Nixon budget strikes balance between promise and reality

The Senate GOP is concerned about the increasing deficit.

Before his first State of the State address Tuesday night, Gov. Jay Nixon proposed a $23 billion budget that strikes a balance between his campaign promises and a less-than-optimistic economic outlook.

During the speech, Nixon reiterated plans to maintain the funding level for state colleges and universities in the next fiscal year in exchange for the universities' promise to not increase student tuition, which he announced last week. The UM system would also receive $10 million in additional funding.

"In the past, when the state has faced challenging economic times, higher education has often been the first target for cuts," Nixon said. "Not this time."

The reception to Nixon's plan was more enthusiastic from Democrats than Republicans.

"It is, in general, very good for the University of Missouri," Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said. "The previous administration demonstrated acts of contempt for the university."

Members of the GOP have expressed concerns about the feasibility of maintaining appropriations levels with expected budget shortfalls of up to $300 million.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said Nixon proposed his plan to maintain higher education appropriations prematurely. He said increased access to higher education for Missourians is a "strong point of agreement" between the party and the new governor.

"We all agree it's a lofty goal," Shields said.

Nixon said in the address that he would pursue the Missouri Promise, a plan to expand the A+ School Program he proposed on the campaign trail, and also proposed the Caring for Missourians program, which would expand the number of health care professionals in the state.

Nixon's plans to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program and to put 62,000 Missourians on state health care coverage which, in part, he proposed to do during his campaign.

"Reducing the number of uninsured Missourians is not just the right thing to do for our neighbors," Nixon said. "It's the smart thing to do for our economy."

However, the proposal did not strike a chord with many Republicans.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said the legislature would try to find other ways to make health care more affordable.

"We're not going back to the days of the past and make it a big welfare program," Richard said.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said the additional programs the governor proposed for the budget surprised him. He said the state could still face shortfalls of $150 million to $200 million.

Republicans have agreed more with Nixon's plans to expand jobs in the state.

Nixon's Show-Me JOBS plan, which he proposed immediately after taking office, would grant low-interest loans to small businesses. He said he would also expand the Quality Jobs Act, which provides incentives for businesses to offer above-average wages and health care.

Despite his calls for increased jobs in the state through government programs, Nixon proposed the public sector reduce its employment opportunities.

He proposed cutting 1,300 government positions and freezing unfilled positions would eliminate nearly $200 million in overhead costs. He also said 50 state programs would be eliminated in the new budget.

"Make no mistake, I value our state workers, and these cuts will not be easy," Nixon said.

The governor promised not to increase taxes on Missouri households and businesses, instead cutting around $200 million in public positions to help offset an expected budget shortfall in fiscal year 2010.

In his budget proposal, $809 million from a proposed federal stimulus package is counted as general revenue funds. The measure is being considered in the U.S. Senate this week.

Amy Blouin, executive director of the Missouri Budget Project, said the state was going to face a budget crisis. She suggested a "streamlined" sales tax, which would tax online shopping. Blouin said the tax would "level the playing field" for small businesses.

"Even before the economy turned worse, we had a budget crisis that was coming because we had an eroding revenue base," Blouin said.

-- Staff writers Eva Dou and Brendan Gibbons contributed to this report

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