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Despite projected revenue increase, higher education facing budget cuts

Staff reporter

Diesel technology student Bryant McMullin works at the alignment bay on a large truck in the College of Eastern Utah shop. Many departments at CEU have suffered due to budget cuts the last couple of years and more may be coming. A board of regents meeting Monday determined that the school may have to find another two percent to cut out of their $12 million budget. That could mean changes in still more programs and possible tuition increases as well.

The announcement issued Monday by the governor's budget office and fiscal analysts that revenues will improve during the next six months was received with a sigh of relief by Utah legislators.

The good news is that the latest projections are $42 million higher than last November's estimates and $64 million more than expected.

"All I can say is hallelujah," commented Darin Peterson, who represents Utah House District 67 which encompasses the western one-third of Carbon County. "A lot of it is only one time money, but I think we have identified about $24 million that will be ongoing."

However, the bad news is twofold.

First, the money will only slightly restore lost revenues from the past two years in which $500 million was cut from state budgets.

Second, the revenues are only a projection, based on expert minds predicting that the economy has started an upturn.

Caution will remain the watchword. Last year, a number of extra sessions of the Utah Legislature were called by the governor to address revenue shortfalls.

The fixes were based on using budget cuts and one time monies like tobacco settlement revenues to balance the deficits.

"As I see it, this money will plug a lot of holes for a year," said Senate minority leader Mike Dmitrich. "The needs are and still will be there next year. The analysts have projected $21 million for 2004, which will also help, but it isn't near enough."

But even though there was good news on the fiscal front at the Utah Capitol, a gloomier side prevailed at a meeting of the board of regents. The regents met to discuss the impact of the further cuts that appear to be coming to the state's higher education system, including College of Eastern Utah.

CEU and the other public colleges in the state have suffered from having less money to operate the educational institutions.

Since 2001, Utah's higher education system has experienced a decline of $33.4 million in state funding.

Since the enrollments at most colleges continue to go up while available money drops, the actual cut is nearly $71.5 million. That adds up to almost a 12 percent cut in funding in the last two years.

In recent meetings with the Utah Legislature, the lawmakers asked the board of regents to come up with an additional $11.4 million in reductions to help in the state's budget crunch.

On Monday, officials reiterated that they are opposed to further cuts. But responding to the higher education panel's request, they recommended:

•Cutting 3 percent from the board of regents budget and statewide programs.

•Cutting 2 percent from the Utah Education Network. The network serves not only higher ed, but also public education and other state agencies.

•Cutting UCAT by 2 percent.

•Implementing a 2.06 percent reduction at all institutions except the University of Utah and Utah State.

The U of U and USU would receive 1.91 percent and 1.90 decreases respectively.

The smaller cuts for the two largest universities stems from the fact the schools have programs directly targeted to economic development in Utah, programs the board of regents feels the state needs more than ever.

If the proposals are approved, the higher education system will have absorbed a 7 percent direct cut in funding since 2001. With expanded unfunded growth, the situation will actually represent a 13.75 percent cut.

The disparity shows up differently on individual campuses.

For instance, Utah Valley State College is the fastest growing higher education institution in the state. The school's cut would amount to 22.03 percent since 2001.

On the other hand, CEU's growth has been much slower partly due to the reduction in scholarships offered in order to pay back a debt incurred by a prior administration. CEU's total cut would amount to 3.86 percent.

In dollars, CEU would lose an additional $245,200 from the college's approximately $12 million budget.

"Some of these big schools continue to try to get more students by advertising, even though they know they are in a budget crunch," noted Peterson. "They are creating their own problems, unlike CEU which is just trying to maintain its program for the students they already have and those that naturally flow to that campus."

Cuts at the CEU last year resulted in a number of programs being substantially reduced.

For example, the college completely eliminated the forensics program and literally laid off the full-time employees working in the maintenance department.

Further cuts in state funding would probably require more belt tightening, with the possibility of vacant positions not being filled . The result would further reduce the services and programs at CEU.

The cut in state funding could also mean an increase in tuition costs, which particularly hurts working students who must completely pay for their own educations.

"I'm afraid the burden will keep being put on students and that's not good," stated Dmitrich.

According to CEU's student newspaper, The Eagle, the college is reportedly facing closing much of its Moab campus after the current semester, primarily due to budget restraints.

USU and CEU have programs in Moab, but the classes offered do not overlap. The report indicates that some programs will remain intact and concurrent enrollment at Grand High School will still be pursued.

"There are people out there who are blaming CEU for the decision to close that campus," stated Peterson. "However, it is unfair for anyone to blame the college for this problem. It is a funding situation. However, I am hope we can find some money to help deal with that problem and keep the program going."

The only state agency that will apparently not encounter budget reductions is the public education system, which the governor and some Utah lawmakers have designated as untouchable.

However, other legislators are upset that official serving on Capitol Hill will hold public education harmless while apparently being willing to slowly dismantle higher ed one piece at a time.

The situation is compounded by the fact that most school districts have other funding sources available, such as property taxes. Public education can also change the rate charged for the taxes with leeway votes, an alternative recently exercised by Carbon County School District.

Carbon County voters recently endorsed raising the local mill levy and the school district went from having the one of the lowest levels in the state to an above average rate.

Colleges and universities cannot raise funds in the same way. No higher education institutions in Utah are truly "community colleges" funded by cities or counties. The schools are actually junior colleges funded by the state.

With the extra revenues projected to become available, many Utah lawmakers are considering restoring money to Medicaid and other social programs rather than to higher education.

But with the lack of new projected funds for all state recipients to restore budgets, officials indicate that a heated debate will probably ensue regarding how to allocate the money.

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