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Missouri Senate panel backs cut for childhood program

Thursday, April 1, 2010 | 6:20 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Senate budget writers want to cut funding by more than half for an early childhood development program that began in Missouri a generation ago and has since spread nationwide.

The national president of the Parents as Teachers initiative said Thursday that the "shortsighted" cut could eliminate help for tens of thousands of families with young children.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also has backed funding reductions for school busing, the Access Missouri college scholarship program, life sciences research and biodiesel producers, among other things. The panel is expected to make more cuts next week.

Gov. Jay Nixon has said the $23.9 billion budget plan he outlined in January now needs to be reduced by about $500 million because of declining tax revenues and uncertain federal funding. Lawmakers have until May 7 to pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The plan passed earlier this month by the House was more than $200 million smaller than Nixon's proposal but relied on a $300 million extension of federal stimulus funds that has not yet been approved by Congress.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he wants to save that money — if it comes — for the 2012 budget and thus is seeking to make deeper reductions for next year's spending plan. Budget analysts have warned that Missouri's 2012 budget could be particularly troublesome because of the end of federal stimulus funds that have been used to plug shortfalls.

Senate committee members offered little dissent to Mayer's plan to cut funding for the Parents as Teachers program to $13 million — down from the nearly $31 million that had been budgeted for the program this year. Nixon already had made a midyear spending cut to the program, and he had recommended a $3.4 million reduction for next year.

Parents as Teachers provides developmental health screenings for infants and preschoolers and sends trained workers into their homes to provide child-rearing instruction. A 1984 Missouri law championed by then-Gov. Kit Bond required all Missouri school districts to offer the Parents as Teachers program. It has since spread to all 50 states and several foreign countries.

In Missouri, the program served more than 85,000 families with children ages up to 3 years old and nearly 61,000 families with children ages 3 to 5 during the last school year, according to figures from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Senate's funding cut could halt services for about 69,000 families and eliminate the jobs of 1,300 school employees, said Sue Stepleton, president and CEO of the Parents and Teachers National Center in St. Louis.

"To cut these children off from this service is a really shortsighted strategy in the long-term for education success in Missouri," Stepleton said.

A $15 million Senate committee cut in school transportation aid would build upon reductions already made by Nixon. The result is that public schools would get about $30 million less in busing aid next year than they originally were budgeted to get this year.

The Senate committee also agreed to reduce college scholarships. The panel's $13 million budget cut to next year's Access Missouri program would match the amount of midyear spending cuts made this year to the program.

But "since more students are coming in, the same amount of money would mean less for each student" in scholarships, said Paul Wagner, Missouri's deputy higher education commissioner.

Another cut approved by the Senate committee would mean biodiesel producers would get just 75 percent of the state subsidies they are supposed to receive under Missouri law. The rest of the payments would be delayed until the 2013 and 2014 budget year.

The Senate panel agreed to eliminate all funding for life sciences research grants.

Senators worked with Nixon's administration to implement a series of other cuts affecting all state departments — 10 percent reductions each for in-state travel and office supplies; 20 percent reductions each for out-of-state travel and employees' professional development; and a 5 cent-per-mile reduction in mileage reimbursements that takes effect Thursday.


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