(Nicolas Floyd)

By

For students at Eastern, the end of another academic year is days away. Graduating seniors and underclassmen alike are looking to the future, some with more fear and apprehension than others. Seniors are worried about the perilous job market ahead; underclassmen are worried about the inevitable rise in tuition for next semester.

Last week, Eastern’s Board of Regents voted to raise tuition at the university by the maximum allowed by the Council for Postsecondary Education.

That sure sounds bad, and thanks to the CPE’s decision on Friday, students now know it’s a 5 percent tuition hike.

Everything else about Kentucky’s state budget (including how much funding Eastern will get from the state) has yet to be determined.

It’s been more than a week since Kentucky’s lawmakers ended their regularly scheduled 60-day session without approving a state budget for the next two years. Kentucky is facing a billion-dollar budget deficit, and where to “trim the fat” is keeping lawmakers from agreeing on how to stop the bleeding.

Governor Steve Beshear has indicated that higher education is a priority for Kentucky, and there are good arguments to believe this should be so. Despite this, however, immunity for higher education is not an option this time around.

Eastern President Doug Whitlock said in a phone interview Tuesday he expects the legislature to cut funding to higher education by about 1.5 percent in the new budget. Whitlock said that’s what both the state Senate and House of Representatives have proposed, and will translate into that 5 percent increase in undergraduate tuition for the forthcoming academic year.

That figure is typical of public universities in Kentucky. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday that UK’s board of trustees approved a 6 percent tuition hike for 2010-11. They also reported that even with this increase, figures indicate UK will face a deficit of more than $7.6 million for operations.

The same figures show Eastern facing a $3.8 million deficit even with that projected 5 percent increase (the same increase that occurred in tuition last April).

The moral here is that even a substantial, “maximum” tuition hike won’t stop universities from taking a hit from state budget cuts-if state lawmakers can ever agree on cuts, that is.

The consensus from legislative reporters and Whitlock is that a special session will likely be called about a week before the state primaries, which begin May 18. The urgency isn’t to give universities the certainty they need to keep their students informed (although it should be)-it’s because the state needs to refinance some of its debt before June 1 or it’ll cost us. And by “some debt,” we’re talking nearly $180 million dollars of losses if a budget isn’t passed.

Worse for state universities is that they (along with some other government-funded services) could face partial shutdown if a budget isn’t passed before the new fiscal year begins July 1. Agencies simply can’t operate without knowing what their budgets are, and state universities are no different.

Whitlock was adamant that this doomsday scenario is highly unlikely, but the pressure cooker had better be heating up on legislators nonetheless.

Partially shutting down state government and public universities because compromise is elusive is simply not an option. Knowing this, legislators should not have to depend on a “special session” (one that costs taxpayers $64,000 a day!) to be called to sort things out.

The Herald-Leader is reporting that Beshear expects the special session to last five days, and some quick math indicates that means $320,000 of taxpayer money spent because legislators couldn’t do their jobs in the time allotted to them. That’s an unequivocal failure on the part of our state leaders, and the necessity of a “special session” should be a shameful admission of defeat.

Extensions on papers are hard to come by at Eastern because what professors expect from students is well understood-fail to meet those expectations, and you’re more likely to fail the class than you are to get that extension.

It’s no different with taxpayers and state legislators. State legislators are failing to accomplish what is expected of them, but unfortunately, we have to give them that extension or watch our government implode without a budget.

The real question is, “Do they deserve that extension?” Residents of Kentucky have the luxury of voting this May to say either “yes” or “no.”

Unfortunately for them, the one issue they can’t base their votes on is what legislators really decide is important.

While we vote with ballotsm, legislators vote with money. Without an approved budget, who knows what’s actually important to them.