Column: Begging universities for funding every time there’s a problem

This past December, Gov. Jay Nixon asked five state universities to lend Missouri $107 million. This loan would have been interest-free, and the universities would, in theory, be paid back throughout the next seven years, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The scheme would roll the loan into an $850 million higher education budget, which would cover operating expenses at all of Missouri's four-year institutions and community colleges. Nixon claimed his plan would avoid a 13 percent cut to higher education across the board, but many feared Missouri's public universities would be making a loan only to never be paid back.

Regarding the initial loan request, Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said,"The governor is looking for this scheme that avoids making tough decisions on cuts. Rather than balance the state's budget, he wants to dream up new revenue sources which happen to be interest-free loans from our universities."

Rep. Silvey is right. The state either has the revenue to help fund its universities or it doesn't, and that's a reality our state must face. By ignoring the impending budget crisis, we are prolonging the problem rather than putting ourselves back on the road to budget solvency.

On Feb. 7, Gov. Nixon backed down. After a hard-fought battle about funding of higher education, Gov. Nixon restored $40 million in funding to Missouri's public colleges and universities. Nixon’s change of heart was thanks to [Attorney General Chris Koster’s announcement]((http://governor.mo.gov/newsroom/2012/Gov_Nixon_restores_40_million_in_funding_for_public_colleges_universities) that Missouri is expected to receive more than $140 million in benefits under a proposed settlement by state attorneys general with the nation's five largest mortgage banks over flawed and fraudulent foreclosure practices that led to the housing crisis. This change of policy is a great move politically for the governor, but Missourians need to remember how disappointing and frustrating Nixon’s initial plan was and how close it came to being a reality.

Budget challenges in the 2013 fiscal year result from Missouri maxing out its credit card every year the state received money from the federal stimulus. Pretending the revenue is going to continue to flow as it has the past several years doesn’t work. The citizens of this state saw what the budget will look like without the help of these “one-time-only” stimuli. Missouri was lucky to get another burst this year, but the trend can’t continue every year. Washington allowed Missouri to live outside its means, and Jefferson City drank the Kool-Aid.

This past Monday, the UM System’s Board of Curators approved a 3 percent hike in tuition and fees. This can be seen as a win because it is less than half the 6.5 percent increase under consideration earlier this month, and this situation changed in large part thanks to Nixon’s shrinking of his proposed cut from 12.5 percent to 7.8 percent. However, a 3 percent hike can hardly be seen as a win.

Many, including this publication’s editorial board, have said that we need to tighten our belts. That’s true, but we needed to tighten our belts last year, the year before that and the year before that. The problem is, we didn’t. Kicking the can down the road for three years and then playing politics while hanging off the side of a cliff won’t solve a budget crisis.

Missouri needed a consistent budget plan for higher education three years ago. Missouri needs a consistent budget plan for higher education now. Jefferson City knew these federal packages were going to stop flowing, and when they did, the governor acted surprised. If the state must cut funding to higher education, fine. The budget is only so large. However, pretending that everything’s great for three years and then announcing a 12.5 percent cut in funding is unacceptable. MU is a shining star for this great state. It is the soil, which allows this state’s youth to bloom. It should remain this way, but it cannot if our governor continues to play with it like a game.

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