Education leaders say budget cuts will undo progress

President Lee Todd and other leaders of Kentucky’s major higher education institutions declined in a letter Friday to give specific figures requested by Gov. Steve Beshear for how an additional 12 percent cut in state funding would affect public universities.

“Any plan to accommodate a cut of this magnitude, prepared in less than a week, would not be reliable, valid or credible, and no such plan can therefore be provided,” says the letter to the governor signed by Brad Cowgill, interim president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, and by the presidents of 10 state universities and college systems.

The letter was in response to Beshear’s request that UK and other state institutions prepare budgets by Friday with 12 percent less in state funding. The reduction would be in addition to a 3 percent cut already in effect for the rest of the fiscal year ending in June.

While the letter does not give a detailed explanation of where the cuts would come from, it does say a smaller budget would heavily impact higher education institutions like UK and the state as a whole.

“For lack of sufficient fuel, our state’s best economic engine will slip back down the hill just as it was approaching the steeper slopes near the peak,” the letter says, “sliding off the track and causing immeasurable damage through program cutbacks, enrollment caps, tuition rollups, staff and faculty layoffs, deferred maintenance and financial aid shortfalls.”

A budget cut of 12 percent next year, on top of this year’s 3 percent cut, would result in a total loss of about $50 million for UK, which would require a tuition increase of around 30 percent to offset, Todd said in an interview Friday. Along with a tuition increase, he said, such a cut would require UK to slow faculty hiring “tremendously.”

However, such a high tuition hike would not be possible, said UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

“We would not do that,” Blanton said. “We know we can’t do that.”

Where exactly a 12 percent cut would come from will not be presented, Todd said, in part because the state legislature has not yet decided how much funding to give higher education.

“We’re not going to have that conversation on campus,” Todd said. “… It’s pretty early for us to start communicating.”

Beshear will present his budget proposal Jan. 29, and the state legislature must approve the governor’s budget or make changes. The governor requested the letter be presented to his office Friday to aid preparation for the proposal, Cowgill said.

The approximately $168.5 million in cuts, when adjusted for inflation, would return state appropriations to a level only slightly above that of the 1997-98 fiscal year, the letter says. State funding for higher education was about $915 million in 1997-98, compared to about $1.08 billion in 2007-08.

A cut of that level would cause “a lot of backsliding” in Kentucky’s higher education goals, Cowgill said in an interview.

With the initial 3 percent cut, Beshear ordered state universities, including UK, to cut $34.5 million from their budget for the rest of the fiscal year ending in June, out of the $78 million cut across state government.

Cowgill said budget cuts need to be distributed fairly to various state institutions instead of having higher education becoming a “first resort” for a solution to state budget woes.

“I think there was a time in our state’s history when higher education was considered an discretionary expenditure,” Cowgill said. “But in this new economy, education should be considered a necessary expenditure.”