East Central College (ECC)

Key state legislators this week pledged to lighten cuts to Missouri higher education proposed in Gov. Eric Greitens’ state budget.

The $28.7 billion budget proposal cuts $68 million, or roughly 10 percent, from the state’s higher education budget for four-year and two-year colleges. Greitens echoed his stance on college and universities from 2017, stating the state’s institutions would need to “tighten their belts.”

But budget negotiators from both the state Senate and House, including leaders from both chambers, suggest the budget that will be sent back to Greitens’ desk will be significantly different from his proposal, the continued cuts to higher education being one of several changes.

East Central College President Dr. Jon Bauer said the show of support from state legislators gives the college a brief moment of relief.

Bauer said the continued cuts to the higher education budget are making it harder and harder to provide quality education.

“I think they recognize, as we do, that higher education is key to the well-being of the state,” he said. “When we look at wanting to see a growing economy, it’s important that you have educated and trained people who can make that happen. Higher education is the linchpin to that goal.”

“We’re going to modify that to considerably less. We’re not going to allow those cuts to happen . . . In an era when everyone’s hollering about a trained workforce, cutting higher education, I think that’s wrong,” Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, told The Post-Dispatch.

During his time during the week in the Capitol, Bauer said there was a sense that the legislators weren’t interested in further slashes to the higher education budget. He said while it’s early in the budget process, he’s hoping the cuts won’t go in the wrong direction like they did in 2017.

“I would hope at a minimum we could hold even with this year’s appropriation and not continue to go backward,” he said.

Last year, in Greitens’ first month in office, he made a $251 million cut to the state budget — $24 million of which came from the state’s higher education budget. Nine percent of ECC’s budget went with the cuts, reducing the college’s state aid by roughly $450,000.

Due to those cuts, the college made several cutbacks in its budget and raised tuition by $5 per credit hour across the board to avoid a deficit.

Bauer said the cuts are counterintuitive to building Missouri’s workforce and that funding higher education is a turnkey way to improve the state’s workers. House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, agrees.

“For my part, I think higher education and workforce development is an incredibly important mission that this state has to help with. My hope is that we’re going to find a way to have funding above the level that the governor recommended,” Richardson told The Post-Dispatch late in the week.

Bauer, however, said there is a long road ahead full of twists and turns. He said he’s heard many different approaches on how the cuts might change, from no further cuts to a slightly reduced slash to the higher education budget.

“I think legislators recognize that when the state invests in higher education, it pays dividends,” Bauer said. “The results really speak for themselves in the students who come out of our institution and go into the workforce.”

He said he’s remaining hopeful and that it’s positive to see a change of mindset from legislators in the state Capitol.

“This is a long process. We’ll be working throughout the process to make sure our case is made, “Bauer said. “This is an investment in our students who have the potential to really drive the state forward as active, productive citizens. The budget is really about people — it’s not about institutions, it’s about students.”

The state’s annual budget is scheduled to take effect July 1. Bauer said he will be working in the Capitol to plead ECC’s case and fight the budget cuts proposed by the governor.