The figures from Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget look big.
There’s $84 million in new operating funds for state colleges and universities. A 15 percent increase for public school busing. An additional $600 each for thousands of low-income students receiving state scholarships.
Some of the spending figures appear so large that Republican legislative leaders have denounced the Democratic governor’s budget plan as “unrealistic,” “bloated,” “inflated” and “absolute political fiction.”
But behind the rhetoric is a sometimes forgotten fact: Even with Nixon’s proposed spending hikes, some of those education initiatives still would get considerably less than they once did.
Through two recessions over the past dozen years, Missouri governors and lawmakers have made deep funding cuts to public universities, student scholarships, school busing and the Parents as Teachers early childhood program, among others.
As Missouri has slowly emerged from the most recent economic downturn, funding has begun inching up for some programs. But a new budget paradigm has emerged at the Capitol that makes it difficult for those programs to return to their previous financial peaks.
“We’ve been conservative,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. “We need to continue to be conservative.”
Missouri’s public colleges and universities have borne the brunt of state budget cuts.
Public higher education institutions were budgeted to receive nearly $969 million in 2002, when then-Gov. Bob Holden made the first round of recession-induced spending cuts. He trimmed their funding to $815 million.
Higher education funding had crawled back up to nearly $962 million in 2009. But then the effects of another recession hit the state, and Gov. Jay Nixon again imposed cuts. Funding for the institutions fell to $843 million in 2012 before starting to rise again.
For the 2015 budget, which takes effect July 1, Nixon is proposing a $42 million performance-based increase for colleges and universities, a $22 million increase to bolster programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and nearly $20 million in one-time funding to educate more students in mental health fields.
But even that would not return institutions to the funding they were supposed to get in 2002.
And the Republican-led Legislature may not follow the recommendation of the Democratic governor.
“We have to be realistic. Education is one of those areas that is always expecting more money,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. “But at the higher education level, we’re probably not going to get back to that 2002 level anytime soon.”
The same could be said about money for public school transportation.
In 2009, school districts got nearly $168 million in school busing aid, which still was substantially less than allowed under state law. That was cut to under $100 million in 2012 and 2013 due to tight state finances.
Nixon is proposing a $15 million increase in school transportation funding. Stream said he would like to provide even more than that, but he acknowledged: “I don’t know if it will get back to where it was.”
Another initiative that remains far from its peak is the Parents as Teachers early childhood program. It got $34 million as recently as 2009. In 2010, Nixon signed legislation permanently changing the program so that many parents who once received free services now must pay a fee. For 2011, state funding was cut to $13 million.
Nixon is proposing a $1 million increase that would put Parents as Teachers funding at $16 million next year – still less than half of its previous high point.
Legislative budget leaders generally have expressed support for both the Parents as Teachers program and college scholarship funding.
In 2009, the Access Missouri scholarship was budgeted to get more than $91 million. Then financial troubles set in. In 2010, funding was cut by a third, despite a surge in the number of eligible students to more than 100,000. As a result, the scholarship amount for each student was reduced.
Nixon is proposing an Access Missouri funding increase that equates to an additional $610 for each low-income student at public universities and an extra $270 for each community college student from low-income households. Yet the total number of students served would remain at just 49,000 – about half of what was anticipated five years ago.
Said Stream: “I don’t know that it will get back to the way it was before.”
Dempsey said lawmakers want to remain cautious to avoid a repeat of the state’s recent budget-cutting history.
“We just don’t want to make decisions that are going to have us – if there is a slow rate of growth or some unforeseen circumstance happens – right back into having a structural deficit,” he said.