Budget chief: Bevin flexible on cuts, universities’ projects

Kentucky’s public universities might get flexibility to spread mandated budget cuts over 30 months and could win approval for construction projects in the two-year state budget under review by lawmakers.

That was the news from State budget director John Chilton, who appeared before the legislature’s post-secondary budget subcommittee Thursday to discuss Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget. That proposal includes a 4.5 percent spending cut in this fiscal year, then a 9 percent cut over the next two years. Most state agencies face similar cuts, Bevin said, in order to deal with the state’s burgeoning pension crisis.

Chilton also appeared to back off from some of Bevin’s comments on liberal arts education.

“Gov. Bevin understands the importance of a broad education,” Chilton told lawmakers after Bevin made news last week by saying French literature majors should not be subsidized with state funding.

After the meeting, Chilton said Bevin wants to work with university presidents to be flexible on the timing of cuts proposed for this fiscal year, which ends June 30. That might mean schools could cut 3 percent in the second half of this fiscal year, and spread further reductions out through the next biennium.

“The overall 30-month savings would be the same,” Chilton said.

Chilton also said the governor wanted more information on universities’ top priorities for buildings, but it wasn’t clear whether the governor would support using state-funded bonds for academic buildings, or agency bonds, which universities pay back themselves using revenue generated by the project, such as student centers or parking garages. Bevin’s proposed budget included no bonding authority for university projects.

University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said UK officials were gratified by the open dialogue of the budget process so far, and the possibility of winning approval for building projects.

“The University of Kentucky — and the state’s — investments in infrastructure the last five years have created thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars of investment in our commonwealth,” Blanton said. “We are very appreciative that the governor and his team want to continue the dialogue about how UK can help move our state forward through the continued creation of jobs and economic investment.”

A lack of details on many of Bevin’s higher education proposals clearly bothered legislators. For example, Bevin proposed $100 million in state bonds for workforce construction projects that are conceived by higher education and private industry, but few details have been provided about how that would work. In addition, Bevin proposed diverting about $64 million in lottery proceeds away from need-based financial aid and into a new workforce scholarship program, but details of that program also remain hazy.

The General Assembly’s 60-workday session in 2016 is already one-third complete.

“Part of the problem we’re having is that these policies are going to be worked out over time, and it’s time we may or may not have,” said Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville. “The time frame we have to work in may or may not be conducive to waiting on the administration. ... We need it (information) sooner rather than later.”

The governor also proposed a new budget model that would shift state funding for universities into a performance-based system, making funding dependent on factors including graduation and retention rates. Bevin said that a model conceived by the Council on Postsecondary Education and university presidents didn’t put enough emphasis on workforce development, but he hasn’t released a specific plan of his own.

“We need to study that before we implement it,” warned Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington. “This is somewhat of a radical departure.”

Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, called the meeting a “sad day.”

“The victims are our children; I see no investments in our children,” he said. “We’ve been cut, we’re bleeding, ... our higher education is bleeding, and under this proposed budget, they’re going to be hemorrhaging.”

A group of students also appeared to protest Bevin’s plan to divert lottery money meant for need-based aid. Education and Workforce Secretary Hal Heiner said the new workforce development scholarship program should help many of the same students.

But Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a Henry Clay High School student who is a member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, said low-income students need broad-based aid to be successful in higher education.

“Investing in these students specifically will do three things,” Schaeffer said. “One, give Kentucky students more means to pull themselves out of poverty; two, save Kentucky money in the long run; and three, help grow a more educated workforce and a stronger economy.”