|Monday, January 12, 2004
Virginia colleges hope proposed money will come
|Gov. Mark Warner and legislative leaders are all pledging to begin addressing college budget shortfalls this legislative session.
By Kevin Miller
Advocates for Virginia's public colleges are headed to Richmond this week, bolstered by promises of larger operating budgets but still stinging from record cuts to higher education.
And they have plenty of ammunition for this year's battle of the budget, thanks to myriad recent reports:
n Virginia levied the fourth-largest cut in the nation of higher-education spending during the past two years, slashing college budgets by 17.8 percent.
n The annual funding shortfall for all public colleges, as calculated by state officials, has doubled since 2000 to roughly $400 million .
n Average faculty salaries at many schools are in the bottom third of their nationwide peers.
Gov. Mark Warner and legislative leaders are all pledging to begin addressing colleges' budget shortfalls this legislative session, which begins Wednesday. But with a showdown looming over tax reform between the Democratic governor and Republican leadership of the House of Delegates, university officials are nervously hoping that the proposed additional money for colleges won't fall victim to political crossfire.
"I'm optimistic going in, and I'm realistic during the process," said David Burdette, Radford University's vice president for business and governmental affairs. "It's going to be a tough session."
College officials are describing this year in almost "make it or break it" terms. Budget cuts of more than $600 million during the past two years have resulted in hundreds of faculty layoffs, larger classes, tuition increases of nearly 40 percent at some schools and a "brain drain" of top faculty.
Of course, funding will not be the only hot-button higher-education issue of the 2004 session.
Officials from Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary are expected to propose their own solution to the budget situation: Allow the universities to manage more of their own administrative tasks and set tuition rates, and the schools will seek less tax revenue from the state.
Lawmakers are also expected to grapple over such perennial issues as faculty representation on every board of visitors, dispensation of emergency contraception, or "morning-after" pills, at college health centers and whether illegal aliens living in Virginia should be allowed to enroll as in-state students.
Many school officials plan to invest nearly all of their energy in the budget.
Virginia has the dubious distinction of ranking fourth in the nation in total cuts to higher education during the past two fiscal years, according to a study of state spending by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. Virginia also ranked 37th in the nation in tax revenue appropriations per capita this fiscal year.
"This funding gap threatens to erode the quality of critical programs that have taken decades to build," Timothy Sullivan, president of William and Mary, wrote to faculty and students in a letter explaining his desire for greater financial independence from the state.
"We cannot pay our faculty and staff competitive salaries; financial aid falls far short of what our students need. These are the most serious problems we confront. They are by no means the only ones."
Warner has included $144 million in additional higher-education spending in his proposed biennial budget, including $82 million to begin closing the $400 million gap between current funding and the level needed to meet basic needs at the colleges, also known as "base adequacy."
But much of the new money, including all of the base adequacy funding, is contingent on passage of Warner's tax reform proposal. That plan, which Warner's office predicts could generate up to $1 billion in new revenue, would increase the sales tax one penny on a dollar, cut the food tax and increase the state's cigarette tax from 2.5 cents to 25 cents per pack.
Several GOP leaders in the Senate appear receptive to most if not all of Warner's proposals. The House's Republican leadership, however, has largely denounced the governor's proposed tax changes.
Del. Vince Callahan, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, predicted that Virginia's colleges will see an increase in funding next year, although not necessarily financed the way Warner proposed.
"It's a cynical approach because we can't put a budget together based on suppositions," Callahan, R-Fairfax County, said of the governor's plan. "It puts us in a position of second-guessing everybody. What I've told the staff of appropriations is we will deal with the budget based on an assumption that nothing is going to pass" and then readjust figures later, if necessary.
Minnis Ridenour, executive vice president and chief operation officer at Tech, is optimistic Tech will end up with the increases Warner has recommended, or better. Warner's proposed budget includes $2.5 million for base adequacy at Tech in fiscal year 2005 and $977,000 the following year.
"Given the financial situation we are faced with in the commonwealth, this is a good movement," said Ridenour, one of Tech's primary legislative liaisons in Richmond. "I think it is realistic to think these things can happen. Is it going to take a lot of work? Yes."
No matter what happens in the legislature, students at nearly every public institution in Virginia can bet on one thing: College will cost more next year.
University officials statewide are already predicting additional tuition increases before next fall, although few will provide dollar figures.
"So much depends on how much the state funds us," said UVa spokeswoman Carol Wood.
Jesse Ferguson, a recent William and Mary graduate and executive director of Virginia 21, an advocacy group for college-age Virginians, said tuition-weary students are starting to demand that Richmond fund a greater share of college costs. A Virginia 21 petition to eliminate the $400 million college funding shortfall received 12,000 signatures.
"There is no question students might have been willing to pay more if they were getting more," Ferguson said. "But to ask some of the least able among us to pay more for less, that seems ridiculous."