University leaders praise O'Malley's proposed budget

It includes 0.8 percent increase for system

February 01, 2012|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The leaders of Maryland's university system say they're grateful that Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed another increase in higher-education spending for 2012-2013 at a time when many states are slashing support for public universities.

University officials were in Annapolis on Wednesday to testify on behalf of the governor's proposed budget, which includes a 0.8 percent increase in operating funds and $215 million in capital projects for the state system.

As in previous years, O'Malley chose to "buy down" a systemwide tuition increase, adding $9 million to the budget to limit the increase to 3 percent for a third straight year. O'Malley froze tuition through most of his first term and has continued to keep tuition increases at a modest level compared to many other states.

"Compared to what some other states are suffering, it is nothing short of remarkable," Chancellor William E. Kirwan said in his remarks to the House of Delegates subcommittee on education and economic development.

O'Malley's efforts could prove fortuitous, given President Barack Obama's recent proposal to make federal funding for higher education contingent on state efforts to limit the costs of college.

Kirwan said that during a recent meeting with Obama in the Oval Office, the president praised Maryland's efforts to control costs for students. "I hear great things about what's going on in Maryland," Kirwan recalled Obama saying.

Regent Barry Gossett said the system will ultimately need larger funding increases to grow and improve. In 2010, the system passed an ambitious strategic plan to increase overall enrollments and the number of math and science graduates. According to a budget analysis, that plan would require funding increases of $793 million between now and 2016, a total barely chipped at by the modest increases in the 2012-2013 budget

"But under the circumstances, with the economy struggling and the state budget under significant stress, the [system] is extremely appreciative of the level of support the governor has proposed," Gossett said.

Under the governor's proposed budget, the system would receive about $1.07 billion in operating funds for 2012-2013. The system also projects a $40.3 million increase in revenues from tuition and fees. The greatest area of growth in the spending plan would be fellowships and scholarships, which would increase 7 percent, or $10.7 million.

The governor's budget also would extend an $11.6 million increase in the 2011-2012 budget, which created $750 salary bumps for university employees. That extension could prove contentious, because budget analysts have recommended that the General Assembly trim the $11.6 million, which they say was intended as a one-time bump.

Kirwan argued that the money is not tied to the salary bump and losing it would diminish funding for financial aid and slow the system's planned enrollment growth.

The chancellor also briefed legislators about the regents' decision to pursue a strategic alliance rather than a full merger between the system's research campuses in Baltimore and College Park.

A budget analyst for the house subcommittee questioned the advantages of the proposed alliance, suggesting that it might provide fewer chances for cost reductions than a full merger and that it might be difficult to sustain given historic divides between the campuses.

"It's difficult to determine if the alliance better meets the state's needs and demands," said analyst Sara J. Baker.

But Kirwan said the regents decided that a merger would simply be too difficult. "Most mergers fail," the chancellor said. "They fail because they try to bring organizations with different cultures and different missions together, and it just doesn't work."

Kirwan said he would return in a few weeks to brief legislators on the particulars of the planned alliance, which he said would include attempts to consolidate costs.

The committee's chairman, St. Mary's County Democratic Del. John Bohanan, praised the regents' plan. "I thought what you came up with is pragmatic," he said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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