WHAT OTHERS SAY: Follow Tim Wolfe's advice — freeze tuition for UM schools

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:34 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The University of Missouri Board of Curators should follow UM System President Tim Wolfe’s advice when it meets this week: Keep tuition flat for the 2014-15 school year.

Gov. Jay Nixon has asked all of the state’s public universities to avoid tuition hikes this year. In exchange, he promised “additional” funding.

The word “additional” is in quotes because Nixon’s proposed 5 percent increase in core funding, plus various increases to add slots for mental health and math studies, science and engineering fields and some more scholarship money, is truly only “additional” if you ignore recent Missouri history.

It’s nice. It’s better than last year. But it’s nowhere near adequate.

For instance, as David Lieb of the Associated Press pointed out in a weekend story, even with all the increases proposed by Nixon this year, total funding for the state’s universities will be below the $969 million that was budgeted back in 2002.

In the past 12 years, as a result of two recessions and a legislature that doesn’t value education funding, Missouri continues to fall behind. Missouri ranks worse for state support for higher education than all but four other states.

Freezing University of Missouri tuition at its current average level — $9,464 per year — is the least the curators can do.

President Wolfe has good advice

But before the board votes on the tuition freeze, here’s what the curators should do: Ask Wolfe for his thoughts on Missouri’s tax policy and how it fits with the stated priorities of the state as set out in the constitution. The views of this former corporate CEO are dead-on.

Wolfe knows Missouri’s decades-long history as one of the lowest-tax states in the nation is directly related to its position as one of the poorest supporters of both K-12 schools and higher education.

“We have got to do something different in our state to be more competitive,” he said Friday in a meeting with the Post-Dispatch editorial board. “We run the risk of having an educational system that is only available to those in the ‘have’ category.”

Most worrisome is that even though Missouri has one of the lowest tax rates in the country (6th lowest, according to Nixon), state lawmakers want to cut taxes even more.

Last week, for instance, a Senate committee passed this year’s version of a tax cut bill similar to the one Nixon vetoed last year. The governor was quick with a news release, pointing out that the legislation, if it became law, would ultimately rob the state of about $1 billion in revenue.

That’s $1 billion less for education, for roads, for health care, for basic state services.

The myth of tax cuts

Republicans who vote for such garbage argue that cutting taxes ultimately leads to a better economy. If it were true, Missouri would be booming. Over the past four decades, it has had the 47th lowest tax burden in the nation. Winning the race to the bottom will not help.

When it comes to tax policy, lawmakers are asking the wrong question, Wolfe points out.

“I think tax change can be a good thing, but it should be very intentional,” Wolfe told us. “We should change tax policy to fund the objective, and the objective is the priorities we have as a state.”

In Missouri, those priorities are set out in the constitution. First is paying debt. Second is funding education.

Last summer, Nixon flew around the state making the same argument: If the state’s top priority is to fund schools, then tax policy must meet that end. Freezing tuition is a good first step, but the real work remains. Wolfe should grab a megaphone, borrow Nixon’s new state plane and take his message to every corner of Missouri.

If education is truly a Missouri priority, our state lawmakers have a pretty poor way of showing it.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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