JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's education system would get little new money — and in some cases, less — under a budget plan passed Wednesday by senators who said they were doing the best they could considering the state's finances have yet to fully rebound from the recession.
The proposed $23.2 billion operating budget for next fiscal year is about the same size as the plan lawmakers had approved for the current year. But growing costs in some programs, such as the Medicaid health care plan for the poor, mean that other areas such as public colleges and universities might take a cut.
Senators on Wednesday passed with little dissent budget bills paying the state's debt, public school districts and higher education institutions. Debate continued on other parts of the budget. The House and Senate face a May 6 deadline to reconcile differences in their budget plans and send a final version to the governor.
The Senate budget plan would cut basic aid to higher education institutions by 4.8 percent next academic year, marking the second consecutive year of declining state aid. But the Senate's proposed cut actually is smaller than the 7 percent reduction originally suggested by Gov. Jay Nixon and passed last month by the House. Senate budget writers lessened the proposed funding cut as part of deal with higher education officials to soften the financial hit to students. Many institutions already are planning tuition hikes next year, but they agreed to try to increase scholarships or reduce course fees in exchange for a smaller state funding cut.
Like the House budget plan, the Senate's version would hold basic aid for public school districts flat at $3 billion next year — an amount that falls about $180 million short of what is called for under the state's school funding formula. The Senate budget plan also would give schools $118 million in busing aid. That's $35 million less than schools were supposed to receive this year. But it's about $20 million more than they actually got after Nixon made budget cuts and also more than the House included in its budget plan for next year.
"We're playing kind of a game on the Missouri public when we say we're holding education funding harmless" by keeping basic aid flat when busing aid is still less than it should be, said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said lawmakers were doing the best they could considering the state's general tax revenues have yet to return to their 2008 high of about $8 billion. The rest of the money in Missouri's budget comes from the federal government and dedicated sources, such as the state fuel tax for highways and a state sales tax earmarked for the Department of Conservation.
Some senators have warned for years that Missouri still relies on too many one-time funding sources, such as federal economic stimulus funds, to help balance its budget. Schaefer acknowledged that as those dollars expire, Missouri will face a budget hole ranging from about $200 million to $700 million in the 2013 fiscal year. Some Republicans, such as Crowell, had wanted to make more cuts this year to reduce that future gap.
But Schaefer said Missouri would be better off waiting for more accurate information about the projected shortfall before making cuts to try to fill it.