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Higher education funding major topic at new General Assembly session

By Ralph Byers, director of governmental relations

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 19 - February 1, 1996

The 1996 General Assembly convened on January 10 to consider legislation and craft a budget for the commonwealth for the 1996-98 biennium.

Higher education has been at the center of concern for many legislators this year due to the efforts of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, which has been advocating increased funding for higher education over the past year. The deadline for amendments to Gov. George Allen's budget was Thursday, Jan. 25, and a majority of the General Assembly endorsed a major amendment for significant increases for higher education.

In the summer, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) adopted a platform calling for Allen and the General Assembly to increase Virginia's funding for higher education to the per-student average for the Southeastern states. This would require roughly $430 million for the biennium. During the election campaigns this fall, the VBHEC obtained signatures from a majority of the candidates for both the House of Delegates and the Senate for this position.

Allen's budget presented in December recommended approximately $105 million in new spending for higher education. This includes no salary increase in the first year of the biennium, but a somewhat complicated 4.2-percent "bonus" for all state employees that involves moving a payday into the next year. The second year of the biennium would provide a 4-percent increase for the faculty and 3 percent for the classified staff. Allen's budget also provides funding for increased enrollment at Virginia Tech and modest funding for technology initiatives.

At the request of the VBHEC, the Council of Presidents of the state-supported colleges and universities developed a "unified" budget amendment to build on Allen's budget and bring per-student funding to the Southeastern average by 1998. Unlike past years, this single amendment, which totals $339 million for the biennium, covers all operating requests for colleges and universities. Capital requests, however, are submitted individually by the institutions.

For Virginia Tech, the unified amendment would provide a total of approximately $55 million of increased funding for the biennium. This includes 6-percent raises for the faculty in both years of the biennium (classified salaries are not covered in the unified amendment, because they are handled centrally by the state). It also includes $15.4 million in operating support for information technology; $18 million in equipment from the Equipment Trust Fund; $4.5 million in undergraduate-student financial aid; and a total of $10 million in funding for undergraduate students and extended graduate education.

Although it is generally recognized that, given the state's revenue picture, it will be very difficult to obtain full funding for this amendment, 25 senators and 74 delegates have endorsed it. This includes the co-chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Stanley Walker of Norfolk and Virginia Tech alumnus Sen. John Chichester of Fredericksburg; and in the House of Delegates, Appropriations Committee Chairman Earl Dickinson and Higher Education Appropriations Committee Subcommittee Chairman Alan Diamonstein. Senator Madison Marye and Delegate Jim Shuler also provided strong endorsements for the amendment.

The university submitted a number of amendments for capital-outlay projects, including a request for $10 million in General Fund support for the $25-million Advanced Communications and Information Technology Center, $21 million to continue the Upper Quad conversion, and funding for technology upgrades to classrooms and dormitories. It is generally agreed that funding for capital outlay will be difficult to secure, although several proposals for debt financing of facilities have been introduced.

Legislation on a wide variety of topics is now working its way through the system. Items such as pornography on the Internet and state-level control of technology are attracting a good bit of attention. Virginia Tech is cooperating with other universities to continue the process of decentralization to obtain greater control at the university level for such functions as purchasing, personnel, and capital outlay.

For more information, please contact the Office of Government Relations, 221 Burruss Hall, or call 1-7111.