Budget receives temporary fix from stimulus package

Despite the entry of federal stimulus package funds, USF’s tentative budget — which awaits Gov. Charlie Crist’s approval in Tallahassee — unveils a significant cut in the University’s “heart and soul,” said USF Provost Ralph Wilcox.

The University expects to receive $15.1 million in stimulus funding. However, the state cut $28.6 million from USF’s general revenue fund May 1, leaving USF with only a $2.9 million budget increase for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

However, Wilcox said relying on non-recurring government money can be dangerous, and the University will use those funds to cushion the 2009-10 budgets, prolonging a long-term stabilization plan and delaying inevitable cuts.

“One of the major concerns for us here is that you can spend this non-recurring cash — the federal stimulus money — on some things but we can’t spend it on others,” Wilcox said. “We can’t hire tenured faculty, for instance, because when we hire a tenured-earning faculty, which is the heart and soul of this University, we’ve got to commit to them over a period of time.”

Aside from the state and federal allocations, USF’s budget is comprised of two other areas: state Lottery estimates and tuition.

The University expects to receive $24.2 million in Lottery funds — a slight decrease from this year. However, Wilcox said that figure is hard to predict because accurately gauging how many people will participate in lotteries is tough.

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, USF’s initial lottery budget was estimated at $28.5 million. By January, the figure had decreased by $4 million.

“This I have to say is a very optimistic, hopeful number and scenario,” Wilcox said. “There’s a very interesting trend beginning here. State and public investment in higher education is falling precipitously, while private investment, which means tuition, is

On May 1, the legislature approved a statewide bill increasing tuition by 8 percent. However, the bill also stated that universities have the opportunity to increase tuition up to 15 percent.

“At 15 percent tuition increases and the continued declining, or diminishment of public investment, it’s not going to be too long before more of our revenues are coming from tuition then public figures,” Wilcox said.

One consideration by some was to cut enrollment 27 percent to make up for the state’s similar cut, but Wilcox said that’s not going to happen. The University actually experienced a 7 percent increase in enrollment this summer.

“I’m not going to stand at the front door of the University and slam the door in your face and tell people that when the classes are filled — that’s it,” he said. “What we have done is managed our intake of students rather than cut enrollment.”

Aside from providing cushion to USF’s budget, the stimulus money could be spent in other areas, including bulking up the University’s scholarship fund, which “won’t be as generous,” Wilcox said.

“The main thing is being very careful with how we spend this money because we only have two years with it. There are things that need to be fixed here, potentially the money could be used for that, too,” said Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith. “If we’re being vague, it’s because we are now.”

The stimulus money isn’t in the bank yet. Wilcox met with a representative from the United States Government Accounting Office on Wednesday to provide the University’s plans to spend the money, and Smith said USF will have to account for all money spent.

The state of Florida was granted federal money Tuesday, Wilcox said, making it ready for distribution.

As an entire system, USF and its surrounding campuses will receive $269.1 million in general revenue from the state, a drop of $88 million compared to the 2007-08 budget, Wilcox said.

Last year, USF’s budget was cut mid-year by $9 million. Wilcox said he’s hoping the same thing won’t happen this year.

“In reality, we could close down any college other than the Arts and Sciences and still not cover these reductions. Obviously, we’re not planning on doing that,” he said.

Mark Walsh, associate vice president in government relations, said the governor has
15 days to make a decision on the tentative budget. Walsh said he should decide by mid-June.

He said the governor could either line-item veto or sign the budget. If the governor does not act on the budget within the 15-day timeframe then the budget becomes law.

Wilcox said the budget could be finalized as soon as the end of this week.

“The stimulus money, combined with some of our own cash reserves can help serve as a reserve during these tough times. But if you think about an $88 million dollar loss in recurring funds — I don’t expect to see that replenish any time soon,” Wilcox said. “It might not ever. What the legislature seems to have bought into is shifting the weight from the taxpayer and onto the shoulders of the students.”

Additional reporting by Kelli Polson