Battle of the budget

By By Jay Logan Rogers

By Jay Logan Rogers

The Utah State Legislature made decisions on Tuesday morning that could increase students’ tuition or lead to university budget cuts.

Richard Kendell, commissioner of the Board of Regents, said he expects that the Executive Appropriations Committee’s move to prioritize tax cuts, transportation, water and employee compensation will divert millions of dollars of funding away from higher education.

U administrators are worried that the decision could have a severe, negative impact on the university.

“If this holds, it will be devastating and disappointing, especially in a year when there’s a surplus,” said Kim Wirthlin, vice president for government relations. “We’re putting our full effort into trying to make sure this doesn’t hold. We still have six days left in the legislative session.”

Wirthlin said that if the Legislature’s budget decision stands, it could mean tuition increases and budget cuts.

The Board of Regents requested $44 million from the Higher Education Appropriation Subcommittee before the committee talked the regents down to $33 million. After Tuesday’s meeting, Kendell said he expects to receive about $5 million.

Lawmakers’ decision to appropriate funding elsewhere drastically decreased money available for the remaining subcommittees. There are now $56 million to divide among the 10 appropriations subcommittees, each of which have a laundry list of priorities, such as the Higher Education Subcommittee’s request to send $33 million to institutions of higher learning.

The meeting took less than 15 minutes, and there was little debate. Only two lawmakers spoke up in opposition to the budget plan during the meeting.

“I really have concerns about moving $300 million of ongoing revenue for tax cuts, transportation and water programs. I think that many of those costs would best be served by one-time money,” said Rep. Brad King, D-Price. “It appears to me that we’re going to be painting ourselves into a box where we’re going to be choosing pavement over people.”

Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, said the money should be used to address shortfalls in public education funding.

Two of the 10 senators and four of the 10 representatives on the committee voted against the decision.

“It’s not looking good for us right now, but we’re going to be up there working on it,” Kendell said.

He added that he hoped the Legislature might still be persuaded to re-evaluate its budget priorities.

John Poelman, vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Utah, said he believed the decision would lead to a tuition increase.

“I think it’s incredibly disappointing that, in a year of surplus, higher education isn’t a higher priority. I really hope the Legislature reconsiders,” Poelman said.

Taylor Morgan, lobbyist for the Utah Student Association, a coalition of student leaders from public universities, expressed concern about potential damage to education funding.

“Students are directly impacted by the rising cost of education, and we hope the Legislature will find a way to provide additional funding for higher education. We hope they invest in higher ed because it doesn’t only affect the students, it affects the future of our state,” Morgan said.

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Steve Gehrke contributed to this article.