President Boren says constant reductions are harming higher education in the state.
BY KIM ARCHER
World Staff Writer
University of Oklahoma President David Boren is decrying the governor’s proposal to again cut higher education funding and is urging Oklahoma residents to raise their voices to stop further reductions.
He became more troubled when Gov. Mary Fallin also proposed cutting the state income tax by a quarter of a percent to 5 percent during her State of the State speech two weeks ago, a move that would further reduce education funding.
“We should start asking what kind of state do we want to be? Who are we as a people? I don’t think we want ignorance and lack of opportunity to be our legacy,” he said.
In the 1970s, the state funded half of OU’s budget, and attending college was more affordable. That had dropped to 32 percent when Boren took the helm at OU in November 1994 and now has fallen
to 17 percent. If the budget proposal is approved as is, the state’s portion will drop to 15 percent, Boren said.
Since 2008, state funding for Oklahoma higher education has dropped by $106 million, or 10 percent.
“It’s getting so we don’t have public education anymore. We’re privatizing, and it’s more expensive to get a private education,” he said.
Boren said he is concerned that the constant chiseling away at funding will force colleges and universities to make tough decisions about whether to keep quality programs and offerings and narrow opportunities for students.
The percentage of tuition increases at Oklahoma colleges the last five years was the fourth lowest in the nation, he said.
But it won’t stay that low if the state keeps cutting funding to the state’s public colleges and universities. And that means more people are shut out of the opportunity to get a quality education, Boren said.
“You can only defer so long. I just don’t know how our schools and universities will survive,” he said.
Alex Weintz, Fallin’s spokesman, said the governor had $170 million less to work with for the fiscal 2015 budget.
“Higher education is a priority for Governor Fallin. So is K-12 education, mental health, maintaining safe roads and bridges, fighting crime, protecting children in state custody, and funding the long list of other important services the state provides,” he said.
Weintz said higher education saved more than $90 million in the last fiscal year through energy efficiency. Minus the $50 million budget cut, that would give universities an extra $40 million to spend on priorities.
“Governor Fallin believes that OU has talented administrators and faculty. She is confident they can find ways to maintain a high level of service while sustaining a modest reduction to one of their many sources of funding,” he said.
Presidents left out
On Feb. 3, Fallin’s chief of staff Denise Northrup sent a letter to all the state regents to inform them the governor would like to spend the next year “examining all revenue streams and setting reasonable benchmarks to measure outcomes so we can maximize our return on investment.”
In the letter, she noted that Fallin’s budget proposal would cut higher education funding by 5 percent but said universities have “substantial revolving fund balances to hopefully cushion the blow.”
Boren said he was stunned that no public college and university presidents received the letter and thus were not included in the conversation.
“Why would you not work with college presidents instead of regents?” he said. “I thought it was a strange approach.”
Weintz said the letter was sent to the regents because they are appointed by the governor. She does not appoint university presidents.
Boren said the amount of money in OU’s reserve is about half of what the governor’s office indicated to regents in the letter.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education requires colleges and universities to maintain a reasonable working capital balance or reserve, typically around 8.3 percent of the total allocated fiscal year budget. OU’s working capital is 5.8 percent of the budget, Boren said.
“It’s not like we’re hiding money. The letter was obviously an excuse in advance of the governor’s speech,” he said.
When Fallin announced her proposal to cut state income taxes in her State of the State speech, she said, “This is the people’s money. It should stay with the people.”
Weintz said the governor believes the cut will make the state more competitive for businesses and spur economic growth.
Boren said the tax rate cut would put minimal money in people’s pockets, while slamming public education hard.
“Who will get this proposed tax cut? Is it worth hurting education more?” he asked. “Why have another tax cut when you’re not even meeting the needs of vital state services?”
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 60 percent of Okla-homans would get $2.50 per month or less under the tax cut. Those who earn over $1.2 million a year would get a little more than $2,000 a year.
Boren said he is so dis turbed by the proposed tax and budget cuts that he used his own money to place an advertisement in the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman newspapers to raise public awareness of the issue.
“I am just very worried. The only thing I know is to try to get the public involved,” he said.