State lawmakers have braced for another tough budget heading into the new legislative session. Governor Nixon tells the Missourinet he hopes to keep public schools from having to face budget cuts for the first time.

Nearly all of state government has suffered the past few years as the recession sent state revenue into a free-fall. Lawmakers have stopped short of cutting the basic funding formula for public schools, known as the Foundation Formula. Faced with the possibility of further cuts, school funding could be on the table.

Nixon says that would be a last resort.

“Well, we certainly would like to hold the Foundation Formula harmless, if we possibly can,” Nixon says. “So, the bottom line is we’re doing everything that we can to avoid those types of cuts.”

When state revenue began to sag under the weight of the recession at the end of 2008, state lawmakers not only held the line on education, they actually approved the budget increases needed to fully fund a new Foundation Formula. That ended in the last legislative session. Lawmakers no longer could justify increases to education while cutting everywhere else. They froze public school funding. No one has talked about cutting education, until of late. Legislative leaders have said everything is on the table in the next session as lawmakers look to make up a budget shortfall projected to total as much as $700 million.

Nixon understands the school funding can no longer be held sacred, but…

“I’m hopeful and expectant that we’ll be able to work to protect that public school funding that goes to those local districts,” Nixon says.

Higher education likely will have to absorb some cuts. Nixon has worked with college and university officials, getting them to agree to freeze tuition rates the past two years. It’s unlikely that two-year ban on tuition increases can be extended for a third year. College administrators throughout Missouri have announced cutbacks in anticipation of state budget cuts.

Nixon rejects a suggestion that the cost of college is beginning make it unaffordable to some Missourians. He points to increasing enrollments on campuses across the state. Nixon notes that enrollment in Missouri’s two-year community colleges topped 100,000 for the first time this year.

“I think those are good signs,” Nixon says. “I think it’s a good sign that people who are either unemployed or underemployed are not sitting home, they’re working to improve their skills and to put themselves into situations to have careers of the future.”

Nixon says he’s pleased colleges have come forward with their own cuts to cope with declining state revenue.

Nixon has had to heavily trim the budgets approved by the state legislature the past two fiscal years. In Fiscal Year 2010, Nixon withheld $900 million appropriated by the legislature to keep the budget balanced. Of that, $408 million was cut from the General Revenue budget, $400 million came from the federal budget stabilization fund.

In the current budget year, FY2011, Nixon withheld slightly more than $301 million in General Revenue, about 4% of GR.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:30 MP3]