Missouri Senate to vote on restoring higher education funding

House members approved the amendments during a final roll-call vote March 29, sending the bill and its amendments to the Senate for hearing and revision.
Graphic by Gillian Smith

The Missouri House passed amendments to House Bill 2003 on March 29, which would move $30 million put into the ACCESS Missouri grant fund over to core funding for higher education, restoring about $14 million to the University of Missouri System.

The funding is contingent on colleges’ recent agreements to cap tuition hikes at 1 percent for undergraduate in-state students for the 2018-19 academic year.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Budget Committee, offered the amendments to HB 2003, which would essentially undo all of Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposed $68 million in cuts. He recommended $38 million to go into the core budget for higher education and $30 million to go to the ACCESS Missouri grant fund.

Fitzpatrick said he was committed to restoring some funds to colleges’ core funds without a contingency. He wanted to hold some funds back to use as leverage to get schools to commit to capping tuition at 1 percent.

The funds for these proposals come from a variety of changes made to the allocations in Greitens’ budget. Fitzpatrick said approximately $80 million became available from the state’s Medicaid budget because of an underestimation in federal funding.

“I just felt like in order to maintain the investment in higher education, I wanted to see some concession on tuition from institutions because I thought that would be good for students and families who have to pay tuition in the state,” Fitzpatrick said. “I saw an opportunity to save students and families a little bit of money.”

The Senate still needs to pass the bill with its amendments before legislators can conference and finalize a bill for the governor to sign.

“I feel pretty confident that at the very least, at the end of the day, that $68 million dollars will be back in the higher education institutions’ budget,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Missouri legislature has until May 11 to finalize a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

If the budget is finalized with these proposed restorations, Missouri public colleges can expect capped tuition hikes and a maintained level of funding compared to this past school year.

“It means that if you’re an in-state undergraduate student that your tuition increase is only going to be 1 percent instead of something that could have been higher than that,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re providing stable funding to the institutions, and hopefully they’ll be able to maintain the quality of the product they’re providing to you.”

MU graduate student Joseph Moore has organized advocacy work against higher education cuts as president of MU Socialists through group meetings and community events like last month’s Stop The Cuts protest. Moore said that, while a reversal of cuts for next year would be good, it is only a temporary fix to a larger funding problem that has existed for years.

“I think it’s a positive outcome; obviously it staves off the immediate threat of cuts,” Moore said. “But I do think that this restoring the immediate cuts is a bandaid on a much deeper wound, which is this chronic issue of the funding of higher education at the state level. It’s a problem that’s going to continue to exist particularly because the legislature has been steadily eroding the state’s revenue base through irresponsible tax cuts.”

With Sen. Bill Eigel’s tax code passing in the Senate, individual and business income tax would be reduced to 5.25 percent, further lowering the state revenue base. The Missouri Budget Project estimates this could leave a $500 million hole in the state revenue base. Greitens has also recommended lowering the corporate tax rate to the second lowest in the nation.

“If any version of those bills passes, it’s going to put a massive hole in the state budget, and then the question becomes what are they going to cut next year or the year after that to balance the budget?” Moore said. “And the answer will be most likely higher education because it’s the easiest thing for them to cut … because they know that if they cut higher education, the universities can recoup some of that money through tuition hikes.”

Moore said his advocacy work for higher education funding is far from over. MU Socialists plans to meet to discuss the recent developments and its responses. It also plans to look into the status of contracts for non-tenure track faculty that were previously not going to be renewed because of the expected budget cuts.

“Now that the immediate, short-term threat is being alleviated, I think people are kind of letting their guard down a little bit,” Moore said. “But there is this much larger context of a steady erosion of state revenue … and I think people need to be aware of that and not lose sight of, ‘Hey, this fight is not over. We still have to fight for every dime.’”

When the contract non-renewals were first announced, MU News Bureau Director Christian Basi said the contracts could be renewed if the budget situation changed.

“If the state budget picture gets better [and] if enrollment numbers look better, [for] some of those notices we might go back to those faculty and say, ‘Yes, we notified you that your contract was not being renewed; actually, we are going to need you. Here’s a new contract for next year,’” Basi said.

Basi said in an email that MU cannot provide definitive information about the contracts until a final budget is signed by the governor.

Edited by Skyler Rossi | srossi@themaneater.com

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