Md. universities say funding is less than stated

System's leaders dispute Glendening budget claims

April 16, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

One week after Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared victory for having restored funding for higher education, state university system leaders say they are in fact receiving less than advertised, forcing cutbacks that might include layoffs.

Glendening has pointed to the legislature's decision to restore a $22 million increase for the university system as a major success of his final term - and as proof that even as a lame duck he holds sway over the General Assembly.

But some university officials are quietly questioning that claim. While taking pains not to sound ungrateful in a tight budget year, they say they are actually receiving no increase this year, if one takes the budget's fine print into account.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's not as drastic a reduction as was being proposed early on in the session," said Frostburg State University President Catherine R. Gira, who represents the 11 campus presidents before the Board of Regents. "But overall, it's a budget that is less than last year's."

The lack of real growth in the system's budget makes it likely that the regents will raise tuition for this fall by at least 5.5 percent, breaking a self-imposed ceiling. It also will result in budget cuts that could include campus layoffs, officials say.

"I do think there will be some reductions in force," said Joseph F. Vivona, system vice chancellor for administration and finance.

Campus officials fear it may be difficult to implement the needed cuts at a time when state leaders are taking credit for increasing their budget.

"The problem is that the initial reporting made it sound like everything was fine, when the actual situation is not that good," said William W. Destler, provost at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We had to explain to the faculty that the actual situation was quite lean."

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill denied that the system is getting less than stated. The universities "aren't going to have to fire anyone," he said.

"I want to be very clear: What we claimed is there, is there," said Morrill. "In a recessionary budget, we were able to increase spending for higher education."

Glendening's original budget called for a $31 million increase for the system, just over 3 percent. The Senate voted to cut that increase, and the House restored $10 million.

Under the final agreement, the system won a $22 million increase, or just over 2 percent.

But system officials say the increase is illusory, because about $16 million of it consists of a system reserve fund that under Glendening's budget would have been used to balance the state budget, but which the Assembly returned to the system.

"That's not new money. That's money that's not being taken away from us," Gira said.

In addition, university officials say the system will have to absorb about $3.3 million of an $11 million statewide reduction in personnel costs - erasing much of the rest of the budget increase.

Morrill rejected that analysis, saying that the return of the $16 million reserve does qualify as an increase, because the money was not available to the university system as operating funds when it sat in reserve. And he said a $3.3 million cut in personnel costs constitutes a "worst-case scenario."

"Because we got the original cuts restored, they're left in the position of economizing, rather than slashing," Morrill said. "The truth is, they could have gotten much deeper cuts."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman agreed, while acknowledging that the budget's "reality is a little different from the public relations."

"The governor likes to claim victory out of as little as possible, but I'll tell you, the universities did better than they might have done otherwise," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.

University officials say they know they could have fared worse and realize that they have enjoyed large increases in recent years.

But university officials don't want their campuses believing what Destler called the "smoke and mirrors" about an increase and expecting new cash that isn't coming.

"They did the best with what they had," said Vivona. "But make no mistake about it, it's a tough budget."

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