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Higher Education Funding Cap

April 21, 2006
By: Ferdous Al-Faruque
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A week after Missouri's House passed a bill that would limit University of Missouri appropriations increases and tuition is scheduled to be heard in the Missouri Senate Education Committee Tuesday.

Joe Moore, UM System spokesman, said the university considered the bill bad legislation. He said that capping tuition and appropriations would be unhealthy for the university and would erode the quality of education for its students.

The bill is sponsored by the speaker pro tem of the House -- Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles.

It seeks to restrict the legislature from granting a state funding increase for a public higher education institution higher than the level of state funding institution had during the 2001-2002 fiscal year.

Funding increases above that level would be restricted in size and require the institution to meet various performance measures developed by the Higher Education Department.

Bearden disagrees that his bill would negatively affect students and the university, noting that with the higher education budget cuts of recent years, the bill's funding restriction is well above current state funding.

"The basic substance of my bill is that we get them back to $100 million more than (public higher education institutions) have today and beyond that point we will slow the growth of direct institutional aid to 2.5 percent per year," said Bearden.

Bearden argues that any additional higher education funding should go to student scholarships.

"Bottom line is we're going to concentrate on how to fund the students, at the same time we're giving additional funding to higher education institutions."

Moore said, especially between the 2002-2003 and 2004-2005 fiscal years the university had to cut back on building maintenance and repairs. He also added that the university was not able to increase its salary pool for one year, conducted layoffs and has had to offer early retirement programs.

"During the past several fiscal years the state has been in a financial crisis, these led to steep cuts in state appropriations to public higher education," he said. "The University of Missouri took many steps internally to meet these steep cuts, however ultimately tuition did have to be increased beyond the rate of inflation for multiple years."

Moore said that despite cutbacks the university had maintained its quality of education.

"This is supported by the fact that we are enrolling record number of students, and are engaging in record levels of fund raising and research funding," he added. "Despite enormous cuts we've already taken, we've continued to operate at an extremely high level and we are continuing to meet the challenges presented to us by an ever increasing student body."

Bearden, disagrees with the university on its level of efficiency. He said its not that the state higher education institutions weren't doing anything to improve efficiency, but that in his opinion they weren't doing enough.

"They are definitely doing some things," he said. "But there's a long way to go."

Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, voiced concern on the House floor. She said that inflation rates for higher education were higher than the average and so the increase would not match the needs of the state higher institutions.

Bearden argues that "because education is inherently inefficient, it has a higher inflationary rate."

Columbia's Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, was one of only eleven Republicans in the House to vote against the bill.

"I have a fundamental belief that legislative bodies should not set prices ever," said Robb. "I believe that's exactly what this bill does."

Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, also voiced opposition and voted against the bill but for different reasons.

"When you freeze appropriations for public colleges and universities like the University of Missouri, that has a negative impact on our local economy," he said.

Harris also voiced concern the bill was part of a national movement to take public tax dollars and put to private colleges and universities.

"The biggest beneficiaries would be these folks from out-of-state pushing this agenda in the state of Missouri," said Harris. "If they succeed they will be able to add Missouri to the list of states where their approach has been enacted into law."

Harris said that the bill would negatively affect students from receiving affordable public college education and the central Missouri economy.

"It takes public tax dollars that would go to public colleges and universities, like the University of Missouri and puts them in private colleges and universities," he said.

Bearden says that is not the intent of the bill.

"The intent of (this) bill is to freeze appropriations at fiscal year 2002 levels and any money in addition will go to students in the form of these relatively minimal scholarships to be used at private colleges and universities," he said.

Bearden said that the fundamental difference between him and Harris on the issue was over how state funds should be used in public education.

"I believe we ought to be focusing on the student," Bearden said. "I believe he believes every dollar ought to go to the institution and by doing that you benefit the student."

John Andersen, president of the Missouri Students Association at MU, is more in line with Harris' view on what this bill would do.

"(MSA is) adamantly opposed to any legislation that takes public funds and puts them in private institutions," he said.

Andersen said that he thought the bill was detrimental to higher education in Missouri and was expecting Bearden to propose a bill such as this.

"We recognized from the past his ideas were very controversial," he said. "Some of us in the student government were expecting this kind of legislation, though we didn't know what form it would take."

Andersen said he was also opposed to the idea because of how he interpreted the bill as tying the hand of Missouri public university administrators.

Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he is troubled by what he saw in the bill.

"I think that it really impedes the ability of the governing boards to do their jobs," he said. "I'm not in favor of that level of micro management by the legislature."

He said that with the broad based opposition from the higher education committees there is a burden on Bearden to prove the need for the legislation.

The bill passed with 84 to 71 votes from House -- just 2 votes beyond the 82 needed to send the bill to the Senate

"They didn't want to go home and tell their constituents that they voted against a tuition cap," said Bearden.