State budget cuts likely to impact higher education

By Ryan Shelton, Asst. News Editor

In a move that could clamp down on Utah’s higher education funding, state lawmakers will gather next week for a special legislative session where Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will ask them to cut the state’s budget by 2 percent.

Last year, the state set aside $100 million for K-12 public education to avoid budget cuts, but with an estimated $200 million shortfall in state revenue and a rapidly declining national economy, Utah’s colleges and universities might feel the pinch.

U Vice President of Government Relations Kim Wirthlin said the state needs to designate a rainy-day fund for higher education similar to the one reserved for public education.

“Higher education is vital to a strong economy,” Wirthlin said. “As you make cuts to the U, you end up hurting Utah’s economy as a whole.”

Still, lawmakers said cuts are inevitable.

“There’s little questions that they will be included,” said Higher Education Appropriations subcommittee co-chair Greg Bell, R-Davis. “Everyone is going to have to share in the reduction.”

A majority of the money allocated to state education is secured in teacher salaries, but Bell said special projects, such as renovations and expansions to Utah’s universities, might be put on hold.

The Utah State Board of Regents put the David Eccles School of Business renovation and construction plans on top of its $283 million development priority list in early September, after the Utah State Legislature passed on funding the project during the 2008 general session last spring.

Lawmakers drafted the state’s higher education budget during the spring session, but since then, rising gas prices, a slowed housing market and the continued collapses of several of the country’s top financial institutions have resulted in close to a $200 million decrease in state revenue.

U president Michael Young said across-the-board budget cuts are often inefficient ways of dealing with shortfalls.

“This would not wise,” Young said. “In a perfect world, you would look at which areas aren’t performing and make the appropriate adjustments, but they aren’t doing that.”

Young said the school has asked the Legislature for the flexibility to determine where internal cuts should be made, if necessary, to avoid limiting essential programs.

During the 2009 fiscal year, which began in late July, the U is slated to receive $397 million in state funds8212;nearly one-third of the $1.2 billion higher education’s budget.

The subcommittee in charge of allocating state funds to Utah’s colleges and universities will meet Thursday to discuss where cuts might be made. Bell said university presidents will be notified the following week of possible cuts to their respective institutions.

“Who could have foreseen this?” Bell said. “With Bear Stearns and Lehman collapsing, Hurricane Ike and gas prices they way they are, we’ve been through a rough time. It’s hard to predict in January what thing will be like a year down the road, but we’re committed to keeping higher education funding as steady as we can.”

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