UM System Takes Hit in Proposed State Budget
Citing weakened tax base, bill calls for more layoffs, decreased financial aid
By Daniel MacLeod
March 02, 2009
According to Governor John Baldacci's proposed budget for 2010-2011, the University of Maine System may not be able to maintain all seven campuses due to projected budget shortfalls over the next two years.
"Ultimately, the ability to maintain seven separate viable universities offering higher education could be at risk," the bill states.
But according to state senator Justin Alfond, current state law prohibits there being less than 7 college campuses.
"The idea that one of the UMaine colleges would be shutting down could not happen under Maine state law," he said.
Alfond could not say why the governor's draft implied some campuses could be at risk.
"This is being put forth by the governor and his staff... I'm not sure what the governor is meaning by this language," he said.
The current draft of the appropriations bill projects an $18 million shortfall for the Umaine system in 2010, and a $28 million shortfall in 2011.
According to the bill, approximately 150-300 positions in the UMaine system may need to be cut to offset these deficits.
"Both faculty and staff at all seven universities would be affected and students would most certainly realize the impact of reduced course offerings and student services," the bill states.
Last Tuesday's public hearing at the Augusta State House provided an open forum for the public to weigh in on Baldacci's proposed 2010-2011 biennal state budget.
The hearings were conducted by joint senate committees of Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Education and Cultural Affairs. On March 2, the committees will wrap up four weeks of open hearings before going into the working session, when they will draft changes into the bill.
According to the current budget draft, Maine faces a revenue decline of $330 million over the next two years. To counter this, the Governor proposes reducing baseline funding for higher education by $6.3 million over the next two years.
"The same economic factors that are driving revenues down are also increasing the demand for government services," Baldacci stated in the budget's cover letter.
The diminished funding will also impact Maine state financial aid for college students. The bill proposes a curtailment of $1.3 million in Student Financial Assistance program, through the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME).
Last Tuesday afternoon, UMF junior Colleen Morgan stood before the two joint committees and explained why the state should maintain funding for the Maine State Grant.
"If it weren't for this funding, I would certainly not be in school right now," she said.
A full time student, and mother of a four year old, Morgan cited next year's tuition increase of $500 as being a burden she will not be able to bear if the state follows through on it's proposed cut.
"I'm already struggling to pay for school while I work 20 hours a week and take 16 credit hours of classes," she said.
Beth Bordowitz, acting CEO of the Finance Authority of Maine testified before the committees, explaining that FAME is doing everything it can to provide affordable education to Maine students given the circumstances.
"Since this program assists students who frequently are not eligible for other need-based financial aid, we are doing the best we can to maintain the same number of students as last year… by reducing the award amounts," she said.
At the same time, she concedes that even small a reduction in Maine State Grant award money has a drastic impact on students.
"We know that cost is one of the largest deterrents for students pursuing post-secondary education… even a $200 reduction in an award amount can have a significant impact on some students," she said.
As part of Baldacci's emergency supplemental budget last November, FAME was forced to cut $687,000 from the Student Financial Assistance program. This cut resulted in a $60 curtailment of award money per student.
According to the draft, the slow progress the university system has made in keeping up with necessary repairs may be halted completely. Ultimately, "the condition of campus facilities would deteriorate" as a result of this backlog of deferrered maintenance.
The committees credited the University of Maine System's efforts to streamline the statewide university through the proposed restructuring plan. The second draft of this initiative was released on Feb 12.
Pattenaude testified before the commitees, maintaining that his office is doing all that it can to maintain services for university students.
"We understand the enormous financial challenge facing our state," he said.
"We are prepared to do our part by looking within our own organization to control costs and mitigate tuition increases."
But according to the propsed budget, the university may be forced to do more to keep its programs running.
"Tuition may be increased beyond an average 6% and/or university-based financial aid may be reduced impacting affordability," it states.
According to Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee member Richard Rosen, the bill won't be completed until sometime in April. However at that point, the state legislature will receive the new economic forecast, which could delay the bill's completion further.
"We're shooting for mid April to try to get this thing resolved, but that's another one of those things that might delay us a bit," he said.
President Obama's newly approved stimulus package remains a dim light on the horizon, though it's impact on the UMaine System is unclear, says Alfond.
"The reality is that we still don't know what the final numbers are going to be," he said.
According to Alfond, whatever the state gets will be split up between the K-12 and higher education systems.
"That's not going to go very far when you're talking about 15 distinct campuses."
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