Gov. Eric Greitens talks often about growing jobs in Missouri.
It was one of the major themes in the Republican governor’s State of the State address last month. He told members of the state House and Senate that he would continue to focus on several areas to create jobs:
“Making sure that we have the right laws on the books to be fair to family businesses, and making strategic investments in education, infrastructure, and workforce development,” Greitens said.
Yet just a few days later, the governor proposed a roughly $68 million reduction for public colleges and universities. The suggested cuts to higher education for the second year in a row drew criticism almost immediately, including from Greiten’s own party.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard signaled that he’s ready for a budget battle, with higher education at the center of the fight.
"We're not going to allow those cuts to happen," Richard told reporters at the State Capitol. "The governor can propose a budget, but we're going to do what we have to do."
It is the second consecutive year public colleges and universities in Missouri are coping with likely state funding cuts. Lawmakers approved a nearly 7 percent reduction last year. Greitens increased it to 9 percent when he signed the fiscal 2018 budget.
The potential impact of another drop in higher education funding drew strong criticism from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., during an appearance at Harris-Stowe State College in St. Louis.
"He thinks we're going to get jobs in the state. It's not going to happen if we keep kicking higher education in the teeth," she told the crowd to applause.
The St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has been supportive of many of the governor’s proposals, estimates two-thirds of jobs in the region will require some form of post-secondary education in just two years. Greg Laposa, vice president of education strategies, said the proposed cuts are a "significant concern."
"And so, when you look at where our investments need to be going as both a region and as a state, it should be in workforce," Laposa said.
The former high school English teacher also expressed concern about the impact state funding reductions could have on college affordability. Laposa said investments in higher education should improve access, instead of making people feel discouraged because of rising costs.
The governor has proposed a small increase in some student aid programs, but it probably won't be enough to offset any potential cuts and the possibility of students paying more to make up for the drop in state funding.
A skilled workforce, or talent, can be a big factor in attracting companies to the region or growing businesses already located here. Clifford Holekamp, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Washington University's Olin Business School, said investing in STEM is especially important.
"It is possibly the most strategic investment a state can make, to invest in the labor pool and make sure they have the skill sets needed for the 21st century jobs," Holekamp said.
At the same time, having strong academic programs even outside STEM is important to attracting and retaining students. Holekamp cautioned that without first tier programs, the best high school students will go elsewhere.
"And there's a very high probability that if we let them go elsewhere that they may not come back to Missouri,” he said.
Budget negotiations at the Missouri legislature are expected to resume late this month or in early March.
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