JEFFERSON CITY — House members will attempt to strike a deal with state universities to restore nearly $70 million in higher education cuts in exchange for a tuition freeze next year.
The House Budget Committee released preliminary details of its budget proposal Wednesday morning, which includes restoration of $68 million in cuts that were in the governor's recommended budget. Of the $68 million, $30 million would be placed into the Access Missouri need-based scholarship fund and remain there until an agreement is met between lawmakers and universities to keep the tuition rate flat next year. If such a deal is met, that $30 million would instead be added to schools' core funding.
Budget chairman Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, is still trying to finalize the deal, which would freeze tuition for in-state undergraduate students only. He said some universities have been receptive, while others have not. It was unclear Wednesday which universities were on board with the deal.
The goal, Fitzpatrick said, is to fund higher education while also keeping college affordable.
"I want to make sure that if we're putting that money back, it's going to result in holding down the cost of college for Missouri students," Fitzpatrick said. "If tuition is going to go up, I want to make sure that we are putting some of that money into a place where it will help with people who are having to pay that tuition."
The extra money comes from a pool of $80 million the General Assembly set aside last year when Congress failed to reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Fund. With the renewal of CHIP earlier this year, Fitzpatrick announced two weeks ago that he would like to funnel the money toward higher education.
MU spokesman Christian Basi said university officials are still in the planning stages and discussing tuition with lawmakers, but that the university supports the legislature's work in restoring funds to higher education.
"We're grateful for the continued support from legislators over the past few weeks, as we know they've been working hard to find additional money for public higher education," Basi said. "Together, we've made significant progress in ensuring that public higher education remains affordable."
Sen. Dan Brown, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he's spoken with Fitzpatrick and right now isn't in a position to support Fitzpatrick's proposal. Brown said Missouri Southern State University would be most impacted by the tuition freeze and he has been having conversations with university officials about it.
"I have from the beginning of the session said that I'm going to put the $68 million back in, and I didn't put any caveats on it," said Brown, R-Rolla. "Right now, unless I hear something different, I'm not leaning toward forcing them to hold the tuition rate."
A spokesman for Missouri Southern said university officials were still meeting with lawmakers about the issue and were not yet ready to weigh in.
While Fitzpatrick is trying to keep tuition flat next year, lawmakers are also trying to pass legislation that would increase the cap by which universities can raise tuition. Currently, they are prohibited from raising it beyond the price of inflation. A Senate bill sponsored by Caleb Rowden to increase the cap has stalled in the Senate, and a bill filed in the House was passed out of committee Wednesday.
While Gov. Eric Greitens has described the higher education cut as being $68 million, that figure does not compare his proposal with the budget approved last year, as is typical when describing budget changes. Greitens withheld funding from higher education during this fiscal year. The actual amount of the governor's proposed cut is $98 million compared with last year's budget.
Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said Greitens' proposed cuts upset a lot of budget committee members, allowing for a conversation about higher education and its importance to the state.
The proposal to restore $68 million "doesn't necessarily make higher education institutions whole or put them back to where they were in fiscal year 2017. We're a long ways from that," Kendrick said. "If there is a silver lining to all of the proposed cuts that were put out there, it's allowed us to focus in on higher ed this year in such a way that hopefully we can continue to gain on this momentum going into the future."
As for the plan to place $30 million into the scholarship fund, Kendrick said he was "still processing" that.
"I've been focusing on the issue of student debt for a number of years, so I can appreciate fully funding a need-based scholarship program," Kendrick said. "As a state in general, we underfund need-based aid for low- and middle-income individuals, but it could potentially run a risk."
The committee is expected to debate all the budget bills next week, when members can propose changes.
The higher education budget also includes funding four cooperative programs and rolling that money into the schools' core budgets, rather than having them as "line items" on the budget. MU School of Medicine's cooperative program in Springfield would receive $6 million, as opposed to the requested $10 million. The governor's budget included no funding for the program.
Kendrick said rolling these programs' funds into core budgets will help protect them in the future.
"I think it's critical at some point that we roll them up into the core because as long as those line items continue to hang out there," Kendrick said, "that's one of the first places to go to make cuts."
Once the full House passes a budget bill, it will advance to the Senate where further changes can be made. The bill is likely to end up in a conference committee, where Fitzpatrick's tuition deal could prove crucial to working out a compromise.
"I hope it's not too big of a problem," Brown said. "We'll see where we end up, but I'm going to stand pretty strong, and I'm sure he will too."
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