UPDATE: Missouri House plan redirects funds to higher education

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 | 7:12 p.m. CST; updated 8:09 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 29, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — The top budget writer in the Missouri House of Representatives proposed reversing Gov. Jay Nixon's cuts to public colleges and universities — in part, by eliminating a state program that provides aid to the blind.

The new plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, also would eliminate smaller sums of money Nixon had proposed for K-12 schools, the judiciary and an incentive program for science-and-technology based businesses. And it would modify Nixon's proposed pay raise for state employees — providing the money sooner, but only to people earning less than $70,000.

Silvey outlined his budget plan Wednesday to The Associated Press in advance of distributing copies to fellow lawmakers, who are likely to see it on their desks by Thursday. Silvey also sent a letter to college and university presidents Wednesday, informing them of his plan and urging them to support it.

"We are going to value higher education — we are going to make it a priority — and we're going to balance the budget," Silvey said in an interview.

In January, the Democratic governor proposed a nearly $23 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 that included a recommended cut of $106 million — or 12.5 percent — to public colleges and universities. In February, Nixon proposed to soften the cut by redirecting an anticipated $40 million from a national settlement with mortgage lenders to go to higher education institutions.

Silvey's plan would wipe out the rest of Nixon's proposed cut to higher education, providing institutions the same amount they are getting this year.

To do that, Silvey embraced a $28 million elimination of state aid to the blind that had been recommended by a House appropriations committee. The Supplemental Aid to the Blind program funds medical care for more than 2,800 people who earn too much too qualify for the Medicaid health care program for the poor but do already receive payments from a state blind pension fund.

Silvey said that in a tight budget the state could no longer afford to provide the blind medical aid that people who are deaf or paralyzed do not receive.

"It is completely inconsistent with how we treat any other disability in the state," Silvey said. "All we are doing is, going to do is put them on a level playing field with anyone else with a disability."

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste declined to comment Wednesday about Silvey's new budget plan. Earlier this month, Nixon said he opposed efforts to cut aid to the blind to balance the budget, adding: "It's just plain wrong."

Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Wednesday that cutting aid to the blind is a "big worry." But she said, "I am thrilled we are looking for money for higher education."

Lampe said she was open to considering a cut to the blind program to finance education.

"I believe with the money we have, we're going to have to make some really tough, tough decisions," said Lampe, a former school teacher and administrator.

Lampe described Silvey's proposed pay plan as "spectacular." Nixon had proposed a 2 percent raise for state employees to begin halfway through the fiscal year, on Jan. 1. Silvey's plan would begin the pay raise when the new budget kicks in July 1, but would provide it only to those earning less than $70,000.

Silvey's proposed budget would eliminate a $5 million increase Nixon had proposed to the state's $3 billion basic aid programs to elementary and secondary schools. Silvey said the increase was too small to be consequential.

His new budget plan also would cut $4 million each from the judiciary and a new program granting incentives to science-based businesses. It assumes the state would generate $10 million more in lottery revenues than Nixon had projected, and it makes some funding switches to free up money for higher education.

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