JEFFERSON CITY — Although most formal addresses to joint legislative sessions by presidents and governors focus on the triumphs of the common citizen, Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon focused on one of the failures of Missouri's higher education system in his State of the State address Tuesday night.
Nixon introduced a Missouri native who was forced by tuition costs to leave the state to go to college.
Jennifer Long completed the A+ program — which allows students to attend a two-year state college if they meet academic and personal qualifications — at Longview Community College in Lee's Summit. Despite wanting to stay in her home state of Missouri, she decided to go to Pittsburg Community College in Kansas because it gives in-state tuition to nearby Missouri county residents.
Long and her parents were invited to attend the legislative session, where Nixon introduced them to the chamber during his speech.
"I really wanted to go to Mizzou, but the prices were kind of crazy," Long said later in an interview. "My whole family's huge Mizzou fans. I grew up watching Mizzou basketball, Mizzou football ... Mizzou was my dream school."
Nixon's communication director, Jack Cardetti, said Nixon met Long the day before the election.
"For the release of the state budget, he couldn't think of anyone better to come to show the need to provide Missouri students with a four-year degree, debt free," he said. "Of all the people the governor met during the campaign, her story stuck out."
Nixon said because of students like Long, his budget includes funding for Missouri Promise, a program that will allow students who complete the A+ program to continue at a Missouri four-year college or university without having to pay tuition.
"Now, as long as they keep a B average and give back to their community, students like Jennifer Long will have a pathway to earn a four-year degree and graduate debt free, right here in Missouri," he said.
Besides implementing the Missouri Promise program, Nixon repeated his recommendation that the higher education budget not be cut and in exchange, Missouri colleges and universities do not raise tuition and fees for the coming school year.
"Higher education is often the first target for cuts," he said. "Not this time." Instead, Nixon proposed a $10 million increase for the University of Missouri's general education budget. Under the governor's plan, the university system would get $461 million in state funds for the budget year beginning July 1.
Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, said Nixon's recommendation might not be realistic.
"I'm not sure the money is available there," he said. "We're not sure what our economy is going to be doing or where we will be at the end of the fiscal year."
Kingery said if cuts are made, he thinks they should be made across the board so that smaller programs don't get drastically hurt.
"A lot of those programs are small and only need a million or so dollars," he said. "But if they can't get that money, they can be impacted to the point where they go out of business."
Cardetti would not say whether Nixon would veto any budget that cut higher education funding.
"It's too early to speculate on what we would do if something that hasn't happened happens in five months," he said.
Nixon's budget proposal does include a suggestion that the University of Missouri Board of Curators shift $14 million in state funds out of the UM System's extension program, which could see its allocation of state funds halved under the governor's suggestion.
The extension system's budget funds programs such as online courses and distance learning.
However, the governor's proposal for reducing extension, and another proposal for increasing funding for medical education, are merely suggestions.
Included in the governor's proposal is the suggestion that the curators use $24 million of the state funds for a "Caring for Missouri Initiative" to expand medical training. Former Gov. Matt Blunt had proposed a similar program enhancement.
Traditionally, the university receives one large appropriation from the state for educational activities, leaving it up to the curators to determine how the funds should be divided among the university's programs.
Kingery said the extension program should not have taken such a huge hit.
"That extension program is one of the best programs in the state because it's a far-reaching program that goes out to the state and the community," he said. "It's an outreach that keeps our state informed."
MU Chancellor Brady Deaton said he hadn't yet read the higher education budget, but was pleased overall with Nixon's speech.
"He's certainly committed to higher education, and that showed through," he said.
Deaton said he had not heard about the extension program cut and could not give an opinion until he learned more about it.
UM System President Gary Forsee, who sat with Deaton in the House chamber during Nixon's address, declined a request for an interview.