ANNAPOLIS-In the political thicket that is Maryland higher education, even the simplest tasks can be impossible to complete on time.
The Maryland Higher Education Commission was supposed to finalize the operating budgets for all public colleges and universities in the state at its meeting last Wednesday.
But more than half that budget wasn’t there because the University System of Maryland failed to submit its request in time.
Commissioner Anne Osborn Emery, chairwoman of the commission’s education committee, said the delay is keeping the commission from doing its work.
“You ignored the process by not submitting the documents so we can fulfill our commitment” to the governor and General Assembly, Emery told university system officials at the commission’s meeting last week.
All public higher education institutions must submit their budget requests to the commission, which is supposed to review them for consistency with the state plan for higher education.
The commission is then supposed to add comments before forwarding the consolidated budget to the governor and General Assembly before the legislative session begins in January. The commission has no approval authority for the system’s budget.
Although budget requests were due to the commission in September, the university system doesn’t expect to have its budget request ready until mid-December. The reason for the delay, they say, is a change in the way Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. prefers to handle the budget.
Historically the system regents approved their budget in August or September, said system Chancellor William C. Kirwan. “But Gov. Ehrlich has basically developed a new process, and he prefers to wait until later in the year when he has a better sense of the resources that are available.
“We don’t actually have a number from the governor yet, and so we can’t put our budget together until we do,” Kirwan said.
Joseph F. Vivona, a vice chancellor for the university system, apologized for the delay at last week’s commission meeting but made no promises that things will get better in the future.
The system plans to ask for an operating budget increase of 7 percent to 9 percent and is working directly with the governor on its request, Vivona said. “That’s very aggressive, but we are a high-cost enterprise.”
In addition to asking for increased state funds, the system plans to increase tuition by as much as 6.5 percent on some campuses.
Vivona said the system is trying to “align our budget with the overall direction of this administration. … With this administration it pays to wait.”
But as the system waits, commissioner Ilona Modly Hogan said, “I feel like I’m being moved out of this equation all together.”
At the October finance committee meeting, Hogan said the system’s lack of respect for the commission’s guidelines indicated that “somewhere the (budget) process is broken.”
The finance committee opted not to recommend the budget for the full commission’s approval until the system’s numbers were included. Hogan said she didn’t want to delay the budget process but “by golly, someone’s already slowed it down for us.”
However, the full commission voted last week to request $491.8 million in state funds for non-system higher education institution’s operation. The commission will comment on and forward the system’s request after it’s received.
Vivona promised to get the system budget to the commission “the minute the board of regents signs off on it.” The regents’ next meeting is Dec. 9.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, said the relationship between the commission and the university system has long been politically charged.
“There’s always a rub any time you’re dealing with higher education,” said Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee. “Anybody that works in higher education … will tell you there is no more political atmosphere to work in.”
Kirwan agreed. “Whenever you have a public entity, there’s always politics involved,” but he said the system and commission get along well.
“There hasn’t been a time we’ve had a better relationship,” Kirwan said.
Vivona said the system expects the governor’s support on its budget requests this year, but the final decision is up to the General Assembly.
The system also delayed its request last year in an attempt to squeeze more funds from the state. So the commission was also unable to forward the request until late last year.
Kirwan said the delay paid off.
“We ended up getting a very generous allocation,” Kirwan said. “We will be rewarded for working with the governor through the fall” this year. He said “the governor has assured us it’s going to be another good year.”
But the higher education commission’s chairman, Kevin M. O’Keefe, said he doesn’t think waiting is “a healthy arrangement year after year.”
“MHEC is one of the (system’s) important constituents as stated in the law,” O’Keefe said. “It’s not only the governor and Legislature you have to present your budget to.”
Hollinger said the system would like to have full control and not answer to the commission at all. But when the university system was created in 1988 there were “very strong feelings about having a system and at the same time maintaining the higher education commission.”
Hollinger said there is no movement in the Legislature to change higher education’s set up, and she thinks the tension-filled relationship is a good thing.
“I don’t see it as lethal at all,” Hollinger said. “It’s like a check and balance.” However, she did predict that when the legislative session starts “sparks (will) start flying.”