Economic Blight Affects Regents’ Higher Ed Wishes

The Utah State Board of Regents might be trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

Regents approved a budget recommendation for the 2002 2003 fiscal year, Thursday. This budget will be presented to Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Legislature as the financial needs of higher education. Despite the state’s $177 million revenue shortfall, the Regents are asking for $55.4 million in new monies.

“This represents a very modest list of needs,” said Norm Tarbox, associate commissioner for finance and facilities.

The Regents recognize the state may not be able to pay this money due to a lack of funds, however, once the state knows what its budget will be, the Regents re-write theirs, Tarbox said.

More than $25 million of the $55.4 million will fund this year’s 9.5 percent enrollment growth at state colleges and universities. Regents are also asking for restoration of a 2.5 percent holdback that Leavitt asked all state agencies to cut last month.

The holdback cost Utah’s higher education institutions $15 million this year. This money was budgeted to the colleges and universities months before. Leavitt’s announcement forced the presidents and deans of these institutions to decide where a 2.5 percent cut would least affect their institutions.

University of Utah Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dave Pershing said, “The proposed budget tries to outline higher education’s needs in the state and at the U. The problem: It is almost unimaginable that the state has this kind of money this year.”

The state’s slowing economy and the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks forced Leavitt to announce his plan to take half of the $120 million rainy day fund and use it to compensate for the tax revenue shortfall last month.

“The budget’s good points are it recognizes the need for money to compensate for the enrollment growth,” Pershing said. “It also would give us back the 2.5 percent that we lost earlier in the year, if the state can pay that much.” New students require more resources and more teachers, he said. “We desperately need that funding.”

The U’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 statewide growth is comparable to the current total number of students at the College of Eastern Utah, Snow College and Dixie College.

The priority list was originally discussed at the monthly Regent meeting in October. The decision was made to not vote on the list until the Regents had a better understanding of what the priorities were.

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

In an earlier interview, 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 use to write the budget. He calls the priority list an “expression” of the needs of higher education.

Other priorities include more money for employee health insurance, salary equity, libraries and student financial aid.

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