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UPDATED: House budget chairman proposes reduced higher education cuts

UPDATED: House budget chairman proposes reduced higher education cuts
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Administrators at Missouri Southern State University and Crowder College — and even some Southwest Missouri lawmakers — are cautiously optimistic that Missouri colleges and universities may not face the drastic budget cuts next year that the governor has recommended.

The chairman of the Missouri House Budget Committee last week proposed a way to reduce the financial hit to higher education outlined in Republican Gov. Eric Greitens’ 2019 budget proposal.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said that funds the state had set aside for the Children’s Health Insurance Program could free up money for higher education now that CHIP has received additional federal funding from Congress. He declined to give specific numbers but said the restorations would be in the “tens of millions.”

“It’s going to be significant,” said Fitzpatrick, estimating that more concrete numbers would be released in a few weeks.

Greitens’ 2019 budget proposed giving higher education institutions $92 million less than originally budgeted for the 2018 fiscal year. The governor also withheld millions of dollars allocated by lawmakers from the current higher education budget.

Alan Marble, president of Missouri Southern State University, said on Monday that he appreciates the effort from Fitzpatrick to find more money for colleges and universities. MSSU has seen a cut of approximately $5.4 million in core funding from the state since 2010, dropping total state allocations below 2001 levels.

“If (Fitzpatrick’s plan) restores some of the cuts, and it doesn’t hurt kids,” he said, referring to the reallocation of CHIP funds, “then it would be great. But we’re still underwater.”

Jennifer Methvin, president of Crowder College, said the proposal from Fitzpatrick is encouraging. She noted that the college has seen 10 percent of its state funding cut or withheld during the current fiscal year, and administrators were preparing for a similar slash of funds under the governor’s proposal.

“That is certainly what we are hopeful for,” she said, referring to budget cuts that wouldn’t be as large as what Greitens had recommended. “We’ll still be dealing with the 10 percent cut (from the current fiscal year), but to know that maybe we could stay level at our state funding would be a very helpful thing. We’re very grateful to Rep. Fitzpatrick for his leadership on this.”

Lawmakers’ response

Many legislative leaders have said they hope to reduce the cuts.

Rep. Charlie Davis, R-Webb City and a member of the House Budget Committee, said he is “100 percent” in favor of Fitzpatrick’s proposal.

“We talk about job creation and having an educated and strong workforce, and it’s hard to do that when we’re cutting higher education by tens of millions of dollars,” he told the Globe. “I think we need to find a solution for that, and if the CHIP money is going to come in from the feds, we can reallocate that and put it toward higher education.”

Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage and a member of the House Budget Committee, said he also supports the reallocation of funds to higher education.

“I feel like (Fitzpatrick) has a very good understanding of how these pieces of the budget fit together,” he said. “That (proposal) makes good sense to me.”

Rep. Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson and the Higher Education Committee chairwoman, said that if it were up to her, lawmakers would restore all the cuts.

“I’ve been to a lot of campuses and I can tell you: They’ve all cinched the belt,” she said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, Greitens said that increased spending on health care “means we have to tighten up in other areas of government and spend less money.” He also cited growth in “administrative costs” at many universities.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Spending criticized

Lawmakers have also repeatedly criticized higher education spending. During a floor debate last week, GOP Sen. Rob Schaaf read aloud the salaries of several University of Missouri administrators and wondered whether some of those salaries could be docked to save money. A brief statement from system President Mun Choi noted that “an investment in the University of Missouri System and our four campuses is an investment in the state of Missouri. There is so much we can contribute to the state with stable support.”

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