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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Analysis: Higher Education Presents Financial, Political Twists For Missouri Lawmakers

January 25, 2009

By JASON NOBLE
The Kansas City Star’s Jefferson City correspondent

JEFFERSON CITY | Political fault lines formed around higher education last week, spurring short-term budget questions and long-term policy debates that could occupy Missouri lawmakers for months or years to come.

The week saw concurrent discussions over university funding and the need for strategic planning across the state’s patchwork system of institutions. Those discussions will only deepen as the budget process begins in earnest this week and further proposals are introduced over the course of the legislative session.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Nixon outlined an agreement reached with university leaders to freeze tuition and maintain state funding for the coming year. It’s a bold move, and could pay off politically for the governor and financially for Missouri’s 100,000-plus college students. But it’s also risky: Setting state funding for colleges and universities isn’t actually up to the Democratic governor.

Nixon will present a budget proposal on Tuesday, but the final spending plan will be crafted by a Republican-led legislature that could have very different priorities.

It’s in Republicans’ interests to support higher education, of course, but those interests could be outweighed by the state’s worrisome economic reality.

Estimates for the coming year project tepid revenue growth, and cuts of about $400 million are probably necessary, said House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, a St. Louis County Republican.

Whether lawmakers can cut that much while leaving higher education intact remains to be seen.

And politically, Nixon’s go-it-alone negotiating strategy with the universities clearly miffed Republican legislative leaders, testing the bipartisanship both sides say they want to maintain.

“We must work together to improve the lives of Missouri students and make education more affordable,” House Speaker Ron Richard said in a statement after Nixon’s announcement. “It is my hope that the governor realizes this and begins to include us in his efforts.”

If lawmakers did cut funding, Nixon could veto the budget bill — a messy political proposition for both sides. Last week, a Nixon spokesman called such talk premature.

“It’s way too early to talk about things that could happen five months from now,” spokesman Jack Cardetti said.

Completely separate from those short-term budget considerations, Senate Leader Charlie Shields is laying the groundwork for a debate over long-term changes to governance of and coordination among the state’s 13 public universities and numerous community colleges.

Currently, the various institutions are controlled by different entities and with little cooperation, resulting in inefficiencies and redundancies, Shields said. A solution might be to strengthen the coordinating board that oversees the state’s Department of Higher Education.

“At the very least, we have to begin a process to figure out how we bring all that into one governance structure,” Shields said at the time. “That probably starts with increasing the power of the coordinating board.”

Last week, Shields organized a seminar that brought in Gary Forsee, president of the University of Missouri System, and Missouri State University President Michael Nietzel to expound on the subject.

In his remarks, Forsee said improvements were necessary, but cautioned the state against taking action before outlining specific goals and a strategy for improving universities.

He also suggested that this year, with its fiscal uncertainties, might not be the best time to consider major structural changes.

“In a time of crisis, we need to be very focused,” Forsee said. “We won’t have the luxury of time to get distracted by issues that aren’t pertinent to the budget.”

Shields, however, is undeterred, and said the discussion would begin within weeks.

The process will begin with a set of resolutions aimed at sparking the discussion and will be led by newer senators who can carry the debate forward for years to come, he said.

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To reach Jason Noble, call 573-634-3565 or send e-mail to jnoble@kcstar.com.