GOP makes higher ed priority despite budget crunch

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 20, 2005

House Republicans who want to spend the next few months strengthening Ohio's higher education system face the reality of doing it without much additional money.

House Speaker Jon Husted says the top priority for members of his party, who control the 99-member House at least until January 2007, is to improve the state's partnership with higher education.

''Continuing the partnership between state government and those in the field of higher education is essential if we are to maximize the opportunities for Ohio's students,'' Husted said last week.

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Funding the state's 13 four-year public colleges and universities as well as the system of two-year colleges and branch campuses will require major changes, he added.

The catch is that the state has struggled in recent years to provide enough money for higher education, pinched on one side by mounting costs to care for the state's poor families and children, and on the other by the need to provide enough money for K-12 schools.

Two years ago, after losing hundreds of millions of dollars in previous spending cuts, public colleges and universities received increases of less than 1 percent in 2004 and 2 percent in 2005.

This time around, Gov. Bob Taft proposed about $1.56 billion for higher ed this year and next - essentially a funding freeze from the previous two-year budget.

At the last minute, lawmakers were able to add $30 million to next year's budget after state budget officials revised their estimates for how much money would be available thanks to an improving economy.

The debate has taken on a predictable tone in recent years, as university presidents and Democrats press for more funding for higher education to keep the state's economy moving, while Republicans argue they're doing what they can given the demands of Medicaid and schools.

This point was brought home by Rep. Chris Redfern, the top-ranking House Democrat, who was quick to point out the funding discrepancy as he replied to Husted's remarks.

Republicans have ''been dismantling our higher education system, and letting tuition prices get completely out of control,'' said Redfern, of Port Clinton.

''Now they want to talk about improving higher education,'' Redfern said. ''We'll listen, but we're obviously skeptical.''

Under the budget approved last summer, Republicans must figure out a new way to divide money up among its higher education institutions for the financial year that begins July 1.

But that discussion also will include talks of changing the funding system permanently, Husted says.

''Just as we have made historical reforms to Ohio's tax system, so too must we institute major reforms in higher education,'' he said.

Lawmakers must look at ways to help the fast-growing community colleges without hurting the bottom line of the slower-growing four-year campuses, said Rep. Shawn Webster, chairman of the House Finance subcommittee on education.

That must be done in the context of tight funding, he added.

''I don't think personally we can do huge changes in the percentages of the budget because of the circumstances we're under,'' said Webster, a Republican.

So the goal of increasing the number of college degrees means better use of existing programs. For example, if a community needs people with engineering technology degrees, a local branch campus might offer that degree currently only available at a larger four-year institution, Webster said.

When inflation and enrollment growth is factored in, higher education is receiving 25 to 35 percent less than it was in 2001, said Rich Petrick, vice chancellor for finance for the Ohio Board of Regents.

Petrick said he welcomes Husted's focus, and says universities are awaiting the recommendations of a committee led by Webster that is studying the way higher education is financed, said

The proposal must ''be sensitive to the campus mission, sensitive to enrollment,'' Petrick said. ''It's got to be adequate to help Ohio compete in the 21st-century economy.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.