JEFFERSON CITY — Columbia's legislators reacted with mixed emotions to proposed higher education cuts after Gov. Jay Nixon's State of the State speech Tuesday night.
Nixon is proposing to fill the $500 million gap in Missouri’s fiscal year 2013 budget by slashing funding for the state’s four-year colleges and universities by $89 million. This is a nearly 13 percent reduction in these institutions’ current funding levels. The UM System would see its operating budget cut by more than $55 million.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who represents both Boone and Randolph counties and who issued a response on behalf of the legislature’s Republican members, described the proposed cuts to the universities’ funding as “unacceptable.”
“The state’s budget has been balanced for three straight years on the back of higher education,” he said in a statement to reporters.
Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said that recent tax cuts were the real reason for the budget shortfall.
“Last year we made a conscious decision as a General Assembly to cut taxes on large multi-national corporations," Webber said. "They pay less tax this year than they did last year. That directly translates into us not having money to fund our schools.”
Webber said he would rather see an online sales tax adopted, which he said would more than cover Nixon’s proposed cuts to higher education.
Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, was disappointed by the cuts to higher education. Still, along with fellow Democratic Rep. Chris Kelly of Columbia, is looking at other options of raising revenue for higher education — this includes an online sales tax bill and a bill to raise the cigarette tax.
"There's no redeeming value to having the lowest cigarette tax in the country," Still said. She also said that a bill for an online sales tax in Missouri would protect local businesses. Currently, items purchased from national online retailers are not subject to Missouri sales tax.
The bill for online sales tax has already been filed and the bill on a cigarette tax increase is expected to be filed this week, Still said.
Nixon's proposed budget provides stable funding for state college scholarship programs such as Access Missouri, A+ program, and Bright Flight. However, both Still and Kelly said that the cuts to higher education funding will affect the quality of Missouri universities and colleges.
"You have to ask yourself, where's the line between access and quality?" Kelly said, " ... having accessibility to institutions of decreasing quality is not a benefit."
Nixon called on colleges and universities to make up for the cuts by reducing overhead costs and being more efficient.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, likewise indicated that the proposed cuts to the state’s colleges and universities would have a difficult time clearing the Senate and said that he would be working with Senate Republicans to lessen the reduction.
Although Columbia legislators spoke out against cuts to higher education, they did note that there were many positive points in Nixon's speech.
Still supported Nixon's stance on protecting workers and his proposals for job creation.
"We need to have people making more money, not less," she said. Kelly said Nixon has done well in the area of economic development, referring to bringing IBM to Columbia in May 2010.
"His credibility is sky-high on the issue of job development," Kelly said.
Nixon's budget presented before his speech on Tuesday night is not final. It must pass a vote in the House and the Senate before going into effect in July.