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Lawmakers take first steps on higher ed cuts

Budget » Panel recommends spending reductions for college, tech schools and online ed network.

First Published Jan 27 2011 06:24 pm • Last Updated Jan 27 2011 09:33 pm

A legislative panel on Thursday recommended slashing higher education spending by 7 percent, which would cut $42 million from the state’s eight degree-granting colleges and universities. Lawmakers also recommended cutting 5 and 10 percent, respectively, from the Utah College of Applied Technology and the Utah Education Network (UEN), which provides Internet connectivity for public and higher education in Utah.

The recommendation — which would result in a third straight year of budget reductions at a time of historic enrollment increases — raises the specter of layoffs, tuition hikes and reduced course offerings, officials earlier told the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

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"Any action we take with the budget is a tentative action," said co-chairman Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. There will be further discussions that could result in "movement," especially if the Legislature receives positive revenue projections in February.

Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg has cautioned that the proposed 7 percent cut would have "serious consequences," potentially meaning the loss of 2,600 course sections and 681 positions.

UEN Director Michael Peterson has warned that cutting his budget would lead to more state spending, passed along to individual institutions that rely on the network for providing Internet access at discount rates. But the panel recommended the steepest cuts to his agency, amounting to $1.7 million.

Urquhart said the original proposal was a 10 percent cut for all areas of government, but UEN did not provide helpful input on reducing expenditures. "There’s nothing punitive about it," Urquhart said. "We put this on the table to get the discussion going."

Meanwhile, committee members were concerned about the proposed cuts effect on college affordability.

"I do hope that the first area looked to will not be tuition increases," said Rep. Bradley Daw, R-Cache. "Students are pushed to the breaking point. Some of them are working full-time and carrying full loads at the universities."

Daw said he opposes "flat, across-the-board" cuts because not all the universities and colleges are growing at the same rates. But the committee did not advance specific recommendations for cutting costs, such as increasing faculty teaching loads and charging extra tuition to students who hold enough credits to graduate.

"We have faith in the presidents to make these decisions," Urquhart said.

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Lawmakers wanted to spare UCAT the full cut because that eight-campus school is more reliant than universities on state appropriations and quickly trains people for the workforce.

"I support it a hundred percent," Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, told UCAT presidents. "It needs to be elevated [so] kids don’t think they’re second-class citizens if they go to your school."

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