State senator from Columbia to head spending committee

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 | 7:32 p.m. CST; updated 8:30 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 12, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — The most powerful chairmanship in the Senate now belongs to the senator from the district with the largest single government institution in the state. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who represents the district that houses the center of operations for the University of Missouri System, will assign discretionary funding this session as head of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I intend to make it a priority to do everything I can for K-12 education and higher education," Schaefer said. "I do think that in this economic climate, it would be a victory to be able to hold funding steady for both K-12 and higher ed compared to last year."

Last year, MU received more than half a billion dollars in funding for education and other expenses.

Roger Wilson was the last Columbia senator to chair the Appropriations Committee, from 1986-1992. He said although the chairman must deny roughly two-thirds of budget requests even in good times, the position can help protect the university from cuts.

"Chris Kelly (D-Columbia) was the House budget chairman at the time that I was Senate budget chairman for two years, and we didn't run away with the bacon, we didn't grab everything we could for the University of Missouri — but it was certainly easier to keep the University of Missouri from getting harmed in those positions," Wilson said. "You are in a critical decision-making position, which will enable you to move agendas probably more forcefully than a lot of House or Senate positions."

In his inaugural speech last week, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, who makes committee appointments, made reference to the importance of higher education in his life. When he suddenly lost his first job of 12 years, he was able to begin a new career by finishing his undergraduate education and then attending law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Mayer said he and Schaefer have talked about his obligation to his district and the university.

"He and I have had discussions pertaining to the higher education budget, and I just think he has a good handle on the overall budget picture — and understands that after coming out of this economic downturn that has been historic in proportion that he'll have to make tough decisions and decisions that may not be popular in his district, that may not be popular around the state," Mayer said.

The slow economy, Schaefer said, is definitely a consideration and will be an obstacle for all budget decisions this session.

"This is very likely the most difficult budget year that Missouri has ever faced when you compare it to decreases from previous years, so obviously that's a real challenge, especially on behalf of K-12 education and higher education," Schaefer said.

Mayer said he is hopeful they will be able to keep cuts to education at a minimum, though it could prove difficult to do.

"I think we all would like to see K-12 funding, especially the foundation formula, stay at the same level of funding that it did last year, and certainly with higher ed, too," Mayer said. "I'm not certain that that's possible, but I hold out some optimism that we'll find some more cost savings."

Mayer and Schaefer previously worked together on the Appropriation Committee last year; Mayer was chairman and Schaefer was vice-chairman. Mayer announced the appointment Wednesday morning and said he was confident in Schaefer's ability to lead and his understanding of budget issues.

The first step in the budgeting process begins next week with Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who will deliver his budget proposal when he gives his State of the State address Jan. 19. The General Assembly will work from that proposal to reach a balanced budget, which it is constitutionally required to do. The governor then has line-item veto power over the budget produced by the legislature.

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