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Missouri Senate tries to spare colleges from budget cuts

May 5, 2020 GMT

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri state senators on Tuesday voted to spare colleges and universities from steep budget cuts despite a large decline in state revenue caused by the coronavirus.

Senators voted 26-5 in favor of a higher education spending plan that would give public colleges and universities the same funding next year that they were originally promised this year. Schools ended up getting less this year because Republican Gov. Mike Parson slashed their funding to balance the budget.

Under the House-approved version of the budget, schools would get 10% less in state funding during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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Senators are trying to avoid those cuts by padding the budget with federal aid.

The Senate’s budget leader, Republican Sen. Dan Hegeman, said Missouri “very likely” will get more federal coronavirus funding that could be used for higher education. If the money doesn’t come through, Hegeman said the 10% cuts would take effect.

Paul Wagner, the executive director of the Missouri Council on Public Higher Education, called the change a “creative way” to undo the cuts without putting more pressure on the state’s budget.

“We’re not going to recover from this crisis very well unless our colleges and universities are healthy and able to maintain the programs and services that students and families need,” he said in an email. ”We are working to make sure the Senate’s plan makes it into the final budget.”

The change isn’t final. Because the House and Senate didn’t agree on funding levels for colleges and universities, negotiators from both chambers will need to hash out the differences.

Lawmakers returned to work last week after taking several weeks off over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. They’re trying to finish the budget before their Friday deadline.

Not only do they face a time crunch, but lawmakers agreed to cut $700 million from Parson’s original budget plan, which was drafted based on rosier revenue predictions before the coronavirus arrived in Missouri.

Republican Sen. Eric Burlison said even that much in cuts won’t be enough. He served in the Legislature during the Great Recession and said lawmakers made “unprecedented cuts” to balance the budget then.

“At that time, the economy was nothing like what we’re experiencing today, nothing close to what we’re experiencing,” he said. “To be optimistic is being unaware of the reality for the math that’s going on in this state.”

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Colleges and universities are set to bear the brunt of budget cuts unless more federal aid comes through. Lawmakers also cut spending on most new government programs.

Both the House and Senate agreed to keep level funding for public K-12 schools.

Senators hit a snag Tuesday over plans to expand pull-tab dispensers, which are lottery ticket vending machines, to truck stops. Hegeman said the Senate proposal would allow for another 100 machines on top of the current 500 as a means to raise more money.

But both Republicans and Democrats raised concerns about expanding gambling through the budget.

“This is a direct offense to our low-income people, who will divert their monies toward things like this,” Republican Sen. David Sater said.

The proposed increase in pull-tab machines is also up for negotiation between the House and Senate.

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