JEFFERSON CITY - The university tuition freeze is on.
The Senate voted to go along with the House in the in-state tuition freeze plan reached between Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri's public colleges.
"It's a done deal," said Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
Under the terms of the deal, reached in November, Missouri's public colleges agreed to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition next year in exchange for preserving roughly 95 percent of the state funds appropriated for the current budget year.
Because the House had approved identical figures for the state's public universities, the higher education budget is virtually a done deal.
The final version of the budget will be negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee. But legislative rules prohibit that committee from exceeding the differences between the two chambers on any an item unless both the House and Senate agree to let the conferees exceed the differences -- a rarely approved motion.
The governor's deal had been jeopardized when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to make an additional nearly $15 million cut beyond the original terms of the deal, as part of its efforts to cut $500 million from next year's budget.
But when the Senate began debate on the bill, the committee's chairman proposed an amendment to go back to the House-passed plan.
The vote came one day before the University of Missouri System Board of Curators will meet to set tuition for next year.
The Senate also voted earlier to restore funding to the Career Ladder program, which pays teachers for some academic activities and career development above and beyond the traditional scope of teaching.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said the money for higher education would come from imposing an insurance premium tax on managed care providers in Missouri, which Schaefer said would in turn yield matching funds from the federal government.
Schaefer confirmed that the state could keep the matching federal funds and refund the collected tax to managed care providers, as has been done previously with some Medicaid provider taxes.
Mayer said this plan could yield the state as much as $20 million dollars.
Schaefer was critical of Nixon and public college officials for not including legislators in their negotiation of the plan last year.
"We need to send a message to those institutions ... that next time you cut a deal, you've got to include everybody," he said.
The budget for the following fiscal year, 2012, could have a nearly $1 billion budget hole when federal stabilization funds expire, and Schaefer said he's encouraging higher education leaders to start working with lawmakers as soon as possible to begin planning for the next budget.
"Let's start the dialog now," he said.
Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, voted to support the bill but said he was against restoring the funding for higher education.
"It wasn't our deal," he said.
He said he was disappointed that these cuts were being restored rather than almost $20 million in cuts to the Department of Mental Health.
"It's just not fair sometimes," Green said. "I get tired of the hypocrisy of saying we're going to help those who can't help themselves."
The Senate voted to fund the Career Ladder program using more than $37 million out of $300 million in anticipated federal stabilization money that the state has not yet received.
Because the House voted to use state funds to the program, the source of funding will be determined in conference between the House and Senate following the Senate's passage of the rest of the budget.
Mayer said he ultimately hopes to pay for the program with state money.
He said he changed his mind on cutting the program because he learned that teachers had already completed part of their Career Ladder activities before former Senate Appropriations Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, and House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, sent a letter this past summer to educational leaders warning that funding for the program could be in danger.
"I believe that they should be paid for the work that they expended," Mayer said.
Tuesday, the Senate voted to suspend state funding for the Career Ladder program for the following year and potentially resume state support in two years under a different funding mechanism that would inform schools of available career ladder funding for the following year, rather than paying schools and teachers for work done in the previous year.