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Senate subcommittee proposes higher ed budget

April 20, 2011

Lawmakers appear to disagree over exactly how to fund MSU and Michigan’s 14 other public universities, with differing funding proposals emerging in the Legislature this week and last.

But it’s not so much the extent of the cuts to higher education — that number seems to be pegged at going no lower than 15 percent, which would cost MSU $43 million next year from this fiscal year’s $283.7 million in state dollars and more than $222 million for all universities combined.

The disagreement, rather, centers around key aspects of where the money comes from. Past higher education budgets, usually adding to more than $1.4 billion, have taken money from the state’s general fund, though Gov. Rick Snyder proposed to draw nearly $700 million from the School Aid Fund, which typically is reserved for K-12 education.

The Senate subcommittee and its House equivalent, though, seem to disagree over key provisions of higher education funding. The result, some say, clouds the outlook for universities and could lead to larger cuts.

“The variables for our budget are almost out of our control,” said Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

Boulus was speaking in terms of other proposals outside the higher education budget, particularly those dealing with tax reforms and other revenue sources. Until Snyder and legislative leaders work out differences for such proposals, where the money for higher education comes from is up for debate.

Key differences between the House and Senate versions deal with the extent of the cuts universities face, in addition to where the money will come from.

The House subcommittee’s version, passed last week, keeps intact Snyder’s proposal to make cuts to individual universities as deep as 22 percent should they not keep tuition increases for 2011-12 at 7 percent or below. That version also would draw $700 million from the School Aid Fund.

The Senate subcommittee’s version does away with the tuition restraint requirement, capping the cut at 15 percent. It also reduces the pull from the School Aid Fund by $500 million, proposing instead to draw only $200 million.

The Senate version also did away with a stem cell research reporting requirement in the House bill. Such language, if enacted, would require universities conducting research with embryonic stem cells to report inventory, number of related projects and the like.

It’s relatively early in the process, though, because each bill must work its way through the full House and Senate. Changes could occur in each before they “swap” the bills and vote on the other chamber’s version.

If each rejects the other’s version, lawmakers would have to proceed to conference committee, meaning a small group from each chamber would meet to reach an amicable outcome, said state Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck.

Genetski, who chairs the House subcommittee, stuck by his committee’s version, saying the tuition restraint provision, the stem cell reporting requirement and drawing money from the School Aid Fund are necessary.

“I’m confident the differences will be resolved in a very amicable manner,” he said.

The chair of the Senate higher education appropriations subcommittee, State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. She was quoted by Michigan news site MLive.com on Tuesday as defending the decision to scrap the tuition restraint language.

“All the universities have promised me that if I took that out they would stay within (7.1 percent) and I’m going to hold them to that,” Schuitmaker was quoted as saying. “If they raise (tuition) above what the governor proposed, then they’ll face the consequences in next year’s budget.”

Above all, higher education funding is between a rock and a hard place, said state Rep. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing.

“Right now, it’s already bad enough, in my opinion,” said Bauer, the House subcommittee’s minority vice chair. “Fifteen percent is too drastic a cut as it is.”

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