No more higher ed cuts, lawmakers say

Legislators visiting the Tri-Cities on Thursday vowed to dig in their heels and fight against any further cuts to higher education in a coming special session.

But the reality is that cuts are likely and could run deep.

"As you know, we have very serious funding problems," said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. "We are looking at very serious budget cuts -- in higher ed maybe cutting one-third of the budget."

Seaquist, along with Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, toured Washington State University Tri-Cities and Columbia Basin College and heard from educators about the challenges facing faculty and students in the wake of significant cuts made since 2009.

Enrollments are maxed out and class sizes growing, and many students coming into colleges and universities aren't prepared for the math, science and computer classes they need to earn degrees in the kinds of fields where Washington desperately needs skilled, educated workers.

Fagan, who worked for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman before being elected to the Legislature, said the company has hundreds of job openings going unfilled because it can't find qualified engineers.

Dick Pratt, WSU Tri-Cities' vice chancellor for academic affairs, offered a quip in response: "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunity."

More cuts to higher education are on the horizon as Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday ordered lawmakers to return to Olympia on Nov. 28 to write a supplemental budget dealing with an estimated $1.3 billion drop in projected revenues.

Gregoire said if lawmakers adopt a supplemental budget early, she would like to focus on job-creating policy bills during the regular session starting in January.

About 60 percent of the budget is off-limits for cuts because of assorted mandates, which leaves areas such as social and human services, corrections and higher education taking the brunt of cuts since the recession began three years ago.

Seaquist said he is prepared to tell his fellow lawmakers they have to stop cutting higher education, and in fact should start thinking about putting money back into the state's university and community college systems.

"Education is our ladder out of this recession," he said.

Seaquist said he will urge the Legislature to look at reducing the size of state government and reforming health and human services instead of cutting higher education.

"We need to downsize state government -- downsize the number of supervisors, executives and managers," he said. "We need to streamline."

Haler said he would like to see the Department of Social and Human Services and Department of Ecology take budget hits rather than make cuts to the state's colleges and universities.

"We can't continue funding social services ahead of education," he said.

He said he wouldn't take social services away from people in need, citing those with developmental disabilities and the temporarily unemployed as examples, but he believes there are too many people in the system who don't belong there.

In particular, Haler said he is concerned about people in the country illegally drawing payments or benefits, although he admitted hehasn't seen any numbers to tell him how many such people are in the system.

"I know it intuitively," he said. "I'm going to ask for data. Not that I want to be mean about it, but we need to take a very hard look at who is receiving our services."

Despite the cuts, education success stories are abundant in the Tri-Cities, primarily because of community partnerships forged between the area's schools and businesses.

Seaquist, Haler and Fagan heard about the partnerships that created Delta High School, a multi-jurisdictional school focused on math and science education in Richland; and the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, a joint project of WSU Tri-Cities and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory dedicated to researching and developing biofuels and related technologies to bring to market.

"It's very impressive what you're all doing," Seaquist said. "I hope we can find a way out of this budget problem without wiping you all out."

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com