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IHL confronts fiscal reality

“We are not here to moan and cry.”

That was College Board President Scott Ross’ opening line to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee this morning as the Institutions of Higher Learning presented its FY2011 budget request. The JLBC has spent this week telling state agencies that money is slim and could get slimmer before the next fiscal year begins next July.

IHL submitted a request that is $42.8 million more than it received in FY2010. Seventeen million dollars of that will pay for a cost of living adjustment that will allow for colleges and universities to keep the purchasing power it has as the price of goods and services rises, IHL Commissioner Dr. Hank Bounds told lawmakers.

The bulk of the rest of the additional funding is made up of $21 million for the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“Our big need is to increase our school size,” said interim UMC Chancellor Dr. James Keeton. UMC has 120 medical students, which is all the school can handle with its current size and resources, Keeton said. “We would like to grow that to 150.” While the extra $21 million wouldn’t cover the full cost of growing the student body to 150, it would be a start, Keeton said.

In a nod to the state’s dwindling tax revenue, Bounds said he has talked with all eight university presidents about the idea of consolidating some functions like purchasing, the contract 403(b) notification requirement administration and the IRS 125 administration.

“They are all open to that,” Bounds said.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said he was “stunned” at that announcement, since the consolidation of any state service has long been a subject most lawmakers and state agencies have refused to even discuss.

“We can’t afford to wake up three or four years from now and have mediocre programs,” Bounds said. “We have to think differently. We also recognize that if all (economic) prognosticators are accurate, we could see some really tough days ahead.”

Bounds did not have a cost savings estimate consolidation of some functions might provide. He did say that IHL is preparing to receive fewer state funds in future budget years, and that there is a plan in place to operate the system in such an event.

The budget Bounds and other officials presented Thursday morning, which totals $841.5 million, is about $200 million less than the budget they originally planned to present. The first budget, Bounds said, would have brought funding for Mississippi’s colleges and universities up to the Southeastern average.

Bounds spent a several minutes selling higher education as a driver of economic development in Mississippi.

“I really believe we can only educate ourselves out of the financial crisis,” he said. “It is absolutely clear that if Mississippi is going to move forward we have to produce a better-educated citizenry.”

Mississippi needs more graduates who fall into the STEM category — Science, Technology, Education and Math, Bounds said.

The funds available for the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant, which awards $500 per semester to entering freshman who have at least a 15 on the ACT and a 2.5 GPA, are low. The funds are at the same level they were in 2000, but the number of students who are eligible has seen “an appreciable gain,” Bounds said.

With state money in a sharp decline and enrollment up at nearly every institution, Bounds could not rule out tuition increases to make up the difference.

“We will do everything that we can (to prevent tuition increases),” Bounds said. “But I can’t guarantee they won’t go up.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, told Bounds he would do “all I can” to get IHL’s budget funded at the level it requested.

The IHL’s presentation took up the vast majority of this morning’s hearings. Afterward, the Mississippi Development Authority presented a budget request of $22.6 million, which is the same amount it got in FY10. The MDA’s state funding has been basically level since 2003. Federal money makes up most of its budget.

“We cannot afford to lose momentum right now,” MDA Executive Director Gray Swoope told the Committee.

Swoope said that Nissan continues to fulfill the Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the state regarding direct job numbers — the company employs about 3,100 people directly — and Toyota is still “fully committed to Mississippi. They are going to build vehicles in Blue Springs.”

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