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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

House Budget Hits Higher Ed

By Michelle Dupler
The News Tribune

April 01, 2009

OLYMPIA -- Higher education would be slashed by $683 million in a budget proposal released Tuesday by the state House of Representatives -- about $170 million more than the Senate would cut.

"Our budget gives the highest hit to our higher education system even though this is absolutely the wrong time to do that," said Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, chairwoman of the House Education Appropriations Committee.

University and college officials recoiled at the budget proposals, which would force big increases in tuition, slash student enrollments and force the layoff of hundreds of employees.

The House unveiled its $31.4 billion operating budget proposal a day after the Senate. And while leaders in the two houses said they had negotiated agreement on the "architecture" of the budget, the details show differences in priorities as they struggle with a projected $9 billion revenue shortfall.

The Senate proposal cuts $3.85 billion from programs, mostly in health care, human services, K-12 education and higher education, and uses about $3 billion in federal stimulus funding to add to $28 billion in revenue forecast for the 2009-11 biennium.

By contrast, the House plan cuts about $4 billion in programs and does not include any kind of tax measures. It also uses about $3 billion in federal stimulus money to balance the budget, along with shifting money to the operating budget from the capital budget and other funds.

Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chairwoman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said Democrats didn't believe they had enough votes to pass tax increases, which require a two-thirds majority.

"It would have been irresponsible to put revenues in our budget we don't think we can pass," she said.

In terms of cuts, the widest differences between the two houses is in their respective approaches to K-12 education and higher education.

While Senate Democrats hacked 75 percent of the state's levy equalization funds -- money intended to give property-poor school districts a boost -- the House chose not to touch that funding.

"Those are probably the most important funds that go out to school districts," Haigh said.

But the House proposed steeper cuts to higher education than Senate Democrats, who on Monday proposed cutting $513 million from higher education.

How cuts are made will be left up to each four-year university and the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, which will decide on cuts for two-year schools and technical colleges.

Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd said the cuts proposed by the House are "counterintuitive" in a time of economic crisis.

"This is one of the worst higher education budgets in the nation," he said in a written statement. "This does not bode well for the future competitiveness of our state. We will depend upon our colleges and universities, especially our research universities, to generate the ideas, the technologies and the manpower to lead Washington out of this mess. Tying our hands is short-sighted, to say the least."

The House budget would force WSU to cut $151.4 million, or 29 percent, from its budget for the 2009-11 biennium. Floyd said the university would have to reduce enrollment by 1,500 students and lay off 400 to 500 employees.

WSU and other four-year universities would be allowed to raise tuition 10 percent under the House plan, which would allow WSU to recoup an estimated $40.4 million.

"While we do not want to balance the budgets on the backs of our students, the cuts are so deep that very significant tuition increases for at least the next two years will be unavoidable under the current scenarios," Floyd said.

"We call upon the Legislature and the governor to find ways to make a greater investment in higher education and direct a higher level of state appropriations in the one thing that holds the highest hope for the future of this state -- a well-educated populace. It is time to re-evaluate our priorities."

Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins said the House proposal would mean cutting as much as $4 million from the college's $23 million budget over two years, but with a larger portion of that cut coming in the second year according to the data he's seen.

"The House has a bow wave in the second year that makes close to a 20 percent permanent cut," Cummins said. "When we get cut by 20 percent, it takes years or never to recover."

The House would allow larger tuition increases than the Senate -- 7 percent for community colleges and 10 percent for four-year universities, compared with 5 and 7 percent offered by the Senate.

But Cummins said tuition makes up only about one-third of the cost per student, so raising tuition doesn't fully compensate the college for the loss of state money.

He also worries that higher tuition levels will keep people out of college when they may need education most.

"Our demand is just up like crazy and is going to be up because the economy stinks," Cummins said.

Haigh said budget leaders recognize that higher education and worker retraining will be critical as the state tries to pull itself out of the recession, but tough choices had to be made.

The House and Senate are having public hearings on the budgets this week and will adopt a final budget later in April.

Michelle Dupler: 360-753-0862; mdupler@tricityherald.com