JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon proposed a nearly half-billion-dollar spending surge for public education Tuesday as he urged lawmakers to harness the revenues generated by an improving economy to make up for years of funding shortfalls for schools.
The Democratic governor proposed a $278 million increase in basic aid for public school districts, plus millions of more dollars for preschool programs, student scholarships and state colleges and universities.
As he delivered his sixth annual State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Nixon said Missouri's elected officials had built a solid budgetary foundation through tough economic times and with "our economy picking up steam" now face "a defining moment for our state."
"On the campaign trail, I'll bet almost all of us made a promise to invest in our students and our schools," he told the Republican-led Legislature. "Well, you know what? It's time to put our budgets where our campaign brochures are.
"Now it's time to decide whether we're merely going to talk about public education, or whether we're going to fund it," Nixon added.
The governor's record-high $27.7 billion budget plan could set up an election-year showdown with Republican lawmakers who want to use part of a projected budget surplus to cut income taxes for Missouri businesses and residents.
House Speaker Tim Jones, who delivered the Republican response, said a tax cut is vital for Missouri to compete economically with neighboring states that have recently enacted their own tax cuts.
"Instead (Nixon) wants to take a page right out of the Washington, D.C. playbook. He wants more of your hard-earned tax dollars so that he can increase spending and grow the size of government," Jones said.
Jones, R-Eureka, vowed that Republicans "will not allow this to happen on our watch."
But Nixon, who vetoed tax-cut legislation last year, maintained an equally firm stance Tuesday.
"I will not support anything that takes money out of our classrooms," Nixon said.
Missouri currently spends a little over $3 billion annually in basic aid for public elementary and secondary schools. The governor's proposal would move Missouri halfway toward covering a projected $556 million shortfall of what's called for under a state school funding law.
Nixon said the funding increase would produce concrete results: 50 more teachers in the Fort Zumwalt district, a computer for every student in Kennett and the return of summer school in Santa Fe schools.
Although Republican lawmakers have expressed support for schools, they also have questioned Nixon's optimistic budget forecast and have said they will have to cut his proposed spending. As Nixon outlined his education initiatives, Republican lawmakers generally sat silently while Democratic lawmakers and educators packing the public galleries repeatedly stood to applaud and cheer.
Nixon's budget includes nearly $30 million of funding increases for early childhood education, including a nearly threefold increase in money available for the Missouri Preschool Program.
The budget also proposes a $42 million increase for public colleges and universities that would be distributed based on whether they have met certain performance goals; $22 million for universities to train students in careers focused on science, technology, engineering and math; and nearly $20 million for higher education institutions to add 1,200 classroom slots for students in mental health fields.
Nixon proposed to increase funding by about $28 million for Missouri's main college scholarship programs, part of which would provide extra money to recipients of Bright Flight scholarships if they commit to working in Missouri after graduation.
The governor also wants to better fund services for people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses.
The Legislature has until early May to give final approval to a spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year that starts July 1. That budget then will go back to Nixon, who can cut it but not add to it.
As he did last year, Nixon again called on lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility to lower-income adults, which would allow Missouri to reap an influx of federal dollars under President Barack Obama's health care law. But Republicans who repeatedly rejected such proposals last year have shown no inclination to change course.
Republicans cheered when Nixon acknowledged that the federal government's implementation of the health care law "has been abysmal." Then Democrats applauded when Nixon added: "But rejecting Medicaid won't fix any of those things."
Among his other proposals, Nixon called for passage of a law barring discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people in the workplace. He also called for the reinstatement of campaign contribution limits and "comprehensive ethics reform," changes to a state law that has forced unaccredited school districts to pay for students to transfer and a "robust discussion" about how to pay for the state's long-term infrastructure needs.