Perdue chides lawmakers over higher education cuts

Gov. Sonny Perdue blistered state lawmakers Thursday for causing a panic over looming budget cuts to colleges and universities and vowed to protect the system as much as possible.

"I have been very chagrined at some of the scare tactics and fear mongering that has gone on regarding our University System," Perdue told reporters at a news conference. "Let me say unequivocally that under my administration, we will not dismantle a world-class University System that we spent over two decades to build up."

The governor's comments came about an hour before two top lawmakers held their own news conference to discuss cuts to the 35 colleges and universities, cuts that could reach nearly $600 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland) and Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), who are responsible for drafting the state's higher education budget, told reporters that they hope cuts aren't that deep, they might not be that severe in the end, but if they are, the pain needs to be spread across the University System.

The cuts, they said, should not be borne by students or programs alone. The Board of Regents, they said, should also consider cutting salaries of the highest-paid employees, including top professors and school presidents.

"We're asking sacrifices be made by students," Harp said. "We're asking sacrifices be made by programs. All we're asking is that the Regents, in using the toolbox, have shared sacrifices."

Under state law, lawmakers cannot dictate to the colleges and universities how the cuts are made. The General Assembly and the governor simply allocate a set amount of money to the system. It is up to the Board of Regents to decide how to spend it.

But over the past two weeks, recommendations and threats of massive cuts have led to protests from students and faculty, which in turn have led lawmakers to defend themselves. Among the cuts that have been mentioned as possibilities in the past week and a half are a 77 percent increase in tuition, thousands of layoffs, closing of some satellite campuses, ending of popular programs, gutting of course sections and limits on the number of incoming freshmen.

Perdue, however, said that's not acceptable.

"It's not going to happen on my watch," he said.

The governor, in his official recommendation for the 2011 budget, suggested the University System absorb $265 million in cuts. The schools have known that was coming and have been operating at those spending levels for the past few months. But at a budget hearing last week, Harp told Chancellor Erroll Davis to come up with a plan for making an additional $300 million in cuts.

In the end, Perdue said he doesn't think there will be any reduction in admissions at state colleges but said there is “room” for the system to raise tuition, although he didn’t list a figure.

But the governor made it clear he didn’t support massive hikes proposed the past two weeks.

“Somebody ought to be asking the question, when are we going to put higher education in the unaffordable category for average middle-class parents? That’s what I’m worried about,” he said. “We are going to price kids who ought to be going to college out of the system. We ought to be as much concerned about that as we are about balancing the budget with 50-75 percent tuition increases.”

But Harp and Ehrhart, who did not appear to know of Perdue's comments, said they might not have any choice. Ehrhart sounded a more optimistic tone than his Senate counterpart.

"Between the Regents and the legislative branch ... we will get us to a point where we protect higher education in this state," Ehrhart said, later adding that "I don't think you're going to see $300 million" in cuts.

But Harp returned to that figure. "We certainly hope that $300 million cut may be less, but we do not know that," he said.

Lawmakers are waiting to see if state revenue collections improve before settling on a final number for cuts. Across state government, the necessary reductions could top $1 billion. February tax collection figures should come out next week.

Katie Barlow, president of the student government association at the University of Georgia, said students remain afraid over how steep the cuts will be.

“Things keep going back and forth on what’s going to happen,” Barlow said. “It doesn’t matter if something is said to make a statement or if it’s just a part of politics. In the minds of students, these cuts are real. It is real especially for students who are struggling with making real tuition payments.”

Students are planning a March 15 rally at the Capitol to protest the proposed cuts. Student government leaders want to meet with members of the Appropriations committees to discuss their concerns and present suggestions for alternative cuts. Presidents from the student government associations are meeting this Saturday, either in Statesboro or Atlanta, to prepare for the rally, Barlow said.