Lobbying in Annapolis, private colleges make case to keep state aid

Analysts recommended cutting schools' funding in half to balance budget

`It would be disastrous'

Cuts hinge on whether slots OK'd, Steele says

January 31, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

With standout students in tow, the presidents of Maryland's private colleges descended on Annapolis yesterday to urge lawmakers to retain a threatened program that sends $43 million in state money to their schools.

On an annual lobbying visit, the presidents said their schools would be devastated under a proposal by legislative analysts to slash taxpayer funding of private colleges to $21 million a year. Analysts recommended last week that the state base its support of 17 private colleges on in-state student enrollments, rather than on the schools' total population, thus cutting the funding by half.

The presidents said this approach might provide short-term help in closing the state's $1.8 billion two-year budget shortfall, but could do long-term harm to schools that, they said, serve as an economic engine for the state.

"It would be disastrous," said John S. Toll, president of Washington College, which would lose about half its $1.7 million in state funding under the analysts' plan. "We wouldn't go immediately out of business, but we'd have a very hard year and would be weaker in the future."

Encouraging words

The presidents and students received encouragement from state leaders who said they recognized the colleges' contributions and would try their best to preserve the funding, known as the "Sellinger formula." Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele noted that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget keeps the $43 million.

"There is a partnership between the state and your colleges that we want to continue," Steele said. "You should know that our commitment is there."

Later, however, Steele said protecting the Sellinger funding depends on whether lawmakers approve Ehrlich's plan to legalize slot machines. Without slots, the state will have to cut millions more from the budget, he said.

"The governor has stated, `If we don't have slots, all bets are off,'" Steele said. "We've got a lot of bills to pay."

`Tough economic times'

A leading opponent of slots, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, told the presidents that he, too, hoped to preserve their funding. But afterward, he stopped short of ruling out the money for cuts.

"These are tough economic times, and during these times you take a look at all programs and issues," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

The 30-year-old formula provides the Johns Hopkins University with $17.5 million and Loyola College with $5.6 million, among other schools. This year, the colleges received the same 8 percent cuts as public campuses, which have been forced to pass a rare midyear tuition increase.

Presidents spent several hours visiting lawmakers, handing out mugs, hats and tote bags with college logos and having students describe how their educational experience would suffer under funding cuts.

To rebut the notion that private colleges cater to wealthy students, Goucher College junior Andrew Behles told lawmakers that he was the son of two librarians who "are not making a grandiose amount of money."

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees education policy, said at least one bill is planned to overhaul the Sellinger formula. The bill would cut the funding by 25 percent and has potential, he said.

"Particularly during this difficult time, we have to see if we are fulfilling our commitment to public higher education," said Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat. "I don't want to hurt the private colleges, but we have to take a broad view of this."

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