Representatives hold legislative forum, address higher education funding

Attendees discussed minimum wage, social media, tax plans and higher education funding.

The Columbia Public Library and the League of Women Voters held their annual Legislative Night on Thursday in the library’s Friends Room. Five members of the Missouri State Legislature spoke to a group of about 80 community members about their goals for the 2018 session and answered audience questions about relevant issues such as increasing the minimum wage, the state government’s social media use and funding for higher education.

In attendance were representatives Cheri Reisch, Kip Kendrick, Martha Stevens, Chuck Basye and Sara Walsh.

The forum follows Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposed 2019 fiscal year budget, with suggested higher education cuts of approximately $68 million, of which about $43 million would be cut from the University of Missouri specifically. The figures come to a 10 percent decrease in funds for the University of Missouri System from 2018.

The cuts proposed last month were met with public scrutiny, including a letter written and signed by student leaders from Missouri public universities denouncing the cuts and their inevitable effect on students and the greater community

In light of the concern for higher education, the first question came from the event’s moderator, KFRU’s David Lile, who asked the legislators about the state’s ideal level for funding higher education.

Public discontent has been especially magnified since the cuts follow the UM System’s 500 job cuts in 2017 as a result of previous funding cuts. Included in the budget proposal is a recommendation from a consulting firm that the university make changes in “human resources, purchasing, information technology, facilities, and other areas” to accommodate to the significantly lower appropriations. This means the UM System could expect to see even more job and resource cuts as well as a potential increase in tuition.

“It’s just the easiest place to go when you have to make budget cuts because unfortunately the cost can be passed on to consumers,” Kendrick said. “And that’s what we’ve seen. We’ve seen the inverse, where 70 percent of [public] higher education funding came from the state through the ‘70s and ‘80s and about 30 percent came from tuition. Now, it’s completely inverse … and that’s an issue.”

Stevens added that the Legislature will continue to push back as well as work to find other sources to fill the gap.

“I know that we’ll all be fighting to restore the cuts this year and not look at the [budget] guidelines the governor put out about the cuts,” Stevens said. “And I think the whole delegation is on board with that.”

Reisch echoed that both the House and the Senate would push back against the cuts and try to restore “as much funding to higher [education] as possible.” She wants the focus on higher education support to also include technical schools and community colleges.

Kendrick fears the state’s “failed tax policy” will result in continued cuts next year and into the future. He references Kansas’ failed tax experiment instituted under former Gov. Sam Brownback that resulted in continuous controversial cuts to education. The Kansas government reversed the budget cuts eventually when negative effects became apparent, but Kendrick said Missouri cannot do the same without voter approval because of the Hancock Amendment.

“I don’t see this turning until … we just push back and say, ‘Enough with your tax cuts, and let’s figure out ways to maybe potentially undo some of the damage that’s been done and talk about new revenue streams,’” Kendrick said.

Kendrick said he also focuses on legislature related to refinancing student loans. He supports taking some parts of federal student loans to the state level and refinancing those portions at a lower interest rate at the state level.

“It really is the least we can do as we continue to see cuts to higher education,” Kendrick said. “The least we can do is help them on the back end in repaying their loans.”

Edited by Skyler Rossi | srossi@themaneater.com

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