University Presidents Express Relief At Proposed Budget

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Smokers sidestepped a higher state
cigarette tax, while Kentucky's public universities dodged deep
funding cuts in a proposed two-year state budget agreement reached
by top lawmakers early Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the leader of a statewide teachers group fumed at the
prospect of a 1 percent pay raise for teachers in each of the next
two fiscal years.
Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education
Association, called the budget proposal "insulting" for public
school teachers and employees.
After days of grueling negotiations, House and Senate conferees
agreed on a nearly $19 billion, two-year state spending plan. The
deal, reached behind closed doors, left interest groups scrambling
for details.
Some university presidents expressed relief at the prospect of 3
percent spending cuts - an indication of how dire they viewed the
budget situation.
Gov. Steve Beshear had included 12 percent cuts to public
universities in his budget proposal, on top of a 3 percent cut in
the current fiscal year.
Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock said Tuesday
he was grateful to House and Senate negotiators for the proposed
outcome for higher education.
"Given the revenue constraints which they faced, sparing higher
education all but a 3 percent reduction is a major achievement,"
Whitlock said in an e-mail distributed to faculty and staff at the
school in Richmond.
Economic forecasters have predicted revenue shortfalls of
approximately $900 million for state government in the next two
fiscal years, caused by a sluggish economy and soaring government
Whitlock said his campus had been bracing for the "worst-case
scenario." University presidents warned that drastic budget cuts
would set back higher education by years and would force big
tuition increases.
Now that his school faces a 3 percent cut, Whitlock said
"there's nothing in this situation that we cannot manage and still
maintain the vitality of this university."
University of Louisville President James Ramsey said the budget
conferees were confronted with tough decisions, and said he
appreciated their efforts to stave off drastic cuts for higher
But he added that the proposed cuts "will affect this
university and its students. We will be reviewing our operations
and our options for the next biennium. We are committed to offering
the best possible educational experience while keeping it
affordable for our students."
University of Kentucky President Lee Todd Jr. said the budget
agreement by legislative leaders shows "that they strongly believe
that continued investment in our public universities is critical to
Kentucky's future."
The budget deal includes $60 million for Bucks for Brains, which
matches public money with private donations to attract top
researchers to Kentucky universities.
A public health advocate fumed at the lack of a higher state
cigarette tax in the budget deal, while a tobacco shop manager was
Some House lawmakers had supported raising Kentucky's cigarette
tax, among the nation's lowest at 30 cents per pack. The Senate
resisted raising taxes, and the budget agreement excluded a higher
cigarette levy.
Vickie Owens, manager of a Cox's Smokers Outlet in suburban
Louisville, said the absence of a higher cigarette tax means she
won't have to hear as many customer complaints about prices. She
said smokers didn't want to be singled out among those paying an
extra burden to help state government out of its financial woes.
"If it was going to a good cause, OK, we can deal with that,"
she said. "But since we have to bail them out ... that's not our
Health advocates said that increasing the cigarette tax would
have improved the physical well-being of many Kentuckians.
"We're very disappointed. We see this as a missed
opportunity," said Tonya Chang, a lobbyist for the American Heart
Association. "As long as we fail to act, we're going to continue
to have the highest rates of adult smoking in the nation. And we're
going to continue to suffer tobacco-related deaths and disease."
Meanwhile, Oxendine said teachers felt they had a prior
commitment from lawmakers and were expecting raises of 5 percent in
each of the coming fiscal years.
She said education professionals won't be able to keep up with
inflated costs for such things as gas and college tuition.
"I can promise you that our employees will not be happy,"
Oxendine said. "There was a commitment made to them and as
Kentuckians and as hardworking school employees they expected that
commitment to be kept."
Associated Press Writer Joe Biesk in Frankfort contributed to
this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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