By andrew Katz
WASHINGTON – If the University System of Maryland’s budget must be cut in midyear, as it has been the past two years, state officials say those reductions won’t tap students’ tuition.
“That hasn’t happened in the last three years,” said Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s press secretary. “I would unequivocally say that is not in the playbook.”
Warren Deschenaux, director of the state’s Legislative Services Office of Policy Analysis, agreed, saying the possibility is “very remote” and “vanishingly small.”
Speculation about whether tuition dollars could be incorporated in budget reductions isn’t far-fetched, as O’Malley and the General Assembly must, by law, balance the budget and close a nearly $2 billion spending gap. If the past two years are an indication, USM funds could be at risk.
Since 2008, the Board of Public Works has recouped millions of dollars from the system to help balance the state’s books: USM’s finance arm said it received $1.103 billion for fiscal 2009, but later returned $72.7 million in general funds. One year later, USM said, the board recovered $122.6 million of the $1.093 billion it was budgeted just months earlier.
“In the grand scheme of things,” Deschenaux said, the reductions have been “quite trivial,” but USM Associate Director of Budget Analysis Monica West noted the cuts hindered the system’s ability to enroll more students, increase financial aid availability and hire additional faculty.
“The state was in a bad situation,” she said, “and we had to abandon some of those plans.”
O’Malley’s budget designates 12 percent of the state’s general fund strictly for post-secondary education during fiscal 2011, which begins July 1, and includes USM’s expected $1.074 billion.
The governor’s proposal, submitted to legislators on Jan. 20, included a 3 percent resident tuition increase, as well as an additional $8.5 million to keep that rate secure.
USM has received annual payments of at least $16 million, West said, to counter each of the four years in-state tuition has been frozen for full-time undergraduates at one of USM’s 13 institutions or two regional centers and the historically black institution, Morgan State University.
Adamec acknowledged any adjustment of resident tuition would end that portion of state funding, but said O’Malley’s “modest” upswing pales in comparison with those imposed by his predecessor: In-state tuition spiked nearly 40 percent under former Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
Even so, Deschenaux said, a fifth straight year of flat tuition rates would have been a tough sell.
“Given the extent of the budget problem, it might have been difficult to implement,” he said. “Four years is a good spell.”
West said the small hike shows O’Malley’s continued effort to keep college a viable option for the state’s high-schoolers.
“Affordability and access is our goal,” she added. “We’re in a partnership with the state and in light of the recession, we support the governor’s tuition increase.”
In lieu of O’Malley’s proposal, Adamec said he doesn’t foresee any budget reductions dipping into USM funds this year.
“We don’t expect the Board of Public Works to take much issue with where tuition stands (once the increase is passed),” he said.
The General Assembly will consider O’Malley’s budget for the next 10 weeks before the Board of Regents approves a final tuition rate later this spring.
“We continue to have a significant budget problem and I would expect that it’s very possible some additional reductions could arise,” Deschenaux said, “but we’re just at the beginning stages of our analysis of the budget.”