- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Budget negotiators from the Missouri House and Senate agreed to scale back proposed funding cuts to the University of Missouri and boost overall higher education funding as they settled the final pieces of the state’s proposed spending plan Wednesday.

The $27 billion budget, which would take effect in July, must still pass both full chambers.

The deal comes amid a legislative session during which lawmakers have sharply criticized the university after student protests last fall that thrust it into the national spotlight. And though lawmakers said the university still needs to reckon with serious problems, including an anticipated enrollment drop, its relationship with the Legislature has recovered since the beginning of the year.

Budget writers from both chambers decided to reduce a proposed $7.6 million cut to the university system’s administration to less than $4 million. They also eliminated a proposal to cut $1 million from the Columbia campus.

The compromise spending plan boosts core funding for higher education by about $37 million, or 4 percent. The House had recommended a 2 percent increase and excluded the University of Missouri, while the Senate called for a 6 percent boost that included the university.

Gov. Jay Nixon called for a 6 percent increase, which he said would be enough for universities to freeze tuition next year. But a 4 percent increase would still be enough to hold down tuition, said Paul Wagner, executive director of the Council on Public Higher Education, which represents the presidents and chancellors of Missouri’s 13 public, four-year universities.

University officials have faced criticism for how they handled the protests last year over administrators’ perceived indifference to racism, which ended with resignations from the system president and the chancellor of the Columbia campus.

Many House lawmakers have said budget cuts are the only way to ensure the university does a better job of addressing student concerns, and the chamber voted against both parties’ leadership to approve deeper cuts to the Columbia campus.

But the lawmakers negotiating the final budget plan included several members who represented areas with University of Missouri campuses, including Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, and Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla.

“When you have people that care a lot about the university on conference committee, that usually yields results,” said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, the Shell Knob Republican who is vice-chair of the budget committee.

Schaefer has warned that deep budget cuts could hurt students and low-level employees rather than administrators. Instead, he has proposed forming a commission to review the University of Missouri’s system’s policies, which is budgeted to receive $750,000.

Some lawmakers said despite the broad increases, the spending plan continues long-running funding inequities for the state’s historically black colleges. Although the budget includes a $1.5 million increase for Lincoln University’s land grant, they said several items for Harris-Stowe State University remained excluded or underfunded.

“Black colleges are being treated so unfairly,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat from St. Louis. “It’s kind of racist.”

Schaefer said he took offense to that, adding that Harris-Stowe needs to improve its performance indicators, such as student retention, before lawmakers reward it with more money.

Lawmakers could vote on the budget plan Thursday.

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