Admins hope Legislature will follow Huntsman’s plan

By Jed Layton, Asst. News Editor

U administrators and faculty are hoping the Utah Legislature will let it rain in the next 45 days.

Because of the economic recession, legislators face a large revenue shortfall and are planning to make extensive budget cuts to government funding, including higher education.

“This is a very difficult year,” said Kim Wirthlin, U vice president for government relations. “We have been in several meetings with legislators. They are wrestling how to manage these cuts and balance the budget without bringing the economy to a full stop. We are advocating that the Legislature use all means possible8212;Rainy Day Funds, looking at ways to increase revenue to reduce the cut.”

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. proposed that budget cuts be curtailed by using money from a reserve called the Rainy Day Fund and from cash that otherwise would be used to build roads or buildings, said Paul Brinkman, associate vice president of budget and planning.

“A while ago the decision was made to put surplus money aside for a time when the state would need some extra money,” Brinkman said.

Carson Howell, a fiscal analyst with the governor’s office, said Huntsman has proposed to use $18.1 million in 2009 and $87.2 million in 2010. This would consume just over 25 percent of the fund, which currently has $412 million within it. Many lawmakers are opposed to using the fund, citing fiscal conservatism.

Brinkman said the difference between the governor’s and the Legislature’s plans would have an enormous impact on the U and other institutions of higher education.

Without using the Rainy Day Fund, state budgets would face a 7.5 percent one-time cut this year and an ongoing 15 percent cut for next year. Added to the 4 percent cut from last year’s special session, it would bring total cuts to 19 percent during the next two years.

If the governor’s plan is adopted, including plans to use the Rainy Day Fund, a 1.5 percent one-time cut would be implemented, followed by a 7.5 percent cut in 2010 and a 3.5 percent cut in 2011. Totaled, it would bring cuts to 11 percent during the next three years.

“Our view is that the Rainy Day Fund should be used judicially,” Brinkman said. “The Legislature needs to weigh the consequences of using it or not using it. They have to make the call.”

Brinkman said using the fund could mitigate the cuts the U will face as well as stop the economic downspin Utah is in.

“It could keep the ability of the U to leverage cuts and allow us to see the end of this economic tunnel,” he said.

Kirk Jowers, a Republican and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, is a supporter of Huntsman’s plan to use the fund.

“I understand some legislators’ concerns to be fiscally responsible,” he said. “But to not use the fund is allowing ideology (to) supersede logic.”

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City and a member of the higher education appropriations subcommittee, did not say whether or not she was in favor of using the Rainy Day Fund. Instead, she said all the members of the committee are “pretty unanimous that we are in opposition to such deep cuts and want to do all we can to preserve funding for higher education.”

Administrators said they did not know when the U would find out whether or not the Rainy Day Fund would be used or when they would receive a definite budget amount.

“The prognosis is uncertain right now,” Wirthlin said. She said the U is working with the Legislature to develop strategies to reduce budget cuts and save money.

“We have been giving them all the information they need to make informed decisions,” she said. “They are and we are using as many tools as possible to reduce cuts. I am uncertain about how it will evolve over the next 45 days.”

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