Perdue: College cuts won't happen 'on my watch'

ATLANTA — After a week of back-and-forth about the prospect of massive new funding cuts for the state’s colleges and universities, it remains unclear the direction Georgia leaders will go — not just with university funding, but with the state budget in general.

But Thursday, Gov. Sonny Perdue lit into legislators pushing for those cuts, chastising them for “fear-mongering” and “scare tactics.” He promised that the state “will not dismantle” its “world-class” university system.

“It’s not going to happen on my watch,” Perdue said.

Later in the afternoon, the two legislators who’ve been front-and-center on these cuts stood before a microphone and responded, saying they’re simply trying to deal with budget realities. They said repeatedly that the $300 million in cuts outlined this week are a worst-case scenario. They called for a moderated solution that likely would include a tuition increase and, if state Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, has his way, big salary cuts for top university brass.

Everyone seemed to agree that a tuition increase would be part of the answer, but it remains to be seen how much. The state Board of Regents, which oversees the university system, meets next week and could weigh in on the issue then.

Meanwhile, things are about to gear back up at the Capitol in a big way. Rank-and-file legislators return Monday to Atlanta to resume a legislative session put on hold the past two weeks while budget subcommittees looked closer at the state budget, mostly searching for cuts.

The university system quickly became a target in that process, and the prospect of losing another $300 million in state funding has ramped up the fight.

Harp and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart chair the House and Senate subcommittees working on the state’s university system budget. They said Thursday that initial proposals for the elimination of 4,000 university system jobs and other massive cuts probably won’t come to pass, but they couldn’t be sure. They continued to call Thursday for “structural changes” that could mean mergers for some campuses or programs. And Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said legislators will work with the Board of Regents to “come up with something significantly better” than the proposed cuts that stirred debate this week.

These conversations will continue within the larger context of the full state budget and could easily linger well into spring. The General Assembly hasn’t set a deadline to finish the budget and end its 2010 legislative session, but Speaker of the House David Ralston has told members to expect to be at the Capitol in mid-April.

The bottom line, though, hasn’t changed much since January. That’s when Perdue rolled out a budget proposal that includes a new 1.6 percent tax on hospital revenues and a plan to raise cash by selling some of the infrastructure loans the state has made to local governments on the private debt market.

Those measures would contribute hundreds of millions to the budget, making them crucial to the governor’s plan. But neither idea was popular when Perdue proposed them, and legislators have been looking for cuts to offset them.

Hospitals, doctors and insurance companies have worked hard against the hospital tax, wielding their considerable influence at the Capitol. Local government leaders and environmental groups have pushed back against the debt sale, since it would reduce the state loans available for local water and sewer projects. The university system became a target, at least in part, because some legislators don’t think the system has given enough as across-the-board cuts have sliced into budgets at every state department.

At $1.9 billion, the system also gets a large slice of the $18 billion or so the state is slated to spend in total next year.

But that spending total is built on the Perdue administration’s prediction that the state’s economy will rebound far enough in the next 16 months to increase state revenues by about 4 percent. So far the trend line has been in the opposite direction, and many expect the governor to roll back his revenue estimate early next week, after February collections numbers are released.

Perdue himself said Thursday that’s “very likely.”

That would unbalance the budget, likely by hundreds of millions. That’s another big reason legislators have been looking for new large cuts. The Republican leadership at the Capitol has been wary of any tax increases to balance the budget, but that position seems to have softened. In particular, a proposal to tack another $1 state tax onto a pack of cigarettes seems to have gained steam.

But it’s unclear where the top House and Senate leadership are on the details of all these issues. As budget subcommittees from both bodies have worked together the past two weeks to root out new areas for budget cuts, the top leaders on both sides — including Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — have largely stayed quiet, letting committee members sift and prod their ways through budget proposals.

In the end, an agreement must be struck. The state Constitution requires the General Assembly to pass a balanced budget.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.