Wednesday, February 22, 2012

House proposal reflects somewhat improved budget picture since November

The House Ways and Means Committee chair’s 2012 supplemental budget proposal released Tuesday would reduce appropriations to public colleges and universities by $32 million in 2013, but that reduction is significantly less than the $140 million contained in the Governor’s supplemental budget released in November.
Although the latest budget proposal could have been worse, it comes at a time when state support for higher education has already been cut by about 25.5 percent since the start of the 2007-09 biennium. The Senate’s supplemental budget plan will follow later this week or next, and the final conference budget will be negotiated and released near the end of the legislative session scheduled on March 8.
The House committee chair’s budget plan also reduces by $10 million an earlier increase in the State Need Grant (SNG) program that is intended to offset the impact of tuition increases on low-income students. In attempt to continue serving the same number of students, SNG awards would be reduced by up to 3.5 percent across all income categories, but only after applying the tuition-increase offsets. The total SNG appropriation would be about $293 million, or a $27 million increase from the 2011-12 fiscal year.
The House budget proposal also would leave intact funding for the State Work Study program, which the Governor’s earlier supplemental budget plan proposed to suspend next year. The House budget also includes a $1 million increase in the Leadership 1000 scholarship program (contracted with the College Success Foundation) to match private donors with economically disadvantaged students who would otherwise be unable to attend college after depleting their financial aid sources.
More favorable revenue and caseload forecasts have contributed to a somewhat improved budget picture since the Governor’s plan was released late last year. In addition, the House committee chair’s proposal delays the June 30, 2013 apportionment payment for K-12 school districts to July 1, 2013 and also delays a levy equalization payment, for about a $400 million shift to next biennium.
In light of recent developments, discussion also has cooled on a proposal to send a possible tax measure to the voters to “buy back” some budget cuts.
“The good economic news this month enabled us to steer clear of deep cuts in public education and limit impacts on social services and higher ed while staying within our current means,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan of Covington said in a statement Tuesday.
Specifics in the new budget proposal also reflect a priority by some budget writers to increase the number of degrees earned by students in high demand fields.  Unless additional resources are provided, a continuing gap is predicted between the number of available jobs in such fields, and the number of trained workers the state’s higher education system produces, according to a new report produced by the HECB, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, and the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board.
To address those concerns, the House budget includes money to increase high-demand engineering degrees by allocating $3.9 million each to the UW and WSU for that purpose.  It also would allocate $4.4 million for a STEM Degree Incentive Program, with grants to public baccalaureate institutions that demonstrate the greatest capacity to efficiently produce quality graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The House committee proposal also would provide $600,000 to carry out functions assigned to a state-level higher education agency that will succeed the HECB in July. The duties of the new agency, which would be called the Student Achievement Council, are included in Senate Bill 6232 and House Bill 2483, which started as companion bills but have each been amended several times throughout the session.