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Columbia Missourian

Nixon: No prison closings; school aid questionable

By DAVID A. LIEB/The Associated Press
December 16, 2010 | 5:33 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ruled out closing a state prison to help close the state's projected budget gap, but warned on Thursday that more cuts could be coming to state jobs, higher education and certain public school programs.

Nixon's administration has estimated that Missouri faces a shortfall of between $500 million and $700 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — a gap equivalent to almost 10 percent of the state's general tax revenues. The governor, who is to make his budget recommendations to lawmakers in mid-January, outlined some of his priorities Thursday.

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"It's going to be a very challenging budget year," Nixon said.

Through two years of slumping tax revenues, the Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature already have eliminated more than a couple thousand state jobs and reduced funding for public colleges and universities, early childhood programs, public health clinics and home care providers for the disabled, among other things.

Basic aid for public elementary and secondary schools remained flat from last academic year to the current one because lawmakers and the governor shunned as unaffordable a more than $100 million increase called for under the state's school funding formula. But schools still took a hit. Specific state aid for school busing was cut in half by Nixon.

Some school officials have expressed concern that state busing aid could be cut further or eliminated in the next budget.

Nixon said he hopes to avoid that, but added that school busing subsidies are "on the watch list" for potential cuts along with public colleges and universities.

The gap likely will grow larger between what schools actually get and what they are supposed to receive under Missouri's funding model. Nixon said he did not anticipate increasing basic aid to K-12 schools but instead simply hoped to avoid cutting it.

The governor declined to say how many additional state employee positions might be eliminated or exactly how much additional money would be cut from higher education institutions, which saw a roughly 5 percent reduction in their general operating budgets this year.

Earlier this year, some Supreme Court judges proposed changes to state sentencing policies that would gradually reduce the number of people incarcerated, eventually allowing the state to save money by shutting down a prison. The Senate considered it, but the idea did not fare well in the Legislature.

Nixon, a former state attorney general, said Thursday that the Department of Corrections has already been cutting costs and he did not support closing a prison as a way to help reduce the budget shortfall.

"I don't think that adds efficiency," Nixon said. "Public safety is something I've supported for years and, boy, I just don't see that as a solution."