Proposed college cuts paint bleak picture

Georgia university and college leaders offered a grim description Monday of what another $300 million in system cuts would look like.

More than 4,000 positions would be eliminated. Academic programs would be eliminated at many schools, forcing students to transfer or change majors. Tenured professors would be laid off.

The state botanical gardens would close. So would Rock Eagle, the 4-H Center near Eatonton that Georgia school children have visited for decades.

In short, the cuts would be just as ugly as legislators and other state leaders have warned as they try to balance the state budget without raising taxes.

“Horrible,” state Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, said Monday. “But we don’t have any choice in the matter.”

It was Harp, backed by fellow legislators remaking the state budget last week, who told the state’s University System to come up with $300 million in cuts or face less discriminate cuts from the Legislature.

With state revenues failing to improve so far this year, there are serious concerns at the Capitol that Gov. Sonny Perdue’s revenue predictions for the next year may be off by several hundred million dollars.

Plus, the governor’s budget is balanced largely on a new 1.6 percent tax on hospital revenues and the packaged sale of state-held loans. Neither proposal is popular with the Republican majority controlling the General Assembly.

Neither are various other tax proposals, including a push to increase the cigarette tax by $1.

Add this all together and legislators are looking to slice an extra $1 billion or so from Perdue’s fiscal 2011 budget — a document some already considered lean for a government budget.

The university system’s portion of that money would be as high as $300 million, though there’s likely to be significant give-and-take before anything is finalized. And the Board of Regents, which oversees the system, has significant independence from the General Assembly.

It hasn’t signed off on these cuts. It seems likely that some sort of tuition increase is forthcoming to help avoid some of the cuts rolled out Monday. System Chancellor Erroll Davis has advocated for one, as has University of Georgia President Michael Adams.

“I don’t think (a tuition increase is) a certainty, but I think it’s something that will certainly be considered,” Regent Larry Walker said Monday.

But for now, system leaders are talking about Draconian blows to some of the state’s more venerable institutions. The University of Georgia alone would shed nearly $59 million in costs, while the Georgia Tech would be cut $38 million.

Several schools would eliminate academic programs, forcing students to change majors or transfer, according to a 142-page plan the system released Monday that details potential cuts at 35 universities and colleges. In most cases, those academic programs are not identified by name, but the report states they would affect thousands of students who would either have to change majors or transfer.

The cuts also would close half of UGA’s county extension offices across the state, which provide agricultural advice, among other things. At many schools, enrollment would be cut back or capped. These cuts would be on top of cuts the system, like all state departments, has taken. Those have led to furloughs, some eliminated positions and new student fees.

The new round of potential cuts wouldn’t affect the state’s technical colleges, which have weathered their own cuts in recent years and operate separately from the state’s university system.

The new cuts for universities “would severely compromise our ability to provide the educated populace that is necessary for the continued success of this state,” Davis said in a letter to state lawmakers Monday.

Harp, who is chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee and the subcommittee charged with cutting the system’s budget, said he’d like to see some schools consolidate to save money. Harp made waves in 2008 when he called for historically black schools to merge with mostly white ones to save money. Harp said that’s not necessarily what he’s driving at when he talks about school consolidation today.

“No one arena is being targeted,” he said.

Davis’ letter to legislators Monday hints at the possibility of consolidation, saying he expects the board of regents will “review the organization of the University System and the relationship between institutions.”

The potential cuts are considered “a worst-case scenario” for the state’s colleges, but it’s not “idle conjecture” meant merely to turn heads at the Legislature and gin up support for an alternative plan, Macon State College Vice President John Cole said Monday.

Davis told college presidents in his letter “not to come forward with any actions that they were not prepared to implement.”

The governor’s office described the potential cuts released Monday as “the kinds of drastic measures that the governor has worked hard to avoid.”

The governor would prefer to implement his new hospital provider fee and the plan to sell state-held loans to private buyers, Perdue communications director Bert Brantley said.

“When the governor looked at these kinds of scenarios, he obviously believed it was more prudent to (implement) these two measures instead of these drastic cuts,” Brantley said in an e-mail.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.