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Universities brace for more financial cuts

To cut or not to cut – that is the question Florida lawmakers face over the next two months.

USF, along with the other state universities and community colleges, will keep a close eye on the 60-day Florida legislative session, which begins today, to construct the state’s budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, as higher education braces for another potential cut.

With Florida facing an estimated $3.2 billion budget shortfall, Florida Senate leaders have said education may get another slash this year, despite Gov. Charlie Crist calling for $100 million more in state funding to public universities.

“With a big deficit we’re facing, often what (the Legislature) tries to do is cut everybody by a little bit,” said Susan MacManus, a USF political science professor and political analyst.

The general revenue state lawmakers are residing over is the largest of three regular sources in USF’s budget, along with Florida Lottery allocations and tuition and fees paid by students. But federal stimulus money passed down from the government also came for the 2009-10 fiscal year and is expected to come again in 2010-11 to help fill in cracks.

The state cut $28.6 million in general revenue funding, which makes about half of the University’s budget, for the 2009-10 fiscal year and since 2007-08, the state has cut $88 million in allocations to the entire USF system.

USF Government Relations Lobbyist Mark Walsh said another significant cut – say around 10 or 12 percent – would make employee layoffs, which USF dodged last year with the help of the stimulus money, almost unavoidable.

“We’ve been able to stop layoffs by eliminating vacant positions and moving people around … by consolidation,” he said. “We used a lot of stimulus money to help conserve jobs because it was a federal directive. Another big cut (and) we won’t have room to do much with personnel except potentially letting people go.”

USF received $15.1 million in stimulus money for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and it’s up to the state to allocate those appropriations again. USF’s tuition also rose last year for all in-state undergraduates by 15 percent – a $586 hike for someone taking 30 credit hours – and it raised tuition in other areas, including out-of-state and graduate tuition rates.

Walsh said he hasn’t heard any indication that another state mandated tuition increase will come, but it’s still early. One positive, he said, is that it’s an election year – when politicians will be trying to satisfy voters with their decisions – and education allocations could take a high priority.

Walsh also pointed out that education is unique because a stipulation with federal stimulus allocations requires states to spend a certain amount on education or else they won’t receive the funds.

“In a sense, we’re a little better off than some of the totally discretionary areas of the (state’s) budget, but I’m prepared at looking at some potential cuts,” he said. “I’m just hoping they’re not big, and if we make out even from where we are today, I think we’ll be a lot better off than some places.”

MacManus said with the economy in recession, it’s the toughest time to be a senator making decisions on how the money will be allocated.

“It’s going to be a tough year for everybody,” she said. “With a maybe little-bit-higher-than-expected deficit, the bottom line is that with the economy we’re in virtually everything is on the table, and there’s nothing sure, unless mandated by law, in terms of who will get what.”

Florida’s House of Representatives and Senate will each construct a tentative budget for the next two months and try to push a final copy to Crist’s desk for his signature after the session is over. After that, the University will construct its budget, which will then go before the USF Board of Trustees.