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Legislative candidates weigh in on higher education funding

Saturday, November 1, 2008 | 8:11 p.m. CDT; updated 8:57 p.m. CDT, Saturday, November 1, 2008

COLUMBIA — Higher education issues are of particular importance in legislative races across Columbia and Boone County, given the central role of MU to the local economy. So it's no surprise the candidates on Tuesday's ballot are eager to cast themselves as friends of higher education.

The reality, however, is that public financial support for higher education has declined by one-third in the past 25 years, according to a 2008 report by the Missouri chapter of the Alliance of American University Professors.

In 1980, state appropriations covered 81.6 percent of cost of educating a student; that percentage had fallen by 46.6 percent by 2007. Although the legislature granted MU a 4.4 percent increase in funding this year, the state is failing to keep pace with any of its neighboring states.

Perhaps more striking is that Missouri ranks 47th in the nation in per-capita spending on public higher education.

"There's just not enough money," MU chemistry professor and AAUP member Rainer Glaser said. "There are lots of politicians who are playing games at the expense of the universities, and especially MU. There is just not enough proactive stewardship."

According to an AAUP report from last year, the average pay for professors at MU is $68,800; that's $6,000 short of the national average.

MU is trying to boost faculty salaries with its Compete Missouri initiative, a $7 million effort intended to increase professors' wages. But it also comes with hiring limitations and cuts on pay for graduate students and support staff.

"MU tried to pay faculty more, but it cut back on the grad students, on the staff and on our resources," MU sociology professor Wayne Brekhus said. "The pay may go up a little, but the workload goes up much, much more."

Brekhus said he wants the legislature to start taking more of a long-range look at the future of MU and other public higher education institutions.

"The status quo of the budget hurt everyone. Less than 20 percent of funding comes from the state," Brekhus said. "Things like adequately funding our staff and helping our students, it seems like that's not on (the politicians) radar."

Here's a look at where Columbia and Boone County legislative candidates stand on issues related to higher education:

19th District state senate seat

Incumbent Democrat Chuck Graham said if he won re-election, he would work to reinvest money into higher education. He said MU received its highest budget allocation from the state in 2001, when he was appropriations chairman for education in the House.

"It has been cut consistently since then," Graham said, noting that the recent funding increases are not enough. "We're still not back to the same levels when I was chairman of that committee."

Graham does not know specifically how much more money should be directed to higher education. That, he said, will depend on the available resources and whether Proposition A passes. Graham supports the proposition, which would eliminate casino loss limits, increase gambling taxes and cap the number of casinos in the state.

"If Proposition A passes, that will put more than a hundred million dollars in K-12, which will then ease pressure on the general revenue and free up resources for higher education," Graham said.

Graham said money for higher education, including capital projects on campuses, would have to come from general revenue. He doesn't think a tax increase will be necessary.

Graham supports Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon's proposed expansion of the A+ Schools Program as a means of making a college education more affordable.

Republican Kurt Schaefer agreed the state needs to pump more money into higher education and MU. He said he thinks the 19th District needs a senator to restore confidence in MU and, in turn, fight for more money.

"We need a strong advocate in the Senate who can convince the General Assembly why it is important to fund the university, not just for the benefit to the university itself but also because of the economic benefits it brings to the entire state," Schaefer said.

Libertarian Chris Dwyer concedes he has little knowledge about higher education and said he would seek guidance from other lawmakers and from education leaders.

"I would take what they say into consideration and take the advice of other people and try to come to a logical conclusion of what's best for the university, the state and those trying to get into higher education," Dwyer said.

21st District state representative seat

Republican incumbent Steve Hobbs of Mexico said the primary challenge regarding higher education is finding ways to address the rising cost of tuition. He said the best way to increase access to Missouri universities is to grow the economy. He said he thinks Missouri is in a better position than some states to do this.

Asked whether he supports Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon's plan to extend the A+ Schools Program to allow students to pursue a four-year degree for free if they meet specific community service criteria and attend community college, Hobbs said he believes community colleges are a tremendous value.

"I'm supportive of any program structured (around) A +," he said.

Democrat Kelly Schultz of Shaw said increasing access to universities at a time when tuition costs are rising is paramount. She said she fully supports expanding the A+ program.

"These are students who are working hard," she said. "I like the progression. It's a natural step for many students instead of throwing them into the deep and saying ‘swim.'"

Schultz said the Boone County delegation in the House and Senate should build stronger coalitions with members from all over the state to secure more money for MU and for the UM system. She noted that when the UM budget comes up for debate each year, legislators from elsewhere attack proposed funding increases out of a perception their own institutions are being left out. Ultimately, Schultz said, the legislature must acknowledge that what helps MU helps the entire state.

"When we support MU, we make college more affordable for students across the state," she said.

24th District state representative seat

Both candidates in this race said Missouri needs to do a better job funding institutions of higher learning, but they warn against expecting too much in the current fiscal climate.

Life-long economist and Republican incumbent Ed Robb conceded that any significant push for more higher education funding would be difficult with next year's budget.

"The budget will be key," Robb said. "When times are tight, people are always looking to take money away from higher education."

Democratic candidate Chris Kelly agreed but said he would be a more reliable supporter of higher education. "I've been working with university issues since 1982. Professors and professionals know that I will get things done."

Robb said the state could be doing more to alleviate tuition costs and to increase professors' salaries, but said he thinks the legislature has made modest gains in making college more affordable.

"In the last three years we put $11 million into expanding the A+ program, and in 2011 we'll be adding another five or six million into the Bright Flight program," he said.

Robb said he thinks any change in the status-quo will have to be incremental with Missouri's tight budget.

"I don't know if anything more (for higher education) will be possible this year," Robb said. "Maintaining current funding levels is goal number one. Goal number two would be more direct funding to the universities."

Kelly said he agrees the state needs to do more to make college more affordable. He said he thinks the legislature should consider earmarking more money so MU's budget isn't influenced as strongly by economic cycles.

"Earmarks are fundamentally a bad idea," Kelly said. "But in making college more affordable, we may have to rise above principles here."

Kelly said he thinks resources for higher education are lagging because legislators are frozen by a fear of being painted as "tax-and-spenders."

"Any legislator who wants to better fund education with a modest tax increase is instantly attacked for it," Kelly said. "Our (legislative) system in Jefferson City is as broken and cynical as can be."

Kelly objects to what he sees as state interference in university affairs. The former judge said the recent effort to limit stem-cell research and to pass the Emily Brooker Academic Diversity Act were not only bad policy but were also ethically wrong.

"The university is a constitutionally independent center for learning," Kelly said. "Republicans have violated that independence. ... It's intellectual trash and a direct threat to the health of the academy."

Robb supported the Emily Brooker act, which would have given students a procedural mechanism for filing grievances when they feel they have been discriminated against because of differences in ideology.

"It's not an assault on the universities," Robb said. "It's really a protection put in place for the students' benefit."

25th District state representative seat

Democratic candidate Mary Still pledged to be a strong voice for MU. Still commended the school for providing scholarships to first-generation college students from every county and said she would like to expand those sorts of programs.

Like some of the other candidates, Still said her main objective would be to convince others in Jefferson City that what is good for MU is good for the entire state.

"It's important to recognize that we have a research university here, and it's a better investment," she said. "It will be a hard sell in Jefferson City, and I think I can be a strong advocate."

Still also said Nixon's Missouri Promise plan is a step in the right direction, but she doesn't know how much impact it would have in Columbia.

Republican candidate Ryan Asbridge is out of the country on deployment with U.S. Naval Intelligence. His campaign declined to speak on his behalf.

Missourian reporters Jenn Herseim, Chris Dieterich and Hayley Tsukayama contributed to this report.

 


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