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Haslam says Tennessee higher education a top priority in budget

Rex Barber • Jan 20, 2012 at 5:13 PM

There could be more state money on the horizon for Tennessee public higher education in Gov. Bill Haslam’s next budget.

Haslam, who was speaking at an area-wide Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, said afterward that funding higher education would be a priority for his administration.

“We’re going to present the budget in 10 days,” Haslam said. “I think you’ll see a significant step forward in higher education funding in this year’s budget.”

Haslam did not give specifics on the budget, but tuition has increased at Tennessee Board of Regents schools, of which East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College are a part, each year, often significantly due to decreases in state appropriations of around seven or eight percent.

The same has been true of University of Tennessee schools.

Students and parents, including those at ETSU, have picked up the burden of funding higher education each year through tuition and fee increases to make up for those budget reversions.

Haslam said the large tuition increases over the past few decades are the result of larger and larger portions of the state budget going to TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Haslam told attendees of the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, held at the Millennium Centre in Johnson City, that it was the job of the state to provide an environment where entrepreneurs wanted to locate businesses and jobs. The state is currently trying to significantly increase the number of college graduates through the Complete College Tennessee Act, which, among other things, will fund state colleges and universities based on graduation rates.

One reason given for this funding scheme was to have a well educated population attractive to employers.

Haslam said it has been a challenge for Tennessee to get more citizens college degrees.

“Not a large enough percentage of our population has a degree,” Haslam said. “If we’re going to attack it, a lot of that has to do with accessibility, both geographic accessibility but also financial affordability. And so one of the things we want to do is give higher ed the funding so they don’t have to keep having the big tuition increases.”

Haslam also addressed a plan that would give $1.8 billion for capital project construction on college and university campuses through the issuing of a $1.8 billion bond. This plan would also call for schools to raise a percentage of the construction costs for capital projects. Traditionally, these kinds of projects, which include the construction of new academic buildings, have been paid for in full by the state. No new such projects have been funded in years due to poor state sales tax revenue.

“I think it is a good policy,” Haslam said. “We’re working on exactly what that budget mix looks like, but I think we’ll have a significant capital project program for higher ed this year, number one. Number two, I do think it makes sense for the schools to contribute a piece of that, so if they want to build a new building that they should use their own fundraising capacity, too.”

To be fair, Haslam said, not all schools would be required to raise the same percentage for capital projects.

Universities would likely have to pay 25 percent of the cost of a construction project. Community colleges would pay 10 percent and technology centers would pay five percent of the cost of building a building.

“An ETSU has one level, compared to what a Northeast State does, and we won’t require community colleges to raise as much as our four-year schools do, percentage-wise,” Haslam said.

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