Universities seek restoration of stimulus funds

JACKSON — Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds says Mississippi’s universities have shaved $91 million from operating expenses, but will still need more state money next fiscal year.

The spending proposal presented to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Tuesday seeks state money to replace $66 million in federal stimulus funds that will be lost after this year.

In all, the system has asked for nearly $96 million in additional state funding for the year that begins next July 1.

Bounds said tuition increases brought in an additional $28.2 million last year. He said the $91 million in cost-savings came through various measures, including cutting positions, eliminating programs and combining some campuses’ office operations.

“For every dollar we brought in through tuition, we’ve saved $3.25 in efficiencies,” Bounds said. “Another way to look at this is we’re educating 7,000 additional students at no extra cost to the state because of efficiencies.”

Bounds said Mississippi’s strategies for coping with a tight budget aren’t as severe as those in some surrounding states. He said nearly every contiguous state has more than doubled tuition. He said the only exception is Arkansas.

“We’re experiencing the most difficult economic stress of our lifetime,” Bounds said.

The university system’s current budget, including the stimulus, is about $716 million. The system is requesting $746 million from the state for next year.

Many of the committee members said education should be a priority when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January for the 2011 legislative session. The Budget Committee is holding hearings this week for state agencies to make their initial pitches for funding.

“It seems to me we’ve come to the point that we can’t stand any more of (the cuts) and maintain the universities,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.

Holland said he “wept” when he heard that the University of Southern Mississippi had cut tenured faculty.

“I’m ready to do something for the Institutions of Higher Learning,” he said.

Most of the university presidents were present at Tuesday’s hearing. Interim Jackson State University President Leslie McLemore said he was preparing to cut the campus’ budget by 10 percent.

Delta State University President John Hilpert said $5 million was cut from his budget and 50 positions were lost.

Dr. James E. Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said the campus in Jackson needs a new School of Medicine building if the program is to grow.

Keeton said Mississippi is still last in the nation in the number of physicians per capita.

“We beg of you to at least leave us whole,” Keeton told the Budget Committee.

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press