JEFFERSON CITY — The terms of Gov. Jay Nixon's most recent agreement to block tuition increases at Missouri's colleges and universities were curtailed by state and federal requirements.
Under this year's agreement, Missouri's colleges and universities have promised not to raise tuition for instate students if state officials promised a glancing blow upon their budgets instead of deep cuts.
Specifically, the state's two-year and four-year schools would accept a 5.2 percent budget cut, which adds up to about $50 million. The tuition freeze would be for the 2010-11 school year, and the budget cut would be for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Without a waiver from federal requirements, the budget cuts could not have gone much deeper. And without permission from the Missouri commissioner of higher education, tuition at many schools is not likely to have increased significantly.
That's because the federal stimulus package limits how much Missouri can cut spending on higher education, and a 2007 state law limits tuition increases to the rate of inflation with a little higher boost for those with tuition below the state average.
The governor estimated this month that Missouri could have cut higher education by as much as $75 million. The inflation rate for determining the maximum tuition has not been calculated, but the Federal Reserve this month projected that consumer prices nationally would increase by around 1 percent.
Nixon, a Democrat, has touted the arrangement, saying it demonstrates Missouri's commitment to higher education and would boost the state's economy. He also has used it to contrast Missouri with California, which has approved a 32 percent fee increase for students attending the state's top public schools.
"It's a very good deal for Missouri families. It's a very good deal for Missouri colleges," Nixon said.
Last year, the governor cut a similarly structured deal: No tuition increases and no budget cuts. That arrangement was bolstered by the same set of laws. The federal stimulus package made cuts to higher education unlikely and inflation was negligible, rising 0.1 percent.
In the tuition deals, one of the benefits for colleges and the state has been more budget certainty.
Higher education officials would get a commitment on how much money they stand to lose with time to plan for it. Nixon, whose campaign last year stressed college affordability, would book a $50 million savings amid ongoing struggles to balance the state's budget.
In return, the schools and the state each leave some money on the table but avoid gambling to free even more funds. The colleges do not need to decide whether to get permission for tuition increases. Missouri officials do not risk their federal stimulus money or have to consider whether to join other states in trying to persuade the federal government to let them make deeper cuts.
The uncertainty with this year's pact is whether the Legislature will go along with the idea.
For the first agreement, lawmakers bought in and eventually praised the idea. But this year, cracks already have developed.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the agreement is too restrictive, limiting the Legislature's budget-cutting options as it struggles to deal with declining state revenue.
One state Senator said he is worried that if the plan is approved state will have to make deeper cuts to other programs.
"I hope this unwise and premature side deal will not force massive cuts on the mentally challenged and children with developmental delays as it gains nothing in return," said Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville.
And some Republicans have questioned the significance of the agreement, calling it a distraction from college budget cuts. They claim the 2007 law limiting tuition increases has been the greater force in holding down tuition increases.
To the critics of this year's deal, Nixon points to the certainty it offers.
"You've got to really dig pretty deep in your criticism to find a problem with freezing tuition in Missouri, guaranteeing funding for higher education at a level that is affordable for Missourians, providing predictability and providing stability and excellence in our higher education," Nixon said.