Government & Politics

Higher education takes $70 million hit in Gov. Greitens’ budget plan

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens unveiled his budget proposal on Monday.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens unveiled his budget proposal on Monday.

Public colleges and universities would see their funding cut by roughly $70 million under a budget plan laid out by Gov. Eric Greitens on Monday.

In his first public appearance since being accused of threatening to blackmail a woman to prevent her from exposing their extramarital affair, Greitens outlined his $28.8 billion budget recommendation for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Dan Haug, the governor’s budget director, said that while the overall budget is growing by $200 million next fiscal year, federal tax cuts passed by Congress last year and a state-level tax cut bill passed in 2015 are expected to reduce revenue by nearly $300 million.

Also contributing to the budget woes, Haug noted, was continued growth in Medicaid spending, which is expected to increase to $11 billion next fiscal year from $10.7 billion.

The $70 million cut to higher education institutions represents a 7.7 percent reduction from the current fiscal year.

Last year, lawmakers called for a 6 percent reduction to the higher education budget. Greitens deepened those cuts to 9 percent when he signed the budget into law.

“There are tough choices that have to be made in the budget,” Greitens said.

The steep cuts to higher education in back-to-back years could face resistance from lawmakers.

“I think a desire of a lot of people in the legislature would be to not do that,” said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican who chairs the House budget committee.

Fitzpatrick said he planned to meet with as many university and college presidents as possible to discuss the potential impact of the governor’s proposed cuts.

“We’re in day one of a process that’s going to last four months,” he said.

Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican who serves on the Senate appropriations committee, resoundingly condemned the cuts.

“We cannot continue to balance the budget on the backs of students; they are the future workers and job creators Missouri desperately needs to cultivate,” Rowden said. “Continuing to neglect our public colleges, universities and trade schools seriously hinders Missouri’s ability to compete.”

Greitens also proposed cutting $40 million from the state’s social services budget through “Medicaid cost containment initiatives.”

Neither the governor nor his budget director could offer any specifics about what those cuts could entail.

“We’re still working with the department to identify those,” Haug said, later adding: “We want to concentrate on cost containment, not reducing services or eligibility to people. We’re confident we’ll be able to cut $40 million from the Medicaid program in (fiscal 2019).”

The budget does not restore funding that was cut last year for in-home and nursing home care, which was originally projected to affect 8,000 disabled and elderly Missourians. The number of people who have had their services affected has been much lower.

It also doesn’t restore funding cut last year from the MORx program, which helps low-income seniors pay for prescription drugs. Those earning between 85 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or up to about $22,000 a year for an individual, had previously qualified for MORx, which covered 50 percent of out-of-pocket prescription drug costs.

The funding cut removed that group from the program, a change that was projected to affect 63,000 people.

Greitens’ budget does call for an $87 million increase in funding for K-12 education, bringing it to roughly $6.1 billion.

That’s about $48 million less than what’s called for under state law to fully fund K-12 public schools.

The budget includes millions in new spending for the state’s foster care system, including $5.3 million to reduce the backlog in the number of children awaiting termination of parental rights. Greitens calls for $25 million to establish a new fund to assist local governments with infrastructure projects, including roads, utilities and communications systems.

He’s calling for $6 million in funding for rural broadband and $5 million for community-based substance abuse treatment.

And while higher education institutions will take a hit to their core budgets, the governor is calling for an additional $6.5 million for various scholarship programs.

“The budget we’re introducing today is a common-sense, conservative budget,” Greitens said. “We’re watching out for the tax dollars of the people of Missouri, making important investments in Missouri’s future, and also making tough decisions to make sure we don’t burden our children with debt.”

In the news conference announcing his budget, Greitens faced numerous questions about his admitted 2015 extramarital affair and the allegations that he threatened to blackmail the woman by taking a nude photo of the woman against her will.

Since news of the affair broke two weeks ago, Greitens has come under criminal investigation by the prosecutor in St. Louis and faced calls for him to resign by some of his fellow Republicans in the legislature.

On Monday, he repeated his answers from previous interviews that the affair was consensual and that there was no violence, blackmail or threat of blackmail. When pressed on his answer, Greitens demurred.

“I’ve addressed everything in the answer I gave and in interviews I gave over the weekend,” Greitens said, later adding: “There’s a lot of important work that needs to be done.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this story.