MUW, MSU feeling pang of state budget cuts

February 19, 2009



JACKSON -- Shutting down Mississippi University for Women''s campus during spring break to save electricity and not hiring enough new Mississippi State University faculty members are among the ways state universities are feeling the pain of budget cuts imposed by Gov. Haley Barbour. 


About 21,000 Mississippi college students are also seeing $43 taken out of their state-paid tuition grants. 


The eight universities lost $38 million when Barbour ordered cuts last month to keep the state budget balanced amid revenue shortfalls. 


For MUW, that amounts to a $794,000 reduction in an operating budget that totals about $46 million a year. 


At MSU, with a budget of about $695 million, the 5 percent reduction has caused it to stall campus street repairs and not hire about 15 needed faculty members, said President Mark Keenum. 


The chief executives of state universities met Wednesday with the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. 


For the budget year that begins in July, universities are bracing for more cuts that could bring them down a total of 10 percent for this year and next. 


In cutting its budget, MUW must "put everything on the table," said President Claudia Limbert. Laying off employees, eliminating programs and reducing scholarships are among the options, she said, but such drastic action "is not the answer." 


Limbert and other university leaders are hoping the state Legislature can come through with enough money to spare them from such cuts. 


The Democratic-dominated House of Representatives has voted to restore money cut by the Republican governor and to give the eight universities an increase next year, but the GOP-controlled Senate has not. The two legislative chambers are still in the early phase of the annual appropriations process to determine how much state government will have to spend. 


Universities are also awaiting details on what they could get from the multibillion-dollar federal economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law Tuesday. 


"We''re all praying for that stimulus package to come our way," said Jackson State University President Ronald Mason. 


IHL board member Aubrey Patterson, of Tupelo, also expressed hope for universities having a share of the estimated $2 billion Mississippi is to receive, "but we can''t count on that." 


Since the country''s financial crash in September, Mississippi tax collections have fallen $90 million below what the Legislature and Barbour had budgeted for state government to spend. 


In response to the shortfall, the governor has imposed $200 million in spending cuts to balance the budget as required by law. 


Another ripple from the universities'' budget cut is a $43 reduction in tuition aid given to 21,000 students. The Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant program provides $500 a year to each eligible student attending college. 


In boosting funds for universities, the House on Tuesday passed a bill to increase to $1,000 the MTAG grant for freshmen and sophomores. 


"During trying economic times, the House believes this will stimulate our citizens to upgrade employment skills, which will be an economic boost eventually creating better paying jobs and generating more tax revenue," House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said in a statement issued by House leaders. 


While Mississippi is suffering revenue shortfalls, Stringer said the House is counting on about $200 million next year in additional money by raising the state''s cigarette tax. 


The House passed a bill to increase the 18-cents-a-pack tax to $1, but the Senate reduced that to 49 cents. House-Senate negotiators are trying to hammer out a final bill to send to Barbour for his approval.