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Restoration of $40 million to Missouri campuses hailed as 'life raft'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2012 -  One day after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he was restoring $40 million to cuts he had recommended to state funding for public colleges and universities, the state's commissioner of higher education said he expects campus officials to greet the news "like a drowning person reaches for a life raft."

Whether the money will be enough to reduce looming tuition increases, though, remains to be seen.

Nixon made his announcement shortly after Attorney General Chris Koster said Tuesday that the state should receive $140 million in a massive mortgage settlement.

UPDATE: The details of the $25 billion settlement are slated to unveiled as soon as Thursday, according to news reports. End update

Nixon, a Democrat up for re-election this fall, has been under fire for weeks over his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year; it called for cutting $106 million from higher education spending. The governor said he had little choice because the state's finances will take a hit with the end of federal stimulus spending.

Whether the money will be enough to ease expected increases in tuition is another matter. A statement released today by University of Missouri spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said:

"We are pleased that Gov. Nixon has reduced the budget cut for higher education from $106 million to $66 million and we look forward to meeting with Gov. Nixon later this week to discuss it. We are still determining what this change means to our tuition recommendation to the Board of Curators. We all are interested in making higher education more affordable and accessible." 

David Russell, Missouri's commissioner for higher education, had similar thoughts about tuition, saying in an email that "I am optimistic that that the governor's bold move to reduce the cut to higher education in FY13 from 12.5 percent to approximately 8 percent will enable our colleges and universities to hold tuition hikes closer to the cost of living index. That would be good news for Missouri students and their families."

As far as the reaction from leaders of public colleges and universities around the state, Russell said:

"Higher education leaders have received the news with enormous relief, as they had few options available to them to absorb the 12.5 percent cut  proposed in the governor's budget request for FY13. I have not encountered anyone in the halls of the Capitol who wanted to see the higher education budget slashed again.

"In the same context, our colleges and universities did not want to raise tuition and fees any more than absolutely necessary to meet a budget gap or cover rising costs of academic programs, insurance, health care benefits and other operating costs. I imagine they will embrace this decision by Governor Nixon like a drowning person reaches for a life raft." 

According to Linda Luebbering, the state budget director, the University of Missouri system would get the largest share of the $40 million, nearly $18.8 million that would supplement the governor's earlier recommendation of $348.3 million for the system. 

Other universities' shares of the new money would range from $3.7 million for Missouri State University in Springfield down to $452,000 for Harris-Stowe State University. St. Louis Community College would get the highest share among public colleges, at nearly $2.1 million.

Koster, also a Democrat (and expected to run for governor in 2016), offered the unexpected lifeline Tuesday when he announced Missouri's take of a national settlement in a case against the nation's biggest mortgage institutions, which stood accused of what Nixon called "flawed and fraudulent foreclosure practices that led to the housing crisis."

Nixon immediately latched onto Koster's help and declared that $40 million from the settlement will be used to restore some of the planned trims. Under the settlement, the rest is earmarked for affected homeowners.

"This has been a lengthy and extremely complex settlement process, and I commend Attorney General Koster for his dedicated and persistent leadership at every stage of the negotiations," Nixon said in a statement. "This settlement with America's largest mortgage banks will help the states and individual consumers continue their economic recovery."

The governor added that he "will meet with the presidents and chancellors of Missouri's two- and four-year colleges and universities in his office on Thursday to brief them on these developments and the amendment to his recommended budget."

"While these negotiations have been ongoing for many months, these additional resources were not certain as we prepared our initial recommended budget for fiscal year 2013," Nixon said. "Now that we have additional information about the settlement, I am immediately amending my recommended budget to restore $40 million in funding for Missouri's colleges and universities. My administration remains committed to working with our colleges and universities to make higher education more affordable and accessible for Missouri families."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.