I'm not sure what to make of Gov. Bob Holden's threat to reduce education funding in the state by $259 million. I recognize, as Holden explained, that Missouri's budget picture is dismal. And I also recognize that substantial cuts in spending must be made. Without detailed numbers, perhaps education is the most logical place to make these cuts.
Education funding was spared last year when state officials were forced to reduce spending. Higher education actually took a hit last year but elementary and secondary education received their full funding. Holden now says that all education funding must be reduced. He wants the state to sell bonds based on future tobacco settlement proceeds to generate revenue to stop the projected reductions.
Here's what I think should happen. The Legislature should spend the next two weeks focused not on new legislation but rather on ways to reduce costs or generate revenues. Then the two sides should agree to those cuts. At that point, the state should know where we stand from a funding perspective and sell just enough bonds to cover those costs. That deadline is the middle of February.
But the problem will likely center on the Republican's desire to make deeper cuts in state services and Holden's desire to keep the size of government at the current level and raise additional revenues elsewhere, i.e. the bonds or tax loopholes, etc.
I hate the fact that we're spending tobacco fund money to sell bonds because those funds should rightfully be used to address health concerns arising from the use of tobacco. But instead, we're spending those funds to balance our budget. It's like we're borrowing against our retirement fund to pay bills today. But what happens when retirement time arrives and we're broke?
Holden is in a tough position. He faces a GOP-controlled Legislature that is adamant about reducing the size of state government. And Holden is facing one of the tougher financial pictures in our history. Either way, it's a tough choice.
Cuts to education at the levels proposed by the Governor would indeed be devastating. But given the spending of state government, education may be the only source of enough funds to make that balanced budget happen. But rest assured, before those school funds are cut the Republicans will peel back every layer of state government for any cuts that may be possible.
In a way, it's a struggle between state jobs and school funding for our youngsters. Or it's a choice between funding for the poor or funding for education.
In this debate, there is likely to emerge no winners.