Discussions are underway in Augusta to decide the fate of the University of Maine System’s current budget and annual state appropriation. Of the $34 million proposed in budget cuts for state agencies, the governor has earmarked $7 million of that to come from the University of Maine System.

“If there is any good news in this, it is that 5.8 million of that would be a one time cut,” said USM’s Executive Director of Public Affairs Bob Caswell. He said under the current proposal, the system must shoulder a $5.8 million budget reduction in the next five months and another $1.2 million annual reduction starting Jul. 1, 2004. USM’s share of the cuts would be a $1.2 million dollar loss now and a permanent yearly cut of $265,000.

Until legislative action is taken, the University does not know if those will be the final figures. The Appropriations Committee is expected to make its final proposal to the legislature by next week.

Even if the legislature decides to keep the University of Maine System’s budget at current levels, the one time cut of $5.8 million is likely to stand. The question remains, however, as to where the money will come from: The UMaine system has already imposed a system-wide hiring freeze to save money. Caswell said over 60 of USM’s positions are currently unfilled and will remain unfilled unless they are deemed essential to the institution.

In Caswell’s own office, he said, a staff associate position has been open for over a year and will not likely be filled.

“We can save a considerable amount of money [while still] keeping positions open by cutting travel expenses and by asking that budget managers keep their operating expenditures to an absolute minimum,” said Caswell.

Here in Maine, tuition has increased by an average of $226 per year since 1990, and lawmakers on the State Education Committee fear the current budget proposal could hike tuition by as much as nine percent.

But Caswell does not want to make any solid predictions until the final figures come in. “I don’t want to say what’s going to happen or what’s not going to happen, because at this stage in the game nobody really knows.”

Both he and President Pattenaude are not ready to make any comments on how this will impact the university and its 11,000 students until the legislature has voted. Since tuition hikes and layoffs are not a possibility mid-year, Caswell said students most likely would not notice any substantive changes this semester. However, he does not know what will happen in the long term.

Many are hoping the numbers will come down. Advocates and representatives of higher education testified at a series of public hearings in Augusta hoping to convince the Appropriations Committee to propose the legislature lower cuts. Representing USM was Jeanne Hulit, a member of USM’s Board of Visitors, a volunteer board comprised of local business people who advocate for the University. She said cuts to higher education would be detrimental to the state’s economic future.

“[Maine is] already 35th out of 50 in per capita spending on higher education,” she said, “and we can not afford to fall behind. If we do, Maine will continue to lose jobs, lose business investments and lose our young people as they move away to seek better opportunities.”

After the hearings, lawmakers on the Education Committee stressed to their counterparts on the Appropriations Committee that current reduction proposals would be a serious mistake. University System Chancellor Joseph Westphal told the Bangor Daily News the cuts “run counter to Maine’s need to invest in higher education and economic development.” He also said any layoffs would only compound the state’s escalating unemployment rates, and putting off maintenance projects would degrade university services and facilities. But many lawmakers admit the state has few options, due to other high-ticket items like tax reform, Medicare and a $108 million shortfall in the states Medicaid program.

USM is not the only institution suffering from increasing state appropriation reductions. The problem is nationwide. The University of California System is facing a $342 million cut, and some students there are suing Governor Schwarzenegger for making mid-year cuts to essential programs. At the University of Alabama students are paying 16 percent more in tuition than last year. University officials in Georgia have been handed the smallest state appropriation since 1967. In Virginia, university appropriations have dropped by 31 percent in two years.

Amy Bickford can be contacted at [email protected]

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