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The Associated Press April 4, 2012, 6:37PM ET

Mo. Senate budget plan spares education from cuts

Public education would be spared from funding cuts but fewer state employees would get pay raises under a budget plan put forth Wednesday by a Missouri Senate committee.

The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to follow the House's lead by keeping funding steady for public universities and providing a modest increase for public elementary and secondary schools. The Senate panel also decided to boost funding for community colleges by transferring job training money that otherwise would flow through the Department of Economic Development.

Missouri lawmakers are working on a roughly $24 billion budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins July 1. They have until May 11 to send the spending plan to Gov. Jay Nixon.

Earlier this year, Nixon proposed a $106 million cut to public colleges and universities to help balance the budget. The Democratic governor later reduced that recommended funding cut by $40 million by tapping into Missouri's share of a nationwide settlement with mortgage lenders.

Rather than following Nixon's recommendation, the House in bipartisan fashion instead voted to provide higher education institutions the same amount of money next school year as they are receiving this year. The House also added a single dollar to the $5 million increase Nixon had proposed for Missouri's $3 billion basic aid formula for public K-12 schools.

By agreeing with the House on both of those items, the Senate committee has essentially locked in those dollars.

The Senate panel also decided to provide community colleges an extra $5 million -- on top of their $131 million core budget -- to train an estimated 500 additional students in a variety of fields, including nursing, machinery and welding, aerospace and engineering, and information technology. The money would come from funds that would otherwise have gone to job training programs administered by the state Department of Economic Development.

The legislative budget plan generally follows Nixon's recommendations for scholarship funding. But because of growth in the number of student participants, flat state funding for the A+ Scholarship Program may actually result in less money available for each student, said Paul Wagner, the state's deputy higher education commissioner. The program is intended to provide free tuition and fees at community colleges for graduates of certain high schools who meet academic standards and participate in unpaid tutoring or mentoring programs.

The Senate panel endorsed a 2 percent pay raise, beginning July 1, for state employees making less than $45,000 annually. Senate appropriations staff said the proposed pay plan would save several million dollars compared with a House-backed plan that would set the salary cutoff at $70,000 for the pay raise. Nixon originally had proposed to give a pay raise to all state employees but to delay its effective date until Jan. 1.

The Senate committee plan also would boost funding for the Parents as Teachers early childhood development program by eliminating funding for the Missouri Preschool Project, which awards state grants to licensed preschools for such things as equipment, furniture, minor remodeling and teacher salaries. The Parents as Teachers program offers developmental health screenings for infants and preschoolers and sends trained workers into parents' homes to provide child-rearing instruction. The program once received about $30 million annually but, after several years of tight state budgets, had its funding reduced to $13 million. The Senate panel decided Wednesday to restore $10.7 million to the program, bringing its total near $25 million. That change would still have to be agreed to by the House.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said his goal is to produce a smaller budget than the one passed last month by the House. Among other things, the Senate committee decided Wednesday to eliminate funding for an investigator at the Missouri Ethics Commission and to reduce state subsidies to counties for property value assessments.

While the Senate panel met, hundreds of disabled residents and advocates rallied in the Capitol Rotunda, chanting: "Take note, we vote." Speaking to the crowd, Nixon pledged to work with the Senate panel to reverse a House cut to a program that provides health care to 2,858 blind residents who earn too much to qualify for the state's traditional Medicaid program. He said the cut would wrongly force people to make difficult choices between needed medications and food.

"Preserving our health care program for the blind would give these valuable citizens access to the care and treatment they need," Nixon said. "It would preserve Missouri's legacy as a place for compassion and support, and it would save lives."


Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.

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