ANALYSIS: Missouri governor reverses on budget proposal after backlash

Sunday, February 15, 2009 | 2:42 p.m. CST; updated 6:02 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 15, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon has made his first budgetary reversal following a backlash against his proposal to slice funding for the UM Extension system.

But Nixon's decision is largely symbolic.

Legislators weren't going along with his recommended cut anyway. And even if they were, university curators could have funded the extension system regardless.

The extension programs run by UM and Lincoln University provide an array of community-based education services with offices in every county of the state. They conduct agricultural research, teach the basics of small business development and offer courses on health and nutrition, among many other things.

As was evidenced after Nixon proposed to cut the extension programs, they also are popular among participants and legislators.

More than a few eyebrows were raised Jan. 27 when Nixon's proposed budget included a 50 percent cut in state funding for university extension programs during the 2010 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

For UM , Nixon sought to cut $14.6 million of the $28.3 million in state funds that the extension system receives. The state money comprises about 29 percent of the total $96.4 million university extension and continuing education program.

Lincoln University's extension program, which is considerably smaller, would have received a $803,440 cut under Nixon's budget proposal.

But university extension supporters said the cuts would have been devastating, resulting in the loss of federal research dollars, infringing on the university's mission and limiting educational opportunities for Missourians.

Volunteer members of local county extension councils began contacting their legislators. At least one university instructor, using a personal e-mail account, urged former students to contact state officials to discuss the positive aspects of the extension programs.

Part of the sales pitch, according to materials from the university: Every $1 million spent on University of Missouri Extension programs generates an economic impact of $27.7 million and state and local tax revenues of $1.8 million.

After a couple weeks of opposition, Nixon announced Feb. 11 that he had found a way to redirect $10.1 million of surplus money from the construction of a women's prison in Chillicothe and thus reduce his recommended university extension cuts to $5.3 million.

"The university extension programs provide important services for Missourians, and I'm pleased that we have the opportunity to allocate additional resources to fund their work," Nixon said in a written statement.

But it's not actually Nixon that allocates those dollars. Legislators are responsible for passing the state's budget. And legislators had no intent of making the cuts.

Had someone from Nixon's office consulted legislative leaders before proposing the university extension cuts, "I would've said, 'You know what, fat chance. It's not going to happen,' " said House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin. "I'm still saying, 'Fat chance, it's not going to happen.' "

Richard said the House plans to provide full funding for university extension programs.

The reality is there is no particular means for legislators to cut money from the university extension system, even if they wanted to follow Nixon's suggestion.

That's because the budget does not include a separate line item for the extension service. Instead, its money is rolled into the lump sum that is budgeted for UM's core operations.

So if lawmakers reduce UM's budget with the intent of giving less to its extension program, the Board of Curators still could decide to fully fund extension programs and cut the money from somewhere else.

"What we're seeing is a governor who made a cut to a program that he truly did not understand," said freshman Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. "That's the danger of allowing a governor to reach down into a program, which is really pretty unprecedented at the university."

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti denied assertions that Nixon didn't understand the university extension programs when he proposed the cut.

Yet some lawmakers see a similarity between the Democratic governor's quick reversal of his proposed university extension service cut and a reversal made four years ago by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.

In his first budget, Blunt proposed a funding cut that essentially would have eliminated the First Steps program for developmentally disabled children. After participants raised an outcry and legislators balked, Blunt outlined a new proposal on the last day of February 2005 to keep the program intact while requiring some families and insurance companies to pay more for it.

"I think you could say there are some similarities there," said House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood. "You look at both of those ... you scratch your head a little bit.

"The transition from administration to administration is always a challenge," Icet said. "I could see him making a few missteps early on until you get your sea legs under you. This one certainly qualifies as that, given the firestorm that has been raised by people who rely on extension services."

Cardetti described that as an "apples to orangutans" comparison with Blunt.

"The governor sees value in this program," he said. "This was the last program he cut (when recommending a budget), it's the first he restored."

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