Missouri House leader wants to ease cuts to higher education with money from the blind

Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 7:19 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The top budget leader in the Missouri House of Representatives announced his plan to restore the proposed cut to public universities by eliminating a state program for the blind.

House Budget Chairman Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, plans on ending a $28 million program for the blind in order to reverse the 15 percent cut to public universities called for by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

"The governor's assault on higher education ends today," Silvey said.

Nixon released a written statement after Silvey's plan was announced and called the cuts to the program for the blind "just plain wrong."

"We should not, and cannot, remove the funding for this program that allows thousands of Missourians to remain in their own homes," Nixon said in his statement.

Silvey's plan would add a total of $106 million more than Nixon's proposal, giving colleges the same amount of money they are getting this year.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said he applauded Silvey's work to restore the cuts to colleges, but did not agree with taking money from the blind.

"I would rather go into the administration of state government for the cuts than the blind," Kelly said.

To restore Nixon's higher education cuts, Silvey took $28 million from the Supplemental Aid to the Blind program, which provides care for 2,800 people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The program averages $10,000 per person in the program. Blindness is the only condition in Missouri to have this special fund, according to Silvey.

"It's about a fundamental question of fairness in the disability community," Silvey said.

Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-St. Louis County, said she was "cautious" about taking money from this program.

"These people have been cut so deeply in the past years. We have an obligation to take care of our most vulnerable," Kirkton said.

A top Democrat on the House Budget Committee said the cuts to the blind needed more discussion but the lack of state funds available makes these decisions difficult.

"Clearly there is no money," said Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield.

Silvey also cut a $5 million increase to local school district funding that Nixon had proposed. Silvey said the increase would only have been worth $5 per pupil.

"I ended the governor's election year political stunt," Silvey said.

The new budget plan takes into account a $10 million boost in lottery sales beyond what Nixon projected. It also includes $40 million from a national mortgage settlement, which Nixon had requested be used to soften the blow from his initial higher education cuts.

It also makes changes to the governor's proposal for a pay raise for state employees. Nixon originally had called for the raise to take effect in January instead of July, when the state's fiscal year begins. Silvey's plan pushes the start date for the raise to July, but only for employees earning less than $70,000 a year.

The House Budget Committee will begin mark-up on the state's $23 billion budget next week.

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