Robbing the Scholastic Peter to Pay for the Incarcerated Paul: The Show-Me State Showing Its Mulishness (1)

Robbing the Scholastic Peter to Pay for the Incarcerated Paul: The Show-Me State Showing Its Mulishness (1)

By Jon Marc Taylor

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Thomas Paine

Last month, Missouri’s governor (and former two-term Attorney General) released his proposed budget, calling for a “drastic” 12.5 percent cut to the public higher education allocation to balance the states books. This cut, nigh “hacking” of 100 million some-odd-dollars from the forthcoming public higher education budget, is on top of years stretching into decades of cuts and less-than-in flat ion increases.

Gary Ebersole, chairman of the University of Missouri system’s intercampus faculty council, noted that “if inflation were factored in we would be at funding levels from the 1980s,” In no small understatement, Ebersole commented, “this is not good news for Missourians.”

Less than a week later, public universities across the state announced undergraduate tuition increases ranging from 7.5 to 9.0 percent, with graduate and professional programs receiving similar increases as well. Increases, moreover, on top of fee rates already making Missouri public colleges and universities the most expensive in the Big 12* Conference.4 This expense is directly related to the Show-Me State’s needlessly bloated penal population.

Midwest Budgetary Chickens Coming Home to Roost

The more the story changes with the passage of time, the more it remains the same. Exactly one decade ago, nearly every state department endured budget cuts, with higher education bearing the largest with 10 percent of its allocation reduced. Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, one agency, the Department of Corrections nonetheless, not only did not suffer a budget cut, it received a seemingly perpetual increase. The short-term end result of those cuts was on average 20 percent tuition and fee increases for the state’s public colleges and universities between 2001 and 2003. 7

This outcome should not be surprising, since prison funding had been the most rapidly proliferating budget item in Missouri since 1930, more than tripling over the subsequent fifteen years.   In the eight years alone between 1993 and 2001, the BOC’s demand for state resources grew from $191 to $501 million, a mere 162 percent increase. In 2002,  the budget year this section began with, the correctional budget was increased yet again to $512 million.10

Yet five years before, in 1997, the Senate Appropriations Chairman, Mike Lybyer, told University of Missouri (UM) Interim President, Mel George, the university system would “have a lot more money if you could tell us how to keep from building more prisons in this state.

President of the UM Board of Curators, Malaika Horner, concurred with this assessment. Further adding, “I dont think anyone thought corrections would overshadow our mission of education.”

Finding a solution, the senate chairman emphasized to both educators, “could be one of the best things you could do for higher education.”

Either the educators got lost within the matrix of the prison-industrial complex, or they never even engaged in the quest for the Holy Grail of penal fiscal reform. By either route, the legislature’s failure has cost the Midwestern commonwealth dearly.