Budget concerns topic of USD forum Monday

Budget issues regarding higher education currently being debated by the South Dakota Legislature were the focus of a student forum held on the USD campus Monday night.

The meeting, sponsored by the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Cross Media Council, was held in the Muenster University Center.

Blake Alberts, president of the SGA, told the sparse audience at the forum that the South Dakota Legislature is looking to make some cuts in the higher education budget.

"That stems from it being an election year, and also forecasts for continued bad times economically for next year's fiscal year," he said. "Gov. Rounds' budget was really friendly towards higher education – it actually had an expansion of one program with a Ph.D in physics, but at the same time, he was going to have to tap into state reserve funds to fund his budget as he proposed it, and legislators are looking to cut back and avoid using those dollars."

Factors that complicate the budget process, he said, include and under-estimation by $4 million of the funding needs of K-12 education in the state, and forecasts of lower than expected estimates of state sales tax revenues.

"Without a doubt, there are going to be substantial hits taken across all of state government, and we just want to make sure that the South Dakota Board of Regents doesn't get hit too hard," Alberts said.

It is important for citizens to understand the benefits of economic development statewide by having a large number of university graduates across South Dakota.

"And when you look at research funding, there is direct economic development in South Dakota by having research conducted at universities in our state," Alberts said. "We bring in substantial private and federal dollars to fund research."

The state university system is preparing for a lean budget by looking for cuts in its operating budget for the coming year. That comes on top of a long period of only small increases in support from the state to higher education.

"We've been getting by on little for quite some time," Alberts said. "It's been 12 years since we've even had an inflationary increase (in the budget) for maintenance and repair of our buildings here on campus. Salaries weren't increased last year, and it doesn't look like salaries will be increased this year, and we already have faculty that are being paid very little compared to surrounding states."

South Dakota has been fortunate in being able to consistently provide an affordable education, and not a "cheap" learning experience, to students in its higher ed system, he said. "I'm worried that if we face too many cuts, we're going to be looking at a cheap education system in South Dakota."

Alberts said many people are shocked when they learn how little financial support is provided to the university from the state budget.

"In 2010, the overall budget for public higher education in the state was $652 million, and of that, only 26 percent was actually funded by state money," he said. "The remainder was research dollars that we brought in, tuition that students paid, fees and other revenues that you generate from, for example, residential halls."

Declining state financial support, he said, drives up the cost of tuition and limits the chances of lower income students to take part in higher education.

Paul Rann, a Student Government Association senator, said it is important for USD students to give direct input to legislators from their home districts regarding the negative impact that could be experienced in the state's higher education system without appropriate budgetary support from the Legislature.

"We just really want students to know that the Student Government Association has been doing all we can to make contacts in the Legislature, and makes students' voices heard," Alberts said, "but we need the help of every student at the university."

Rann told the students that legislators that he has spoken with are primarily focused on making cuts to the state budget, including cuts to the revenue allocated to higher education.

"We're an easy target, so it's a touchy subject for some lawmakers," he said. "There are others who are more receptive to helping the regental system."

Alberts said it is important to understand that much of the state budget is allocated to programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, that can't be cut. "Once you get past those expenses, there really isn't that much of the state budget left, and the Board of Regents system makes up the largest share."

Legislators, he said, feel that programs like economic development and tourism provide direct returns to South Dakota. "For whatever reason, it's difficult convincing them that public education is an investment in this state. They feel that is so easy to transfer the costs of this education to the students that they're more than happy to make cuts in our area."

Rann said student representatives from universities across the state have been working together to try to protect programs, such as the Opportunity Scholarships.

"One of the main things that may likely impact that program is that the scholarship has only been allotted $2 million, and it requires about $4 million in order to be fully funded," he said. "It's a question of whether lawmakers are simply going to cut the amounts of the scholarships in half, or find some other sources for the $2 million that's needed."

"For the most part, what's good for USD is good for every other school, and what's bad for USD is bad for every other institution," Alberts said.

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