Washington budget shortfall could hit higher education hard

By Ty Beaver Tri-City HeraldJune 13, 2014 

State officials are already expecting a shortfall in the next budget and higher education could take a big hit.

The state needs at least another $1 billion in additional revenue to meet most of the expected additional spending needs for the 2015-17 biennium, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Community college and university officials have already been told, along with some other state agencies, to begin preparing budget requests that include as much as a 15 percent reduction ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee developing a proposed budget.

It's too soon to say where those cuts will be, but higher education officials said it's a disheartening development coming only a year after the state had begun to better support their efforts.

"We can't (make cuts) based on efficiencies anymore," said Marty Brown, executive director for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

The economy has been recovering, officials said, noting that Washington has one of the best job growth rates in the country. But that hasn't significantly boosted consumption, so sales tax revenue isn't keeping up.

And the state's financial obligations just keep piling on. Pension costs, debt service expenses and maintaining spending for social programs are adding up to hundreds of millions dollars.

The biggest looming bill? The Washington Supreme Court's mandate to increase funding for K-12 education, commonly called the McCleary decision. The Office of Financial Management estimates keeping up with the court's order will cost between $1.2 billion and $2 billion in the next biennium.

And K-12 education would be largely protected in a potential budget reduction, along with the state's pension system, Medicaid, courts and nursing homes, because of constitutional and federal requirements, officials said. That leaves higher education, the state's corrections system, human services and smaller budgets such as transportation and natural resources to absorb the hit.

Last year at about this time the state provided an additional $3.1 billion to the public universities and community college system, a 12 percent increase compared with the previous biennium. That led WSU and Columbia Basin College to freeze student tuition after years of increasing it to keep up with costs.

CBC also restored some cut salaries because of the influx and WSU was able to move forward some initiatives such as developing medical programs at its Spokane campus and supporting more engineering and computer science students.

"The Legislature really moved mountains to invest in higher education and we need to continue down that path," said Chris Mulick, WSU's director of state relations.

While funding all aspects of education is important, college and university officials said cutting into higher education has the potential to "starve the pipeline of workers," said CBC President Rick Cummins. The college likely would look at cutting out programs or courses as there are few places to cut that won't directly affect students.

"Taking money from the higher education system just weakens the economy," he said.

The colleges and universities, along with the other affected agencies, will be meeting with budget officials in the coming weeks to work out their budget requests.

But everyone will be keeping their eyes on next week's revenue forecast and the one in the fall that will inform Inslee's recommendation to the Legislature.

--w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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