U to fight cuts at Legislature

By By , Staff Writer

By Chris Mumford, Staff Writer

With the Legislative session fast approaching, Kim Wirthlin, U vice president of government relations, spoke to students Monday about the vital need to keep further budget cuts to a minimum and emphasized the U’s role as an engine of the state economy.

Speaking at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Wirthlin detailed the U’s many accomplishments during the past several years, from Nobel prizes to competitive research grants, to illustrate what’s at stake if the Legislature fails to soften the blow of further cuts.
The Legislature cut the higher education budget by about 9 percent last year. It is expected to cut the budget by an additional 17 percent in the spring.

“If we have to cut another 9.5 percent, it will be absolutely devastating,” she said.
Wirthlin said the negative effects of further cuts would be felt beyond the U, saying that every $1 million worth of research funding translates into roughly 20 jobs. Using this ratio, she said the U was responsible for 7,160 jobs in 2008 alone because of about $358 million in funding.

Wirthlin also highlighted the high number of spin-off companies created by the U, another source of jobs for Utah’s economy. Last year, the U produced 23 such companies, just one shy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 248212;well above the national average of three per university.

“The investments that we have made have created a strong system, and they are now at risk,” she said.

Last month, U President Michael Young said the U could lose as much as $250 million in research funding with a 17 percent cut.

The emphasis on job creation and the U’s overall effect on the health of the state economy reflect the arguments that Wirthlin and her colleagues in higher education plan to present to lawmakers as they grapple with unpopular measures such as tax raises to fill the growing void in the budget.

Wirthlin said she supports an increase in tobacco taxes, which would bring Utah in line with other states in the region, as well as a gas tax hike, which would replace funds coming out of the general fund for road and highway construction and free them for use in other areas.

The previous round of budget cuts, though partially offset with federal stimulus money, forced the U to shed 355 positions and cut back on course section offerings. The most dire consequences are yet to come if something isn’t done to prevent further declines, Wirthlin said.

As an example, Wirthlin cited the new simulation center in the College of Nursing, which provides students with the opportunity to work on high-tech mannequins that give them practical experience in a range of different procedures. Further budget cuts would likely mean that the two faculty members and two staff workers required to run the center wouldn’t be affordable and the center would not be able to open.

Cuts in faculty, staff and equipment will become increasingly unavoidable, Wirthlin said, because the U has already maximized all available savings through efficiency measures.
Increases in tuition are another inevitable result of cuts, but Wirthlin stressed the idea that shortfalls cannot be made up entirely with such increases. In any event, U administrators have committed themselves to pursuing every possible option before tuition is raised again, she said.

Wirthlin acknowledged that above all, the prospect of persuading lawmakers to pass tax increases in an election year will be difficult, and she urged students to do what they can to generate buzz in support of tough measures. Despite the difficulty, Wirthlin pointed with hope to past generations of lawmakers who acted against their own political expediency in the interest of preserving Utah’s most important institutions, saying that it can be done again.

“What we’re really anxious to have happen is that, in advance of the legislative session starting, legislators from across the state are hearing from their constituents about their concerns over these deep cuts,” she said.

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Tyler Cobb

Kim Wirthlin, U vice president of government relations, spoke at the Hinckley Institute of Politics about the upcoming legislative session and the vital need to keep the budget cuts to higher education to a minimum.