WHAT OTHERS SAY: Higher education should not lose in budget again

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 | 8:13 p.m. CST; updated 9:18 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Like a sixth-year college student bailing on finals week, Missouri's elected officials have given up on higher education.

The state's long descent into the lowest tier in the nation for taxpayer support of colleges and universities began in 2001. Despite lofty rhetoric from governors and lawmakers about how education is vital to economic development, Missouri remains near the bottom.

However, when it comes to cutting corporate taxes, which does very little to promote real economic development, Republican lawmakers and their Democratic soul mate, Gov. Jay Nixon, almost always are up to the challenge.

How bad is the state of higher education funding in Missouri? Consider the Nixon administration's latest proposal.

To keep higher education funding "stable" — meaning it would not fall further behind the competition — Nixon's staff has been working with university presidents on a scheme to have the five schools lend the state about $107 million from reserve funds. That money then would be paid back to the universities in the form of state funding.

The loans are needed — just to keep funding the same as last year, mind you — because Missouri faces a probable budget shortfall of several hundred million dollars next year.

Making a bad proposal worse, the state would pay back its loans over time from predicted revenue created by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, a quasi-state agency that exists to help students with loans to attend college.

The balances of those loans are skyrocketing each year because Missouri's support of higher education has declined, leading to higher tuition, which is pricing many middle-class and lower-income students out of a state-funded education.

Nixon's rob-Peter-to-pay-Peter proposal was met with derision from state lawmakers, who were offended that they weren't part of the conversation. It's too bad that the legislators' noses were out of joint, but until the governor presents a budget blueprint to them, they don't get a say.

But if the best he's got is a budget shell game just to keep colleges and universities at budget levels below where they were more than a decade ago, he's already failed.

So, too, have the Republican lawmakers who cast stones at Nixon without recognizing that their own budget proposals — or lack thereof — reveal numerous cracks in their glass house.

The fact is that there are some simple revenue sources to be tapped to help Missouri — one of the lowest-tax states in the nation — balance its budget. The state could raise its lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax and collect the same sales taxes on Internet-sold products that are collected by Main Street businesses.

Both ideas have bipartisan support, but Republican leaders and Nixon are so married to their Grover Norquist-like "no new taxes" pledges that they refuse to consider reasonable steps to move Missouri forward.

Higher education spending is an investment in Missouri's future workforce. It is, in every sense of the word, a job creator.

Missouri Republicans have been unable to find a voter-tested, experienced candidate to face Nixon in 2012. That should give the Democratic governor the political fortitude to challenge lawmakers to put their money where their rhetoric is regarding jobs and higher education.

Instead, the governor is content with gimmicks as Missouri college students and their parents — if they can afford college at all — are drowning in a sea of debt.

Reprinted with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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