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Missouri House panel backs $100 million increase in school aid

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 | 4:23 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri House panel endorsed a $100 million funding boost Wednesday for public schools as Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike said the state couldn't afford a significantly larger increase sought by Gov. Jay Nixon.

The action by the House Appropriations Education Committee marks the first step in a lengthy legislative budgeting process, and the school funding figure could be changed later by the House or Senate.

But the committee's bipartisan support for the plan indicates that the Democratic governor may stand little chance of getting the full $278 million funding increase he had sought in basic aid for K-12 school districts.

"The governor's $278 million was smoke and mirrors — it didn't exist," said committee chairman Rep. Mike Lair, a Republican from Chillicothe who is a retired high school teacher.

"I'm not a political person. I'm going to put in the budget what I think is there," Lair added.

Republican legislative leaders are paring back the 2015 state budget that Nixon proposed last month because they believe he relied on overly optimistic revenue projections. Nixon has defended his budget as balanced.

The House panel endorsed its education funding plan without any "no" votes. The committee's ranking Democratic member, Rep. Genise Montecillo of St. Louis, told The Associated Press that she believes "the governor's numbers perhaps might have been a little bit high."

"I wanted the governor's recommendations, but I'm not going to turn away $100 million because I can't get the full amount" for public schools, Montecillo said.

Nixon's school funding proposal had been intended to close half of the projected $556 million gap that exists between Missouri's actual school aid in the 2014-15 academic year and the amount called for under a 2005 state law. He had hoped to fully fund the school formula the following year.

The House education funding committee largely followed Nixon's recommendations for a performance-based increase to the core budgets of public colleges and universities. It embraced a $43 million increase to be distributed to institutions based on whether they met goals such as student retention and graduation rates.

But the House panel pared back Nixon's proposal to pour an additional $22 million into institutions' core budgets for science, technology, engineering and math programs. The panel instead approved $5.2 million for a new grant program focused on those topics.

The committee scrapped Nixon's proposal for a $20 million initiative focused on training more students for mental health professions. Lair and Montecillo both cited concerns that the initiative's description seemed vague.

The panel recommended $12 million for a new forgivable loan program associated with the state's Bright Flight scholarship, as opposed to $17 million sought by Nixon. The committee's $9 million funding increase for the financial needs-based Access Missouri scholarship is similar to Nixon's recommendation.

The education funding plan will next go to the House Budget Committee, which could make additional changes before forwarding it to the full House for consideration. It then must go to the Senate.


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