at the expense of higher education institutions. “I’m working as hard as I can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

And the state’s budget woes could impact MU beyond its traditional appropriation. For instance, one big question, Schaefer said, is whether Missouri will be forced to curtail payments in the state-supported Medicaid program for low-income residents. If so, he said, that could translate into drastic revenue reductions for University of Missouri Health Care.

Like other members of the local legislative delegation, Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said he supports an initiative that would equalize scholarships offered through the Access Missouri program to students at public and private institutions throughout the state.

Currently, students attending private colleges are eligible to receive larger scholarships than students at public schools. “It makes complete sense that students in Missouri have equal access no matter where they go to school,” Webber said.

He also decried the shortage of training opportunities for people in the health professions, which results in a shortage of skilled professionals. “We’re bringing in people from outside the state to care for Missourians,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t have people in Missouri who can handle those jobs. The bottleneck is capacity” in established training programs.

For instance, Webber said, MU’s School of Health Professions has to limit enrollments in its programs because the demand for those programs is greater than their capacity. To help remedy that, Webber said he has filed a bill in the House that will provide 50 percent tax credits for donations made to a capital building fund dedicated to nursing or health care at a public university.

He also warned Mizzou supporters that they need to be more vocal about the damage state funding cuts can inflict on the university. Webber described an analogy made recently by Rep. Chris Kelly in which he compared the university community to “a corral full of sacrificial lambs taken off one by one and slaughtered.

“The interesting thing is that in that corral there aren’t any lions,” Webber said. ‘Well, the lambs are going to get eaten alive this year. If (our) programs are touched, we have to be lions. We have to let the legislature know we’re upset about that.”

Kelly, D-Columbia, agreed with his earlier analogy, although with one revision: “I would change the lions and lambs mix to Tigers,” Kelley said.

One piece of legislation Kelly is sponsoring this session has far-reaching implications for the university. He has filed a bill that would establish an $800 million bond fund to finance capital projects for state colleges and universities and some other entities. The financial timing is right for such an initiative, he said.

If the bonding package had passed last week, “the interest rate would have been 3.46 percent,” Kelly said. “This is not an MU thing; it’s a statewide thing.”

He also discussed Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget proposal for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Nixon has crafted an agreement with public universities that would cut no more than 5.2 percent of their current state appropriation in exchange for a freeze on in-state, undergraduate tuition.

But Kelly acknowledged that the governor’s budget “has some speculative aspects to it.” For instance, Nixon’s proposal includes $900 million in federal stimulus money to balance the state budget.

“People are saying we have to get our ducks in a row. We’ve got some huge, huge duck problems in the budget,’’ Kelly said. In addition to the $900 million in federal stimulus funding, the governor’s budget proposal depends on an additional $300 million in federal money “that may or may not happen,” Kelly said. “It looks good, but it’s a $300 million duck.”