Higher education is the first fiscal target the Legislature will aim for when it convenes this week in an effort to close a budget deficit that continues to widen.
However, Gov. Janet Napolitano wants to exempt public universities and community colleges from any funding cuts. And a number of lawmakers say they, too, will work to spare higher education from much of the financial pain.
“We need to be investing in things that are going to move our economy forward, diversify our economy,” said Rep. Jennifer Burns, R-Tucson. “And higher education is a large part of that.”
The state House and Senate appropriations committees begin meeting Tuesday to decide how to eliminate an anticipated deficit of almost $1 billion this fiscal year.
The state’s 10 community college districts are the first agencies on the agenda. The three universities — Arizona State, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University — are scheduled for the following day.
The committees’ leaders want hundreds of millions of dollars in permanent cuts across state government. ASU would lose almost $50 million under that proposal.
The universities rely on the state for most of their operating funds and, typically, face severe cuts whenever tax revenue withers.
In 2002, the last time the state grappled with billion-dollar deficits, the universities were forced to make deep, permanent cuts. Those cuts eliminated academic programs and exacerbated Arizona’s “brain drain,” the loss of dozens of top professors each year to higher paying schools elsewhere.
The universities are relieved to have an ally in the governor this time, said Christine Thompson, lobbyist for the Arizona Board of Regents.
“It may not be the way other legislatures or governors have looked at it,” Thompson said, “but we’re happy that the governor recognizes that there’s going to be increased demand and we’re pleased that she’s trying to keep us as whole as possible.”
While Napolitano is working to protect higher education spending, the state’s financial woes extend beyond this fiscal year.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee projects a separate, $1.7 billion deficit for 2009.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said lawmakers need to significantly reduce spending in this year’s budget to avoid growing the 2009 deficit.
“These are tough times and we need to make some responsible, and probably some tough decisions, without doing damage,” said Pearce, chairman of the House appropriations committee.
Higher education officials argue the $138 million in cuts that Pearce and Sen. Bob Burns, R-Peoria, propose for universities and colleges would certainly do damage.
Those include $2.8 million in financial aid for low-income students, $2.2 million to train math and science teachers and $20 million for community colleges construction.
Each university would also lose 10 percent of their operating cash.
Economic trouble normally increases enrollment at higher education institutions, so it is counterproductive to reduce university funding now, Thompson said. “When you can’t find work, people turn to education to retool.”
Community colleges receive most of their funds from local property taxes, but still rely on some state money to lower costs for low-income students.
“Taking away funding is going to hurt their opportunity, their access to higher education,” said Chris Chesrown, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Community College District.
In recent years, the Legislature paid for new students, buildings and programs at the universities. ASU, which has benefited most, had planned to seek millions of dollars more for enrollment growth and efforts to improve graduation rates.
Rep. Burns, chairwoman of the House higher education committee, said few lawmakers will support spending increases now.
“We have to be realistic that it’s a tough budget year,” she said.
The appropriations committees will meet 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and discuss budget cutbacks for different departments each day.
Tuesday: Community colleges, Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety, courts, state parks and various other agencies.
Wednesday: AHCCCS, universities, Department of Economic Security and Department of Health Services.
Thursday: Department of Education, School Facilities Board and various other agencies.