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2009 March 9 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Ga. Lawmakers Taking Aim at Higher Ed Spending

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers trying to hack $2.6 billion from the state’s budget have grown frustrated with the state’s higher education system, which they say hasn’t borne its fair share of the cuts.

Angry legislators have made veiled threats and introduced a handful of proposals aimed at exerting more control. The first, which passed the House 158-1, could slow an effort by the technical college system to merge its campuses by requiring legislative approval first.

It comes on the heels of attempts to cut funding to professors with expertise in sexuality topics such as “queer theory” and “male prostitution” and a separate  measure to force the state’s historically black colleges to merge with nearby mostly white campuses.

Administrators say the proposals are misguided. A spokesman for The Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s 35 public colleges and universities, said the system was suffering from a ``misperception’’ among legislators because it was making cuts while avoiding furloughs.

Spokesman John Millsaps said the regents have shed roughly 10 percent of the budget — totaling $219 million — by laying off about 60 employees, shedding dozens of unfilled positions and shifting more health insurance costs to the employees. Millsaps said the third element alone, which is saving some $35 million, equals about 17 days of furloughs.

“The chancellor did not want to make temporary decisions for permanent changes,” said Millsaps. “The board has certainly not been exempt from the cuts, and we haven’t asked to be exempt from the cuts.”

Yet the higher education system isn’t done cutting. Gov. Sonny Perdue has recommended slashing $20.4 million from the regents and $2.5 million from the technical schools.

And there’s sentiment among some legislators that the regents should consider other ways to cut funding.

State Rep. Calvin Hill, a vice chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, is at the forefront of a campaign to purge Georgia’s higher education system of professors with an expertise in sexuality topics.

He and his supporters argue that experts in those subjects aren’t going to help Georgia’s students find jobs when they graduate. But their criticism has drawn a fierce backlash from academics and some Democratic legislators.

State Rep. Karla Drenner, Georgia’s only openly gay state lawmaker, said in a solemn speech last week that she was saddened by the sudden push.

“We’ve been told to heighten our awareness because our male children at our regents colleges may be at risk from allegedly pedophilia-crazed professors,” said Drenner, a Democrat. “Such an allegation based on no proof is unsubstantiated fear and rumor mongering.”

In a separate effort, state Sen. Seth Harp has aggressively backed a plan to merge two historically black colleges in Albany and Savannah with nearby predominantly white institutions as a cost-cutting measure.

Harp, a Republican, said the colleges are a vestige of Georgia’s Jim Crow laws, and argued the merger could save millions of dollars in tough budget times. He has teamed up with the head of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus to sponsor a committee to examine the move.

Regents Chancellor Erroll Davis has not disputed that a merger could save money, but he warned the merger could negatively impact students and said he worried about “blurring the mission of distinct institutions.”

The Technical College System of Georgia also is facing scrutiny. The system planned to merge 13 of the state’s 33 technical colleges to save about $3.5 million in administration salaries and overhead. No campuses would be closed by the mergers, and the plan’s backers say it would streamline the administration without affecting students.

But lawmakers, particularly those in rural areas touched by the decision, have pushed for the system to pursue deeper cuts before merging campuses. The House passed a measure that would require legislative approval to create, consolidate or close any technical college.

Tech schools spokesman Mike Light called the proposal a “diminution of the board’s executive authority.”

“The bill would restrict the state board’s oversight and responsibility to make important decisions involving the technical colleges,” he said.

State Rep. Butch Parrish, the plan’s sponsor, countered that the budget cuts were done too hastily and without legislative input.

“These important decisions should be made only after careful study and planning, not as a knee-jerk reaction,” said Parrish, a Republican. 

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