Conference committee takes on budget

Joe Lord

It may be about time to put up the Tums.

Western officials will likely find out how much funding they’ll get from the state this week.

A General Assembly conference committee will begin meeting this week to start working out the differences between the House and Senate budget plans. Higher education funding is one area of disagreement.

The House plan would cut Western’s state funding by $1.4 million over the next two years, said Robbin Taylor, director of government relations.

The Senate plan passed Wednesday would also cut Western’s base budget funding by $1.4 million, but it would send more than $3 million to the Hill for 2003-04.

But there are other issues involved.

Taylor said the Senate plan gives $18.9 million to higher education, but it also takes away $16 million of funding given by the House to the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship.

“I think the House probably does overfund KEES to some extent,” she said.

While the Kentucky Lottery pays for much of KEES, there is still a need for state funds, said Joe McCormick, director of the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.

He said KEES, which rewards high school graduates for their high school grades and ACT score, no longer needs all $16 million diverted to colleges and universities. But KEES does need another $5 million from the legislature to fund the 61,000 scholarships they will give next year.

“We revised our estimates downward to the point where it would only take an additional $5 million,” McCormick said.

Taylor said funding a scholarship program may not be helpful for students if universities end up increasing tuition to offset state budget cuts.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good for scholarship money when tuition is being increased,” she said. “I mean, you get diminishing returns.”

The Senate also took out funding from the House version for the Kentucky Academy, a project on Western’s campus meant to bolster science and math education among select high school students.

The Senate plan also includes funding for other programs that bear well for Western, Taylor said. This includes Bucks for Brains, a matching funds program given $120 million by the state and $155 million in agency bond authority.

The latter would allow the university to fund construction and renovations projects, such as an expansion to the parking structure.

Brian Wilkerson, spokesman for House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said Bucks for Brains will likely be included in the final budget because both the House and Senate included it in their plans.

Taylor said it may be politically difficult for the legislature to exclude the $3 million for 2003-04 from this year’s budget.

“But anything can happen in conference committee,” she said. That 18-member committee will resolve disagreements this week in the two chambers’ plans.

Two area legislators, Richards and Sen. Richie Sanders, R-Franklin, sit on the committee.

Taylor said the legislative session will end Monday, but lawmakers could meet Tuesday if needed. Regardless, Western should know how it will be funded by this time next week.

Reach Joseph Lord at [email protected]