Sonny Perdue: $66 million university cut ‘incredibly disappointing’

Chancellor of the University System of Georgia Sonny Perdue called budget reductions "an incredibly disappointing outcome."  Miguel Martinez / AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

Chancellor of the University System of Georgia Sonny Perdue called budget reductions "an incredibly disappointing outcome." Miguel Martinez / AJC FILE PHOTO

University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue blasted a $66 million state funding decrease approved by lawmakers late Wednesday, which the system said will hurt schools across the state.

The General Assembly passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year with about $3.1 billion in state funding for the University System of Georgia (USG), which oversees 26 public colleges and universities. The University System said the cut adds to the pain of revenue losses due to recent falling enrollments at 20 schools, most of which are smaller, regional colleges.

The budget now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for his approval. A spokesman said the measure is “undergoing a thorough review process” and declined further comment.

“This is an incredibly disappointing outcome, given the work done over the years by our state leaders to elevate higher education and send Georgia on a path to ascension,” Perdue said in a written statement Thursday morning. “It will have a significant impact on institutions and the services that students and families depend on to advance their prosperity and help Georgia succeed.”

The cut represents just over half the $105 million approved a few weeks ago by Kemp and lawmakers for a new electronic medical records system for the Medical College of Georgia, part of Augusta University. Senate leaders have questioned that cost, approved amid talks for Wellstar Health System to partner with AU Health System.

The Senate had proposed trimming a similar amount from the upcoming University System budget. House Appropriations Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, told his chamber Wednesday that the House was able “to soften the reduction” by $39 million.

He, along with Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, urged the University System to limit any damage from the cut by dipping into $504 million in “carry forward” funding left over in college budgets.

“There’s a lot of comments that this will be disproportionately impactful to smaller schools. That does not have to be the case,” Tillery told lawmakers Wednesday.

Tillery said the University System receives what amounts to a block grant from the state, and the Board of Regents can spend it “any way they want.”

The University System countered that 82% of those leftover funds are concentrated at six schools, including the state’s four top-tier research universities. That money can help in emergencies, but the University System said it’s intended to support faculty recruiting, research and “strategic investments.” USG said those funds are retained at individual schools and can’t be moved around.

The impact of the $66 million reduction varies by school, from nearly $12 million at the University of Georgia to $208,000 at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, according to USG.

Perdue was governor in the late 2000s when the University System and other state agencies took much larger spending cuts during the Great Recession. At the time, the Board of Regents responded by hiking tuition and fees.

Lawmakers, fearing the same thing would happen this time, passed a measure Wednesday requiring legislative approval of tuition hikes more than 3%. It is unclear if that is constitutional, since the Board of Regents has the authority to set tuition.

Total enrollment across all colleges fell to 334,459 students last fall, a 1.8% drop from the prior year. In response to that and inflationary pressures, schools have been preparing to eliminate vacant positions and, in some cases, cut faculty and staff.