USF administration braces for budget cuts

Though it’s not finalized, USF administrators are already preparing to deal with cuts to Florida’s higher education budget.

Both the proposed budget from the House of Representatives and the one from the Senate feature significant cuts to the higher education budget, said Mark Walsh, associate vice president of government relations at USF – the Senate by as much as $320 million from the current budget and the House “less by a couple hundred million dollars than what the Senate is spending.”

Walsh said the cuts are meant to fill a budget gap of more than $3.6 billion.

Differences in the House and Senate’s proposed plan will be resolved during meetings with a joint conference committee, he said. The comprehensive budget, called a “General Appropriations Act,” must be completed before the legislative session ends May 6. Gov. Rick Scott will then sign the budget into law.

But USF administrators aren’t waiting until May to begin planning.

During a Faculty Senate meeting March 23, USF Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith confirmed that administrators “still don’t know very much at all” about the budget, but have asked all University deans to begin preparing two budget scenarios: one that accounts for a 3 percent reduction to USF’s budget and the other accounting for a 5 percent reduction.

“We are pretty certain that stimulus money is gone,” Smith said. “We also know that we face some type of base budget reduction. The governor supposedly called for zero, but there seems to be no appetite for zero reduction in either the House or the Senate. Cuts are varying percentages from 1 to 10 percent of our base budget, but nothing is resolved.”

Smith said administrators are hoping for a base tuition increase to allow the University to make up some of the lost funding.

According to an email release from Kelly Layman, executive director of communications for the Board of Governors (BOG), the base tuition is set by legislators while “tuition differentials” are optional requests for increases made by each university’s respective Board of Trustees. If legislators decide not to set a base tuition, universities could propose any amount for their differential.

According to Florida law, the base and the differential cannot exceed a 15 percent increase, she said.

“The Florida Legislature has had unprecedented challenges, as has the State University System, which has experienced a total 24 percent reduction in base funds since 2008 while experiencing a steady growth of 3 percent per year the past several years in student enrollment system-wide,” she said in the email. “During a three-day meeting in June 2010, the (BOG) carefully weighed the proposals for increased tuition differential from each university. This review process will occur again in June 2011.”

Smith said USF’s budget will ultimately be determined by the amount of potential tuition increases the University is allowed to implement.

Administrators will also have to account for a 2 percent faculty salary increase – the result of collective bargaining sessions with the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida – set to go into effect in August and an unexpected cut to Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) trust funds when balancing USF’s budget.

“Typically, we’ve drawn about $5 million in our share of these (PECO) funds, but they announced the other day that the allocation for the entire State University System is $14 million,” Smith said during the meeting. “We anticipate our share of that being about $1 million and some change and to the consequence we’ll have considerably less money to draw from this.”

PECO funds, which are used to fund construction projects on campus, are so low this year that Walsh said USF may not have any money to complete the Interdisciplinary Science Teaching and Research Facility, or start any new buildings.

“This is the first time we can identify since the program started in the 1960s where, if the Legislature doesn’t make changes, there won’t be any money to appropriate,” he said. “If they don’t do anything, if they don’t act and they don’t make any changes, there won’t be funds available to provide any of the PECO revenue and the construction could be held up.”

But not all construction projects will be jeopardized.

USF Provost Ralph Wilcox met with the BOG on March 24 to lobby for bonds to pay for “badly needed” renovations to the Sun Dome, Smith said.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, those efforts paid off – the BOG approved $26.5 million in bonds for the project.

According to a release from the USF Department of Government Relations, other priorities of the University’s lobbying efforts include supporting the BOG’s “New Florida Initiative,” which would provide base budget increases for all USF System campuses; securing financial support for the Florida Institute of Oceanography, which conducted research on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year; and furthering USF’s partnership with The Jackson Laboratory by securing funding to build a new facility to house the program.

Walsh said the budget cuts are not a sign that legislators don’t prioritize the State University System, but rather that they have a “finite amount of dollars to work with,” given the current deficit.

“The cuts that the House are proposing in the health and human services sector are significantly less than the cuts that the Senate is proposing, which means that they have less money to spread out over the other sectors,” he said. “The way the Senate had the extra money is they prioritized the higher education spending a little bit higher for cuts in the health and human services area.”

Walsh said he thinks the budget that will ultimately pass will be a combination of both the House and the Senate’s proposals.

“We hope that the level of spending that wins out is closer to what the Senate is proposing,” he said.