JEFFERSON CITY - Shielded from cuts through the House, higher education was hit by an axe in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The committee's budget proposal approved Thursday would make a 5 percent cut to public universities and colleges. This would spell a $17.5 million cut to the UM System.
The committee used a portion of the savings to reinstate some of the House's cuts to Medicaid, although Gov. Matt Blunt urged the General Assembly not to cut higher education.
"The 5 percent cut to higher ed was not because I thought we needed to reduce the funding to higher education," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles. "But it was something I thought should be considered by the committee."
Nonetheless, the cuts did not sit well with House Democrats, many of whom said a House budget that afforded no increases to higher education was insufficient.
"It is making college less accessible, less affordable for parents who work hard and want to give their kids an opportunity to live the American dream," said Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. "And in the 21st century, the ticket to the American dream is a college diploma, and by making this cut, it just makes that ticket to the American dream more difficult to get, more difficult to realize."
The UM System Board of Curators voted last fall for a 3.5 percent tuition increase but system officials said they had presumed they would receive equal funding to last year.
If the state follows through with the cuts, Nikki Krawitz, vice president for finance and administration, said they would first look to cut expenditures. She declined to specify how the system would react beyond cutting expenditures or if tuition increases more than 3.5 percent could be necessary.
"We would like to hope that when the House and Senate get together they will consider the importance of investing in higher education and the magnitude of cuts we've experienced," she said.
Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, voted in favor of holding higher education's budget to last year's figures and joined the Columbia delegation in opposing the Senate panel's proposed cuts.
"What we're saying is that we have slightly different set of priorities, and (Gross) may give the social services programs a greater weight than the House members did," Robb said.
Rep. Alan Icet, R-St. Louis County, who is a leader in the House Budget Committee and Robb said they expected most, if not all, the cuts to be restored in negotiations between the bodies.
Higher education sustained several significant cuts and withholdings of appropriated money in recent years, a trend which both Columbia Democrats Sen. Chuck Graham and Rep. Judy Baker said was disturbing.
"The University of Missouri System has a unique mission to be public, accessible higher education," she said. "And that mission is at stake when tuition increases so much that they can't pay for it."
Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis County, said the money freed from the cut was used to reduce the magnitude of the cuts to social services.
The committee adopted Dougherty's proposal to create a graduated premium plan for the MC+ plan, which would force higher income participants to pay higher premiums. The program provides health insurance for the children in families earning up to the three times the federal poverty level. Dougherty said adopting the graduated premium plan could keep 15,000 children on the plan. The Department of Social Services estimated the House's version, which did not temper premiums by income level, would result in 23,000 children dropping the program.
House Budget Chairman Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said he knew the Senate would be doing much of its own budgeting.
"We had a lot of discussion and debate in the House, and the House chose to prioritize and work very hard to hold higher education whole," he said.
Gross said the Senate would begin discussing the budget on the floor Tuesday. The House and Senate must agree to a budget by May 6.
In other action, the Senate gave initial approval to a measure tighten the penalties for drunken driving and gave final approval to a bill allowing the parents of minors who have an abortion without their consent to sue the people who aided the minor.