Regents Prepare Budget Requests

CEDAR CITY?The state?s economy is slowing, and tax revenue dollars are down, but the Utah State Board of Regents may ask the state Legislature for $58 million more than it got last year. Regents say they need the money to compensate for a 9.5 percent enrollment growth.

Meeting Friday, at Southern Utah University, the Regents looked at a proposed priority list for funding higher education for the 2002-2003 fiscal year. Regents decided to hold off on approving the budget until they had a more comprehensive understanding of it.

The University of Utah?s 5.7 percent enrollment increase brought 1,500 more students to the U. Other schools, including Utah Valley State College and Salt Lake Community College grew by more than 10 percent. The state-wide growth is comparable to the number of students at the College of Eastern Utah, Snow College and Dixie College combined.

The increase in students leaves all state institutions financial strapped.

Higher education escaped untouched by a second-wave, 1.5 percent budget cut less than two weeks ago.

Earlier this year, higher education was not spared either. In June, Gov. Mike Leavitt asked state agencies to hold back 2.5 percent of their budgets.

This cut crippled the U, leaving departments unable to use $5.4 million for which they had already budgeted.

Leavitt remains optimistic that financial hard times will end soon. To spark a fire under Utah?s economy, Leavitt also announced he would use half of the state?s $120 million rainy day fund to cover lost revenue.

Regent Commissioner Cecelia Foxley believes enrollment growth is related to the slowing economy.

Foxley said the budget does not include any ?special projects,? because higher education cannot request funds that surpass the state?s ability to pay it. This budget is a ?pared down? version, but it is still ?sizable? because of the large increase in enrollment, she said.

The main essentials?according to Foxley and the presidents of the state institutions?are $28 million for funding for currently and newly enrolled students and restoration of this year?s 2.5 percent cut, amounting to nearly $15 million. These two projects make up more than 70 percent of the total budget request.

Other requests for funding include adjustments to health and dental insurance premiums, salary equity, libraries, student financial aid and adjustment for changes in operating costs, to name a few.

?The economy of the state and nation is probably more uncertain than it has been in any of our lifetimes,? Foxley said to the regents. ?This is the environment we find ourselves in. These are our minimal needs?the requirements.?

U President Bernie Machen said he?s skeptical of the meaning behind the priority list, because nobody knows the amount of money the state will be using to write the budget. He calls the priority list an ?expression? of the needs of higher education.

The economic situation mandates the Regents wait a fourth year to try and pass formula funding legislation that would require the state to give higher education a certain dollar amount based on a mathematical equation.

?This is not our year to seek this kind of legislation,? said Regent Chairman Charles Johnson.

Johnson believes the Legislature will fund higher education to the best of it?s ability.

The Regents are expected to vote on the priority list within the next three weeks.

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