Local legislators respond to Governor’s address

Brennan Stebbins

Jefferson City, Mo. – When Gov. Jay Nixon asked Missouri resident Jennifer Long why she was attending Pittsburg State University, he got a disappointing answer.

“She told me that she wanted to stay here in Missouri, but she qualified for in-state tuition in Kansas because she lived in a nearby county,” Nixon said. “And, the schools in Kansas are more affordable.”

Nixon’s remarks came during his State of the State Address Tuesday (Jan. 27), during which he reiterated his pledge to make higher education affordable by giving institutions the same state appropriations in fiscal year 2010 they received in 2009 despite a state revenue shortfall, and freezing tuition and academic fees across the state.

“Jennifer had gone to community college in Missouri on an A+ scholarship, but had to leave the state in order to afford her four-year degree,” Nixon said. “That shouldn’t happen.”

The Governors’ proposed FY 2010 budget released Tuesday calls for the elimination of 1,329 state jobs and relies heavily on an expected Federal stimulus package, which could bring $800 million to the state.

“We have every reason to believe that a federal recovery package will soon be passed by congress, and money will be sent to the states to help create economic growth,” Nixon.

On Wednesday, response to the speech and budget plan from area legislators was mixed, but mostly positive, with lawmakers saying Nixon proposed several Republican ideas.

“Most of the ideas and the things he talked about are ideas we’ve been doing since we’ve been the majority,” House Speaker Ron Richard (R-Joplin) said. “We’ve been talking about that for years. Job creation, smaller government, affordable health care. Those are issues we’ve been doing and promoting and have been criticized about, then all of a sudden tough times and voila, it’s a great idea.”

The Governor touted his “Show Me Jobs” plan designed to spur economic growth and create new jobs, and also proposed a low-interest loan program for small business. On the health care front, Nixon said 729,000 Missourians are uninsured, including 150,000 children, and offered to expand health coverage to more than 60,000 using federal matching dollars.

Rep. Tom Flanigan (R-Carthage) was worried about the impact of cutting more than 1,300 jobs.

“That concerns me because some of those people are probably going to come from around here in Jefferson City, or they could come from Joplin,” Flanigan said. “Those are real people losing real jobs. Until we really get into the budget and see how it works out it’s just a proposal.”

Federal dollars cause concerns

Despite Nixon’s confidence that stimulus dollars will flow from Washington D.C. to Jefferson City, many had hang-ups with the idea of relying on money that could be earmarked or not received at all to balance the budget.

Rep. Marilyn Ruestman (R-Joplin) was worried about the Governor’s reliance on that money to support several programs.

“There was one thing that concerns me a lot,” Ruestman said. “When he talked about his budget, he talked about including the billions of stimulus dollars that are supposed to come from the federal government and that really worries me a lot because I don’t like to budget based on what might come as a kind of a windfall and our constitution requires that we have a balanced budget. I’m concerned that he made a lot of promises of programs that he’s going to increase that I’m not sure can even be done with stimulus money, because stimulus money will come to us with strings attached.”

Sen. Gary Nodler (R-Joplin), who chairs the Senate Appropriations committee, was more comfortable with the plan, but said funds expected from the stimulus package should be clearly identified in the budget.

“I think the Governor laid out a big plan, and much of it relies on federal stimulus funding and state budget stabilization funds from the federal government, which is okay, but those funds need to be clearly identified and lined in the budgets and not just co-mingled with general revenues because they are one-time fund sources and if they are used to do things like expand Medicaid, for instance, then there is no ongoing source to finance them in the future,” Nodler said.

“I guess structurally, we need to change the methodology and the form of the budget to make sure we segregate federal assistance funds so that we don’t commit them to ongoing funding purposes.”

Higher Education

Nixon’s plans for higher education appropriations come after institutions were told last month to prepare scenarios in which their state funding would be cut by 15, 20 and 25 percent. In return, school leaders have pledged not to raise tuition levels and academic fees for the 2009-10 school year.

Missouri Southern would actually see an increase in state appropriations totaling $1,095,955 as part of the Caring For Missourians initiative. Total appropriations for four-year schools would increase by $15 million, as well, but the University of Missouri Extension Program would see a $14.6 million reduction, and that has Rep. Kevin Wilson (R-Neosho) frowning.

“That’s the University of Missouri extension that is in every county,” said Wilson, who sits on the education appropriations committee. “It has to do with 4-H and extension services within the county That would drastically impact, probably more than anything else, the rural counties in the state because those are education programs and things the University of Missouri can do in the counties. He (Nixon) cut them 50 percent, while at the same time saying ‘I want to keep higher education and freeze it.’ The University of Missouri extension has always been part of higher education, but yet he has now cut that out and said ‘I’m going to cut that by $15 million yet I’m holding higher education’ so I don’t know how you have it both ways.”

Wilson said if the budget is based off money that’s not there, it looks like the legislature is “cutting the budget that was really not in balance to begin with.”

“It sounds like I’m negative,” he said. “I’m not, I’m just cautious because we’ve got to look at the numbers that are coming in and I don’t think we can base our budget on dollars that may or may not come. We’ve been there and done that before.”

After the speech, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said Nixon had cut more than $33 million from higher education classrooms.

“It will be a difficult task for Missouri’s colleges and universities to train students for the jobs of tomorrow when they are facing such a tremendous cut,” Kinder said.

Ruestman is hopeful scholarship programs can help absorb any losses.

“I think what he meant is if the schools freeze their tuition that might leave us with maybe a $30 million gap in there we don’t have in our budget,” Ruestman said. “I’m not too worried about that if we can continue to give our scholarships, because if we give our scholarships then more kids will go to school, so I feel we can fill that gap with our own scholarship money.”

Richard was impressed by the address, but less hopeful about the higher education plan.

“I thought he gave a pretty good speech,” he said. “I think higher education gave in a little bit too early. We’ll see if the deal is actually the deal, the fact that they’re frozen and not raising fees. I think they’re a little premature in getting in bed with the government. That’s my thought.”