In budget speech, governor defends student aid plan
It’s tough to please everyone when proposing cuts to reduce a $500 million state budget deficit. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon learned this the hard way when he spoke at Washington University on Wednesday on his plans for the budget and investing in jobs.
Freshman Lauren Ortwein came toe-to-toe with the governor in a question-and-answer session after his speech, questioning his proposal to reduce or eliminate state grants for students who attend private colleges and universities. Ortwein receives nearly $5,000 in financial aid from two state programs that Nixon, a Democrat, is targeting to cut.
Nixon is proposing changes to reduce the amount of aid that private school students receive from Access Missouri, a need-based grant program, and Bright Flight, a merit-based scholarship program. Access Missouri currently provides up to $4,600 in aid for private school students in Missouri and up to $2,150 for public school students in Missouri, while Bright Flight awards are $2,000 for both private and public school students. Nixon’s initial proposal would have eliminated all Access Missouri and Bright Flight grants for students who attend private institutions in Missouri.
Ortwein told Nixon that her father is a Vietnam War veteran who is unable to work and that her family lives mostly off his disability pension. “This decision would put me and tens of thousands of students at independent institutions [in Missouri] in an extremely difficult situation next year if this goes through,” Ortwein said. “I hope being here at Wash. U. has changed your mind about the importance of financial aid to all Missouri students, even those who attend independent schools.”
Nixon, who has been under immense pressure from private universities regarding his proposal, responded that a compromise was within reach. In his speech, he said the compromise would equalize the grant awards for private and public college students.
“Needy students deserve the same level of support, no matter where they decide to go to college, and I applaud the change,” Nixon said, though he acknowledged he was “not sure if [Chancellor Mark Wrighton] was thrilled” with the proposal. This academic year, 159 students here receive Access Missouri grants.
He told reporters later that the compromise could include a grandfather clause to exempt current students.
“I’ve been listening, and you aren’t the only person who has said something,” Nixon told Ortwein.
In this address to a group of Olin Business School students and local business leaders in the Knight Center, Nixon said the recession and lower tax revenues meant the state would need to make tough choices across the board. He proposed combining departments, cutting 1,000 state jobs and reducing the scope of the government to close the state’s $500 million budget deficit.
Ortwein said in an interview later that she was satisfied with Nixon’s response. She said was also happy to hear “that he is trying to see it from all different perspectives, especially the grandfather clause, so students aren’t just told one day that they need to come up with five grand for next year.”
She added that she could still attend the University if the grant cuts are enacted. Still, Ortwein has some concerns. Since private school tuition is much higher than public school tuition, she feels that the maximum Access Missouri award should be higher for students at private colleges. Ortwein also worries that her family or the University would have to pick up the burden of the proposed cuts. And she noted that this would add to the University’s financial problems because the recession has harmed the endowment.
Rose Windmiller, the director of state relations and local government affairs at the University, was dissatisfied with Nixon’s response to Ortwein. The University is one of the private institutions that has opposed the governor’s proposal.
“Her question went to the heart of whether Missouri students with financial need should be able to attend a … private institution, and he still hasn’t answered that,” Windmiller said.
Nixon also proposes merging the state Department of Higher Education with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which could carry major implications for higher-education policy in Missouri.
In his speech, Nixon also applauded the passage of Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax for expanding transit service in St. Louis. He referred to the ballot measure’s passage as “an investment in the region’s future.”
Nixon spared $12 million in emergency funding for Metro in last year’s state budget from his line-item veto, despite striking down several extra funding provisions in budget.
He told reporters that he didn’t think the state’s funding for Metro, just 1 percent of Metro’s operating budget, contradicted his mission to invest state dollars in economic development. And he noted that the state’s budget situation made it unlikely that state funding for transit would increase. “That’s why the people voted yesterday, that’s why they chose to have that,” Nixon said.