Concerned about another deep cut to Missouri's higher education budget, House committee members began work Wednesday to thwart Gov. Eric Greitens' proposal to slash nearly $70 million from the state's public colleges and universities if they agree to hold down tuition rates.
The Missouri House Budget Committee is considering its own budget proposals that would offer more money at all levels of education than Greitens recommended in his budget plan in January. The changes include boosting primary and secondary education by $48 million to fully fund the state's K-12 formula.
Rep. Scott Fitpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican and chair of the budget committee, said Greitens' proposed 7.7 percent cut for higher education, combined with last year's cut, was too steep. Last year, lawmakers agreed to a 6 percent higher education cut, but Greitens withheld additional funding when he signed the bill, bringing the cut to 9 percent.
Fitzpatrick's proposal would grant the higher education system an additional $37.6 million in core funds and allocate $30 million toward the Access Missouri need-based scholarship program. If colleges and universities agree to hold tuition at current levels, Fitzpatrick said he would agree to spend the full $67.6 million boost on schools' core budgets, but no agreement has been reached.
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"If the institutions are going to try to get all the money back and raise tuition, I just don't like that," Fitzpatrick said.
The spending boost would come from $80 million the state set aside to fund the Children's Health Insurance Program when Congress failed to reauthorize the program last fall. With the federal funding since renewed, Fitzpatrick announced plans last month to use the pool of money to boost higher education spending.
Greitens' office did not return a request for comment on what the state should do with the money.
Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat and the committee's ranking minority member, said Greitens' proposed cuts upset members of the Missouri General Assembly but brought attention to the cuts that institutions had seen.
"It doesn't necessarily make higher education institutions whole or even put them back to where they were (last year). We're a long ways from that," Kendrick said. "But this was a step in the right direction."
Kendrick said he was "still processing" Fitzpatrick's proposal to allocate spending toward scholarships if the universities don't agree to hold down tuition, but was interested in addressing student debt.
Christian Basi, a spokesman for the University of Missouri, said he was happy to see support from legislators.
"We know that they've been working very hard over the last several weeks on this issue," Basi said. "And we are looking forward to continuing work with them to make public higher education affordable across the state of Missouri."
Committee members also sought to fully fund the state formula that allocates money to K-12 schools. Greitens proposed an $87 million boost to the state's K-12 system, but that fell $48 million short of full funding.
Fitzpatrick saw fully funding the formula as an important promise the General Assembly had made.
"Fully funding the formula was my number-one priority when I got this job a year and a half ago, so I wanted to follow through on that," he said.
In its version of the education spending bill, the House committee added $750,000 for Teach for America and reading assessment programs. It also provided $300,000 for active shooter training not included in Greitens' budget proposals.
House committee members rejected Greitens' $25 million to support local infrastructure projects, including roads, utilities and communications systems. Fitzpatrick said the "timing wasn't great" for that program because legislators wanted to boost funding in other parts of the budget.
Fitzpatrick said "consternation" among members of the health sector drove legislators to include increased pay for various health care and mental health providers in the state's Medicaid program.
The committee was expected to offer amendments and debate bills next week.