May 27, 2020

Budget cap hurdle for education

The three legs of Maine’s higher-education tripod have asked Gov. Angus King for increases in their baseline state funding ranging from 3.5 percent to 9 percent for each of the next two academic years.

According to higher-education officials, however, King has told them he will cap higher-education increases at 2.5 percent in each year of the two-year state budget he is drafting.

The University of Maine System has asked King for 9 percent increases in each of the coming two academic years. The Maine Technical College System has asked for 3.8 percent and 3.5 percent. Maine Maritime Academy has put in a request for 4 percent hikes.

If King holds firm to the 2.5 percent line it could put pressure on tuition, according to Terry MacTaggart, chancellor of the university system, and John Fitzsimmons, president of the technical college system.

This upward pressure on tuition would come at a time when officials from the Finance Authority of Maine, the State Planning Office and King, among others, are worried about the low percentage of Maine’s population holding college degrees, in particular bachelor’s degrees.

These officials say Maine must lift its standing from last in New England and 27th in the country if the state is to thrive in the “knowledge-based” economy King so often touts.

MacTaggart intends to talk in economic terms as he makes his pitch to the Legislature for more university funding. The chancellor, who headed the Minnesota State University System from 1991 to 1995, points to the recession at the start of the last decade. He notes that states like Minnesota, where lawmakers bit the bullet and kept higher education affordable, remained more economically buoyant and began to prosper earlier than other states when the economy rebounded.

In Maine, university system funding from the state was cut in four of the five years from 1991 to 1995. As tuition rose to make up the losses, enrollment fell. The state appropriation increased by only about 2 percent a year from 1996 to 1999 before lawmakers boosted university-level funding by 13.9 percent and 15.6 percent respectively in the last two academic years.

However, after running substantial budget surpluses in the past few years, the governor is facing a potential $200 million revenue shortfall as he drafts the state budget this time around. Higher education spending comprises 9 percent of the current state budget.

King’s spokesman would not confirm the 2.5 percent cap. “We’re not commenting on the budget as a matter of policy,” said John Ripley. King is scheduled to reveal his final budget Jan. 4.

In late November, Fitzsimmons told the technical colleges board of trustees that the governor would propose only a 2.5 percent increase for the system.

This week MacTaggart and Richard Ericson, Maine Maritime’s vice president for finance and administration, confirmed for the Bangor Daily News that they had received the same message from King.

According to Fitzsimmons, if the technical colleges see only a 2.5 percent increase, the system may have to increase tuition, cut back programs, or ratchet back planned enrollment increases.

Raising tuition would be a blow to a system trying to lower its credit-hour cost from the current $68 to $47, the national average for two-year colleges.

If the system is able to freeze tuition for six or seven years, Maine’s credit-hour cost will drop into line with the rest of the nation’s, Fitzsimmons said. “But that hinges on our base budget being met.”

He underscored the fact that three-quarters of Maine technical college students come from families with household incomes of less than $15,000.

In the budget request submitted by MacTaggart to the governor, the university system is seeking a $15.2 million, or 9 percent increase, in funding for core operations in the 2001-02 academic year, and an $18.7 million boost, also equal to 9 percent, in the next school year.

The state now provides $169.3 million for core operations. Last year it also provided $18.3 million for what the system describes as “one-time” expenses.

The 9 percent increases, according to MacTaggart, would let the system hold tuition increases for in-state students to no higher than the rate of inflation. They also would cover much of the cost of sharply rising health insurance premiums. Last, the additional funds would permit MacTaggart to implement his strategic vision, known as the Maine Idea.

His vision, in part, sees the system reorienting itself to produce more nimble and adaptable graduates, who are prepared for the state’s evolving economy. The vision also foresees closer alignment between the university system and research and development initiatives outside of academia, as well as closer ties with Maine’s K-12 education system.

Beyond the core funding, MacTaggart has proposed the creation of a $20 million endowment, half of the money coming from the state and the remainder from private sources, which would be used for scholarships. The proposal specifically targets middle- and low-income students.

The chancellor has also asked for $2.5 million in each of the next two years to expand the number of digital journals to which the Fogler Library at the University of Maine subscribes. These online journals are “a wonderful way to distribute vitally needed information across the state,” MacTaggart said.

To continue and expand on prior research and development initiatives, he has requested $10 million spread over the two-year budget cycle. He notes that every $1 in state money spent on research and development at the University of Maine brings in $4 in federal R&D funding.

He also has put in a request for $45.7 million in the first year and $15.5 million in the second for capital construction and renovations across the system. The funds include $17 million for the expansion of Fogler Library.

Fitzsimmons of the technical college system has requested an additional $1.4 million in both years of the budget cycle for maintaining current services, which equals a 3.8 percent increase in the first year and a 3.5 percent increase in the second. In the first year, the technical colleges core budget would rise to $40.3 million.

The system also has asked for $5.5 million to expand programs and increase enrollment. The goal is to grow from the current level of 5,850 students to 5,963 in the academic year that starts in September, and eventually to climb to 10,000, a target backed by the Legislature. At least $1 million would be used for financial aid for needy students.

The total also includes $1.1 million to bring campuses into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, $960,000 would pay for the second- and third-year installments of a new administrative software package for the system.

Last, the technical colleges have requested $20.8 million in capital funding for “mandatory” or “essential” projects. However, Alice Kirkpatrick, spokeswoman for the technical colleges, said that lawmakers have not funded these projects in 10 years.

Maine Maritime Academy is asking for a 4 percent increase, or almost $300,000, over its current state appropriation of $7.4 million, said Ericson, the academy’s vice president for finance.

The 4 percent is “meant to address cost of living increases, to basically hold the line,” Ericson said.

That level of funding would help the academy to continue enlarging its enrollment, he added. Current full-time enrollment is 705 students, the highest ever. The goal is to reach 800 students some time between 2003 and 2005.

The academy has also requested $4 million in capital funding, the second half of an $8 million state request broached last year. The money would be used to continue renovations on the school’s 600-bed main dormitory. It was originally designed with an all-male student body, in which all were members of the midshipmen regiment, in mind, Ericson said.

Today, barely half of the student body is part of the midshipmen regiment. And more than a hundred women attend the academy, with fewer than 20 of them in the regiment.

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