New budget deal deepens cuts to Arizona universities

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on March 4, 2015 and in the Daily Wildcat on March 5, 2015.

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey have agreed to a budget that would deepen cuts to state universities by nearly 50 percent in a move that prompted sharp criticism from university supporters.

The new proposal would cut $104 million from Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, which is about $26 million more than Ducey proposed in his budget in January. The $104 million would represent about a 14 percent reduction in state support for universities.

The cuts are apportioned to each university based on enrollment size. In Ducey’s proposal for $77.5 million in cuts, universities were $40.3 million to ASU, $21 million to UA and $13.1 million to NAU. It’s unclear how much more will be cut to each university under the new proposal as specifics on the new budget deal were not immediately made available.

The new budget would also strip community colleges in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal Counties of all state funding. Ducey’s budget called for cutting funding for those three community college districts by half, or about $8.8 million.

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, confirmed in an email statement that Ducey and the Legislature had struck a deal on the budget.

“Governor Ducey has reached an agreement with legislative leadership that balances the budget, practices fiscal responsibility and sets clear priorities for the state,” Scarpinato said.

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, wrote that from the details emerging about the budget deal now, it’s the “worst budget ever.”

Mark Killian, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, said with the deeper cuts to higher education, the Legislature is “trying to kill us off.” The Board of Regents governs the state universities and sets tuition rates.

Killian said the cuts likely stem from the Legislature having a “lack of understanding about the university system.” He noted that Arizona’s university system has been performing exceptionally well in areas of research and student retention over the past few years.

“It’s counterintuitive to cut university spending as deep as what they are proposing,” Killian said. “It’s going to have a significant impact on staff and the way we deliver education.”

The Regents issued a call to action in February urging for the state to not cut more than the $77.5 million Ducey initially proposed. Killian said the universities would have been able to take that much of a cut without raising tuition, but with the increased cuts proposed he said he isn’t sure whether the Regents can hold off further tuition increases.

Eileen Klein, president of the Board of Regents, took to Twitter to criticize the budget deal, calling it a “giant step backward for our state.”

“Sometimes leaders get so focused on the deal they lose sight of what’s in it. This one should be left on the table,” Klein wrote.

UA president Ann Weaver Hart said in a statement that while she recognizes the challenges state leaders are facing to balance the budget, she is very concerned with the talk of further cuts in the Legislature.

“I continue to believe that higher education is critical for a prosperous future for Arizona,” Hart said.

The state faces a project $520 million budget deficit and a more than $1 billion deficit next year.

Since the recession, Arizona has made more cuts its universities than other state in the country. Should the new cuts be approved, cuts to state support for universities since 2008 would top $500 million.

At the same time, tuition rates at state universities have increased by more than 70 percent, according to College Board.

Last year, UA raised tuition for in-state students by 2 percent and out-of-state students by 5 percent. ASU saw smaller hikes with a 3 percent increase for out-of-state students and no change to in-state tuition.

UA also adopted a guaranteed tuition model, which allows students to pay the same tuition rate over their four years at the university.

At a January meeting of the Regents, ASU President Michael Crow said he would not increase tuition for in-state students in the face of Ducey’s proposed $77.5 million in cuts. Crow could not be reached for comment on this latest budget deal.

Issac Ortega, president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, said student leaders expected the cuts to universities to be deep. He said while the state is certainly facing deep fiscal troubles, students and universities shouldn’t be seen as “the first thing on the chopping block.”

“Half a billion dollars [in cuts] over the course of six or seven years is a pill that’s really tough for our students and our families to swallow,” Ortega said.

Ortega added that students would continue lobbying efforts to urge legislators to “invest in us,” referring to university students.

More details on the budget deal will emerge in the next few days.

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