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Monday, November 12, 2012

Success of Democrats likely improves chances of higher ed funding being restored

CONCORD – The landslide victory for Democrats in last week’s state elections can only help the chances of historic cuts to state support for higher education being restored, legislators and education officials say.

Officials with the University System of New Hampshire offered legislators a deal this fall: restore the $50 million annual appropriation cut from the budget in 2011, and in-state tuition will freeze for two years. ...

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CONCORD – The landslide victory for Democrats in last week’s state elections can only help the chances of historic cuts to state support for higher education being restored, legislators and education officials say.

Officials with the University System of New Hampshire offered legislators a deal this fall: restore the $50 million annual appropriation cut from the budget in 2011, and in-state tuition will freeze for two years.

It’s a deal some lawmakers still have issues with, but one that many say will be more popular among the newly elected Democratic majority in the Statehouse and with Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, also a Democrat.

“I don’t expect my Democratic colleagues to do
anything except spend,” said Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, chairman of the Joint Fiscal Committee. “I’m sure that many of them have pledged to support the (university system’s) request.”

The restoration of funding was a common talking point during Hassan’s campaign, and the campaigns of other key Democratic candidates for Congress and other state positions.

USNH Chancellor Ed MacKay is hopeful the university system’s funding request will be granted during the budget process next year.

“Gov.-elect Hassan has made restoration of our funding a priority, and we’re confident that we’ll have the opportunity to talk to her and other legislative leaders about the importance of higher education and the economy in this state, and why that’s a sound investment,” he said.

Still, MacKay said he believes the funding of higher education is a nonpartisan issue.

“We’re asking all our elected officials to look at the nature of the state, and the trends and challenges our state faces economically,” he said.

Higher education officials wasted little time building support for their cause.

Two days after the election, the University of New Hampshire announced that more than 1,400 New Hampshire alumni, business and community leaders had signed on in support of restoring the cuts.

The $50 million cut was the largest one-year cut to support for the state’s higher education system.

In response to the loss of funding, the university system eliminated 200 positions.

Hiring and wages were frozen at the system’s four schools – the University of New Hampshire, Granite State and Keene State College, and Plymouth State University – as well as the chancellor’s office.

Those actions offset more than 80 percent of the state budget cuts without affecting students, the report said, but administrators looked to tuition increases and other fee hikes to help cover the rest.

While the cuts were made to help balance the budget, some lawmakers said that university officials could not be trusted to spend additional money wisely, and that the system had grown too top-heavy with administrators.

Republican leaders said the system should be focusing more on becoming self-sufficient, through fundraising and endowments, and not expect so much in state aid.

MacKay said Friday that he believes the system has improved in these areas. The university announced this summer that fundraising brought in more money than ever last year, while cuts to administrative positions have decreased overhead costs.

Rep. Will Smith, R-New Castle, presided over the education deliberations as a budget subcommittee chairman in 2011, and said that while he was not re-elected and will not take part in budget discussions next year, he believes that at least some funding should be restored to the university system.

Smith said the cut made sense in 2011, when tuition costs and salaries were growing. But since the cuts, he said, he has been pleased with the changes the university system made, particularly in the area of fundraising.

“We felt they could do more to improve their own economic situation, and I think they’ve started to do that,” he said. “Good behavior should be rewarded. They’ve been addressing some of the concerns that I at least had.”

Some legislators are still concerned about the future of higher education funding.

Rep. Ralph Boehm, R-Litchfield, said that while he is not against adequately funding higher education and wants to see lower tuition, he is concerned where the money will come from to make it happen.

“I’m sure (the new Legislature) will find ways to pay for it,” he said. “But they’ll probably increase taxes … We have to balance the budget, we only have so much money. Giving people money is not the issue, it’s where that money comes from.”

MacKay said the university system will continue to spread its message about the changes made after budget cuts, and hopes to convince the Legislature that restoring funding will be the best choice for the future of the system and the state.

“Our attempt to raise the visibility of this issue made a drastic impact on the rhetoric and the nature of the conversation during the election cycle,” he said. “Our effort is continuing, it did not end on Nov. 6.”

Smith said that while he cannot speak for the new Democratic-led Legislature, he expects that many will be supportive of the university’s request.

“I would think that those who spoke critically of all our cuts, particularly this one, would probably restore funding,” he said.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).