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UC, Cal State Prepare for Pain of Budget Cutbacks

With many spending areas protected by law, regents meeting in L.A. say few choices are left.

November 20, 2003|Rebecca Trounson and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

Amid growing fears that their institutions may be vulnerable to major cutbacks under the new Schwarzenegger administration, the governing boards of the state's two public university systems signaled Wednesday that they were beginning to prepare for painful reductions in the coming year.

With other areas of the state budget enjoying constitutional or statutory protection from significant cuts, "we feel especially vulnerable," said Larry Hershman, the University of California's vice president for budget.

Hershman spoke after briefing UC's Board of Regents, who met at UCLA, on the uncertainty facing the university as the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger begins to grapple with the state's fiscal crisis.

"People in Sacramento don't want to cut K-12 [education], or local government or health and social services," Hershman said. "But if you keep taking everything off the table, what you have left" are the University of California and the California State University, among very few remaining choices.

The two systems, Hershman said, "are in the vulnerable part of the budget."

California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed agreed. "The whole [Cal State] system is just sitting out there, anxiously awaiting, 'How is California going to deal with this catastrophic budget problem?' " he said.

Anxiety over the grim likelihood of budget cuts, enrollment caps and further fee increases -- after 40% boosts for both systems last year -- was uppermost as the governing boards of both systems met separately in Southern California on Wednesday.

At the UC regents meeting in Westwood, fears about the effects of the budget crisis on the university erupted in a noisy protest against further cuts and fee increases by several hundred students outside the meeting room.

UC President Robert C. Dynes, presiding over his first regents meeting, went out at one point to speak to the crowd, gathered inside a rotunda at UCLA's Covell Commons. "You are a powerful and noisy group of people," Dynes told the students. He later assured them, "We're on the same team."

In a meeting of the Cal State Board of Trustees in Long Beach, meanwhile, Reed warned that his 23-campus system will turn away 15,000 academically qualified applicants next school year if the Legislature sticks with its plan to freeze funding for student enrollment at current levels.

He said further state spending cutbacks -- which he said are likely -- would force Cal State to reject even larger numbers of qualified students, and possibly require a new fee increase.

Cal State officials have said that the existing legislative mandate would force them to cap enrollment at this year's total, about 409,000 students. Officials said the action would be the first systemwide enrollment cap in the university system's 42-year history, and a departure from its mission since the 1960s to provide room for the top one-third of the state's high school graduates.

"If we turn these students away, there will be a lot of soccer moms disappointed that their son or daughter can't get into the CSU. We hope they go to a community college, but they are getting squeezed also," Reed said.

Steve D. Boilard, director of the higher education unit of the legislative analyst's office, said there might still be enough money in Cal State's budget to accommodate all of the state's qualified high school graduates.

He said Cal State officials might be able to create more room for them by, among other things, reducing the number of "special admit" students who aren't in the top one-third of high school graduates as well as by reshuffling some of the system's spending.

Even as Reed was expressing concerns about budget cuts, Cal State trustees approved a budget request -- essentially, a wish list -- calling for a $546.6-million increase in state general fund spending.

That would be an increase of more than 20% over current state spending of $2.46 billion this year.

The budget request included funding for 3% enrollment growth and a 4% raise for employees -- despite the Legislature's previous signal that it would not fund such increases this year. Officials said they were making the request largely to signal the system's needs.

"Certainly, we are aware that the chance of getting a $546-million budget increase funded is remote," said Patrick J. Lenz, Cal State's assistant vice chancellor for budget development.

The UC administration took a different tack, deciding to put off consideration of a specific budget request for now, given the uncertainty surrounding the overall state budget.

"I felt funny asking the regents to vote on something that was going to be dead on arrival," Hershman said.

The UC budget chief said it was the first time in his 36 years at the university that the regents were not sending a budget request to the state Department of Finance in November.

Instead, the regents approved a set of general principles, promising that they would try to maintain quality, access and affordability at the university.

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