Western playing defense as legislators begin session

Joe Lord and Dave Shinall

Western officials are holding their breath as state legislators return to work today — still without a passed state budget. They’ll exhale once the fate of the university’s state funding is decided.

The budget scenarios could see Western struggling through a 6 percent cut or escaping with a $500,000 reduction in funding. President Gary Ransdell said the answer will likely be somewhere between the two.

Kentucky’s government is currently running on an emergency spending plan from Gov. Paul Patton. Last spring the state government failed to produce a budget for this fiscal year. Budget cuts — that nasty phrase for state university officials — have been oft-spoken this semester.

Ransdell said Western has a mindset for the upcoming battle with legislators for state funding: defense.

“My hopes for money out of this legislative session are not real ambitious, and normally, I’m a pretty ambitious guy,” Ransdell said on a radio talk show in January. “My hope is to play defense effectively. I don’t have any delusions that we can go into this legislative session trying to get additional money. We just want to get a state budget passed that protects higher education as much as possible.”

Last year, Western was projected to lose $1.4 million in state funding. That amount has been set aside by the university in the form of unbudgeted tuition revenue, in case the legislature uses Patton’s current spending plan as the basis for its budget, Ransdell said. Greater cuts could come next year.

But that’s just one possibility.

University officials will carefully watch as public school teachers prepare to march on Frankfort next week in hopes of saving their funding. Their goal is for the state to leave K-12 education’s budget intact and make larger cuts to other departments, which may include higher education.

Protecting K-12 education could mean as much as a 6 percent funding decrease for all state universities this year, Ransdell said. The cut could be as much as 9 percent next year.

That would leave university officials with tough decisions to make, such as leaving many of its vacant faculty positions unfilled.

Ransdell said a meeting last week of university presidents and state legislators left him more confident that a 6 percent cut wouldn’t be likely.

“Our comments didn’t fall on deaf ears,” he said.

Ransdell said that after that meeting, state house members suggested a plan that would leave Western with a cut of $500,000 — nearly one-third of what the university was originally facing.

“I’d take that,” Ransdell said. “If I could lock that in right now, I would be elated.”

The battle for funds will be played out in Frankfort in the coming months. Robbin Taylor, Western’s director of government relations, said the legislature might not pass a budget during the current session.

A three-fifths majority in both houses is needed to pass a budget bill during the 30 day odd-numbered year sessions, Taylor said. Patton may have to call a special legislative session after the current one ends in March to resolve the budget crisis.

Kentucky is in the worst fiscal crisis since World War II, Patton told a joint session of the General Assembly in his final State of the Commonwealth speech Jan. 9. The budget shortfall is estimated to be between $400 and $500 million.

“Last year we took in less money than we had the year before, which is the first time that ever happened in Kentucky,” Patton said.

Patton said he didn’t want to cut any education budget.

“I, like everybody else, would prefer not to increase taxes,” Patton said. “We’ve got to make the choice. It’s a cost either way, and, hopefully, the legislature will do what’s right for Kentucky.”

Some cuts in state funding are still likely, Western officials say. That could mean a greater workload for Western faculty and staff. For students, it could mean bigger classes sizes.

Ransdell is quick to quell talk about enrollment caps. He said state funding for the next fiscal year, from 2004 to 2006, will be partly based on enrollment figures from fall 2003.

Western is not without friends in the state capitol. But even they might not be able to protect the university from cuts.

House speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he’d like to protect education from state budget cuts.

“After all the cuts have been made, who knows?” Richards said. “Education, we need to consider all of that as a piece. Elementary and secondary, of course, have been on the forefront for so many years and are very important. Certainly, higher education is important, too.

“We’ll try to protect all three, if we can.”

Sen. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, said lawmakers are jumping headfirst into uncharted territory.

“We’ve never put together a budget with $509 million less than we need,” Guthrie said. “We need to try to figure out how to insure that we move forward in education and other things under the current revenue structure.”

Ransdell said his hope is that the economy will soon improve.

“It’s going to be very difficult over the next year,” he said. “I don’t see the economy dramatically turning to where it will help us in the next year.”

Ransdell said his eyes are cautiously set on the future for greater funding from the state.