Mizzou says funding is 'down to the bone,' spends $19k at the Ritz

Interim University of Missouri President Mike Middleton’s attempts to dissuade state lawmakers from enacting major budget cuts was undermined Wednesday as he struggled to explain multiple expenditures at the Ritz-Carlton.

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Middleton and his Vice President for Finance Brian Burnett testified before the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee on Wednesday to defend the school’s response to racial unrest on campus and argue for a budget hike despite an expected drop in enrollment.

Earlier this year, more than 100 Missouri lawmakers signed a letter addressed to the Mizzou Board of Curators calling for the immediate firing of Professor Melissa Click, who was caught on video taking a swing at a student reporter’s camera during a campus protest. Click has since been suspended from the university and will perform 20 hours of court-ordered community service in exchange for a dropped assault charge.

[RELATED: Mizzou prof. avoids jail time with community service deal]

[RELATED: Lawmakers call for firing of Mizzou prof. involved in student protests]

The appropriations committee gathered on Wednesday to discuss a bill put forward by Gov. Jay Nixon, which would increase budgets for state schools by 6 percent. If passed, $26 million would be added to Mizzou’s current $432 million allocation for this fiscal year.

During his testimony, Middleton assured lawmakers he is addressing their concerns and pleaded with the appropriations committee to veto any budget cuts.

“I hear your concerns and take them very seriously. I am taking steps to address those concerns in the very best way possible,” he said.

Missouri’s Republican majority, however, remains determined to cut Mizzou’s funding. President Pro Tem Ron Richard said a budget cut would send a message about the Senate’s frustration with Mizzou. Rep. Stephen Webber agreed with Richard and said there is little the university can do to avoid a cut.

“I told them back in December that there were no changes that they could make that would appease the Republican supermajority in Jefferson City, that they were going to come after the budget regardless of what they did,” Webber said.

“We’re down to the bone. A significant cut in our budget at this time would be devastating,” Middleton replied.

State Rep. Joshua Peters fired back. Peters drew the committee’s attention to the university’s expense report, which shows university officials spent thousands of dollars at the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels in St. Louis. One trip to the Ritz back in 2014 totaled $19,857. The money was allegedly used for selecting two deans to serve on the Missouri Science and Technology campus.

“Why are we using taxpayer dollars for individuals who are supposed to be serving the state to spend nights at the Ritz-Carlton?” Peters asked.

Burnett tried to defend the expenses, saying the money was spent for the convenience of the candidates.

“I have never stayed at a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons nor do I intend to on the taxpayer dime,” Middleton said.

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