Budget outlook grim: More cuts ahead

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 24, 2009 7:30 AM

Economic downturn or not, UI fifth-year senior Andy Biasin balked at the proposed cuts to the state education budget, which could potentially include money for financial aid.

“That’s ignorant,” he said. “The whole reason we’re here is to get an education.”

Regardless, state universities are now facing even steeper budget cuts in response to last week’s paltry revenue estimates.

The state’s education budget must be cut an additional 4.3 percent — on top of the initial 6.5 percent proposed by Gov. Chet Culver — Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, said on Monday.

“Bad news is bad news,” said the chairman of the Legislature’s education appropriations subcommittee. “We’ll do what we have to do and move on.”

The new budget targets came on the heels of last week’s jarring news that state revenue for fiscal 2010 is projected to drop by an estimated $270 million.

Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, acknowledged the difficulty of the task at hand, but she was unsure what education areas will be slashed.

“It’s gonna be a challenge,” said Boettger, the ranking Senate Republican on the joint subcommittee. “How are we going to do it? I’m not sure yet. We’re definitely going to think outside the box.”

Previously deemed as untouchable by subcommittee members and university presidents alike, student aid likely won’t be left off the cutting board.

“I can’t make any guarantees now without talking to the committee,” said Schoenjahn, noting that he hopes the budget will pass out of committee and reach the floor by next week. “I think right now, in light of the figures, nothing is going to be left untouched in the governor’s budget.”

Other subcommittees are facing essentially the same 4.5 percent cuts, Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said, although Democratic leaders are looking to “allow as much latitude as possible” for different appropriations subcommittees.

Still, Dvorsky, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the budget remains a “moving target,” with federal stimulus money set to pour in.

That funding could help avert some of the more draconian cuts, as Culver highlighted in a post-revenue estimate statement. Specifically, he pointed to education and health-care funding, as well as public sector layoffs that could be avoided with an influx of stimulus cash.

But lawmakers must submit a balanced budget to the governor.

“I have to come out with a balanced budget, however egregious that might be,” Schoenjahn said. With deep cuts necessary, “there is no discretion, or very little discretion.”

Lawmakers such as Dvorsky concede that the budget will be an “ugly process” but maintain its importance.

UI spokesman Steve Parrott was unavailable for comment Monday.

As for Schoenjahn, he was stunned at the enormity of the state’s budget woes.

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen this,” he said.

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