GEORGE KENNEDY: MU's budget forecast is grim with a good chance of grimmer

Thursday, February 21, 2013 | 2:01 p.m. CST

MU Provost Brian Foster went home sick Wednesday, so he missed the first budget forum scheduled by his staff.

Good call. After sitting through two hours of unremittingly grim explanation, futile attempts to lighten the mood and fruitless suggestions by faculty listeners, I felt a little queasy myself.

Provost Foster's deputy, Ken Dean, noted that Wednesday was new Budget Director Rhonda Gibler's 51st day on the job, succeeding the legendary Tim Rooney. It was her first crack at the thankless annual chore of showing and telling just how bad our university's fiscal situation is, and why it's not likely to get any better any time soon.

She came across, I thought, as candid, well informed, good humored and way too kind to both our masters in the legislature and their putative masters, our fellow citizens of Missouri.

The numbers tell only part of the story.

Our university is a $2 billion business (run, Ken Dean commented, as no rational business would be, with almost no control over its costs and artificial limits to its revenue). Of that total, about $537 million is the general operating budget. The rest is made up of such "enterprise" funds as hospitals and physicians, athletics and student housing, all of which are more or less self-sustaining.

The legislature provides this year less than one-third of that general operating budget. Tuition provides 62 percent. For purposes of historical interest, remember that back in 1990, the state appropriation covered 70 percent of the budget.

Since the high point of state support in 2001, Dr. Gibler pointed out, state support has declined by 12 percent while enrollment has grown by 47 percent and the Consumer Price Index has gone up 32 percent.

That means, she and Deputy Provost Dean observed, that the campus has come to count on enrollment growth to balance the budget. And that growth is slowing, both because of fewer high school graduates in Missouri and the limitations of campus capacity.

Budget planners are counting on only about half the increase in enrollment next year. This year's freshman class included the highest percentage ever of out-of-state students, 36 percent. Those, of course, are the high-dollar newcomers. They pay roughly double the in-state average of $9,272 in tuition and fees. (That's below both the SEC average ($10,727) and the average of our peers in the AAU ($10,904).

Looking ahead, the picture is no rosier. Once she's factored in expected cost increases and the expectation that there'll be no more money from the state, and set a goal of 3 percent for salary increases, Dr. Gibler's chart shows a shortfall next year of $16.3 million. So departments that have long since cut away their fiscal fat will once again have to engage in the self-mutilation known as "reallocation."

That leads me where Ken Dean and Rhonda Gibler, for good and sufficient reason, didn't want to go. Who's to blame?

Both budgeters insisted that MU has a good reputation in Jefferson City. They pointed out that the Republican-led legislature actually gave us more money last year than Gov. Nixon proposed. The legislature just doesn't have the money to do any better, they said.

But I ask, whose fault is that? The reason Missouri ranks 44th among states in support for higher education per capita is that our political leaders have an ideological resistance to the taxes necessary to sustain state services -- not only education -- at anything close to an adequate level.

The citizenry seems content. As Dr. Gibler understated, "Missourians aren't excited about taxing themselves." The fate of the proposed tobacco tax last year stands as supporting evidence.

I've said jokingly that we Missourians are poor and ignorant and proud of it. It's increasingly clear that the joke's on us.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Ellis Smith February 22, 2013 | 7:47 a.m.

@ George Kennedy:

When a private sector business is faced with a financial crisis, what measures are typicaly taken?

Obviously, a public university (in this particular instance, MULTI-campus) is not a private sector business, but it could be instructive to part the "ivy curtain" and at least look at the real world.

PS: I agree with you and Waters (your prior comments) that part of the problem is that there are too many public-financed "universities" in Missouri, but lots of luck trying to change that.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 22, 2013 | 8:24 a.m.

"an ideological resistance to the taxes..."

"Missourians aren't excited about taxing themselves."

Both true. But the fate of the proposed tobacco tax standing as "evidence" for this is plain wrong.

The tobacco tax was a lie-by-omission that folks like you and, most unfortunately, Chris Kelly (not known for such shenanigans) kept telling us. The omission?...That while the tax money would indeed go to education, current education money would leave by the ass-end back into general revenue. The result? Not much more for education and perhaps even a zero sum game. The whole thing was just a back door for more general revenue taxes under the appeal-to-emotion guise of "it's for the children."

This was identical to the casino lie of the past, and I think Missouri voters recognized that fact.

So "Missourians are poor and ignorant and proud of it", is it? Is that what you think? Apparently so. But you'd be wrong, perhaps deliberately so in an effort to look down your nose, make a joke, and ignore real reasons for our taxation reluctance. Missourians see the opportunity to support many things in this state, including education and transportation, but we also see horrible inefficiencies and poor strategies and decisions in our government that have gone on for decades. We see never-ending requests for more tax money poured into doing the same failed thing over and over. We see resistance to change, even at our University.

As for "Both budgeters insisted that MU has a good reputation in Jefferson City", I say they (and you, by inference) are wrong. Columbia persists in shooting itself in the PR foot with the rest of this state, especially among rural and more conservative voters. And, since our city supports itself mainly as a tax sink for the rest of the state, we get to pay the price in terms of dollars. Truth is, it's an easy "penalty" to figure out.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 22, 2013 | 5:38 p.m.

Thank you, Michael.

I am not a native Missourian. I never saw the state until I enrolled at our small campus, but I have lived in Missouri longer than anywhere else; my wife is buried in Missouri, and my daughter went K-12 in a Missouri public school system.

Maybe I have some knowledge of Missourians.

I believe Missourians are little different in certain respects from residents of the upper Midwestern states: They turn obstinate when they believe they've been "bamboozeled."

(Report Comment)

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