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House to debate amendments to higher education budget

Monday, March 10, 2008 | 10:42 p.m. CDT; updated 4:00 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Missouri’s House budget chairman said Monday he will recommend a cut in the governor’s spending plan for the University of Missouri System when his committee takes up the higher education budget this week.

“Given the direction the national and state’s economy seems to be going, I have a question on whether we can spend money on new programs,” said Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County.

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Icet’s proposal would reduce the Gov. Matt Blunt’s 6.1 percent increase in state funds for the UM System general education budget to a 4.1 percent increase for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Icet said he will propose eliminating the Preparing to Care program from the higher education proposal, for which the governor had recommended spending more than $13 million. The Preparing to Care initiative is designed to address the shortage of workers in health care-related fields by increasing the number of graduates in health care professions. The governor had targeted $8.2 million for the UM System, and the rest of the money would go toward other public two-year and four-year institutions.

Icet expects the bill to be voted out of committee on Wednesday and hit the House floor for debate after next week’s legislative spring break.

Columbia Rep. Judy Baker’s office said that she and Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, will each propose amendments to restore the governor’s proposed funding of the program.

The amendments would be funded with money from the Access Missouri scholarship program, UM System spokesman Scott Charton said.

Although other legislators, including Icet, have questioned the initiative’s long-term sustainability, Robb said Missourians need the boost now.

“If you look at the future health needs of the state of Missouri,” he said, “we need to take steps now to increase the supply of types of jobs and positions that Preparing to Care will fund.”

Robb said the debate will center on exactly how much money is needed to achieve critical mass to start expanding facilities and to teach the classes to “get people into the pipeline.” As with many budgetary issues, however, Robb said the issue is a question of sharing limited resources among a variety of programs.

Robb said he hopes the initiative will receive its funding.

“I’m going to do my best to make it happen,” he said.”

UM System President Gary Forsee stressed the value of the initiative at the UM System’s Legislative Day banquet last week.

“It’s so important to have a stronger health care system in our state,” Forsee said in an audio recording of his remarks at the banquet. “We have a shortage of health care workers (in Missouri). This measure, which is supported by the governor, is an initiative ... to provide training to educate health care professionals for the future.”

Icet said he was concerned about any proposal that created obligations for future years. He added that whenever he looks at any appropriations bill, he looks ahead to 2010 and 2011 to decide if the plan is fiscally responsible.

Since the governor presented his spending plans to the legislature, Icet and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, had been voicing concerns that the governor’s proposed spending increases were too large at a time of economic uncertainty.

In January, Blunt recommended a 6.1 percent increase for the UM System’s allocation — a $26.4 million increase.

Icet’s proposal would reduce that amount to a $17.6 million increase — a 4.1 percent increase.

The legislature appropriates a single lump sum to UM for its general education budget. It is up to the UM System Board of Curators to allocate that money among the campuses and programs of the system.

Charton said the political process is a marathon. He said that several portions of UM’s requests have received staunch legislative support. He said Preparing to Care has a wide range of support in the Missouri Senate.

Although UM officials are optimistic about the chances of some funding being restored for the initiative, other funding challenges remain.

For example, UM had requested $3.55 million to increase faculty salaries, which would make them more closely aligned with the median pay of professors at fellow institutions that belong to the Association of American Universities. Additionally, the system asked for $2.6 million to address a funding gap between the University of Missouri-St. Louis and its peer institutions as recommended by the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education. Neither Blunt nor the House committee supported the two requests, Charton said.


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