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Senators Rip Cal State, UC for Deal

A panel says university officials undermined the Legislature by working out their own funding arrangement with Gov. Schwarzenegger.

June 08, 2004|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In a hearing filled with testy exchanges, a state Senate panel Monday rebuked university leaders for striking a deal with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would deny access to thousands of students this year and cut higher education spending by $360 million.

The panel of Democrats expressed frustration with university administrators, suggesting that they undercut the Legislature's effort to make a stand against the governor on higher education -- one of the few areas where they believe they can gain support among middle-class voters.

"The University of California and California State University systems went in like sheep carrying their own scissors," said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). "And it is offensive."

University officials defended the deal as necessary to stop the hemorrhaging after years of cuts and to guarantee the schools' stability for the future.

The hearing followed a morning news conference where Democrats announced they would also be taking a stand against the governor's plan to cut in-home care for the blind and disabled. Under the plan, the salaries of workers would be rolled back to minimum wage, and their healthcare would be eliminated.

Although administration officials say they stand by their plans for cuts to the universities and home-care services, there will be much give and take on the budget leading up to June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

The governor has staked his reputation on getting a budget deal on time, and these cuts represent just a fraction of state spending. Although Democrats are reluctant to force a late budget with elections looming in the fall, they are confident that if it comes to that, the public will side with them if they refuse to support cuts to universities or in home care.

That's why they were angry with university administrators who struck a deal with the governor before the battle began.

The administrators, however, portrayed their agreement with Schwarzenegger as a good deal for students that would finally guarantee at least modest increases of funding in the future after years of difficult cuts.

"Over the last three years, the California State University system has been devastated," said Chancellor Charles B. Reed. "We were interested in trying to see the cutting come to an end."

The deal the universities reached with the administration calls for redirecting 7,000 UC and Cal State students to community colleges this year, allowing them to transfer to the universities later. It would involve tuition and fee hikes of 14% for in-state undergraduates and up to 25% for in-state graduate students.

In return, the administration would support funding increases of 3% to 4% for the universities through fiscal 2010-11. That assurance for increases well into the future reestablishes the kind of "compact" the universities had with the two previous administrations.

Reed came to the hearing to face the angry lawmakers, but UC President Robert Dynes did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

That so angered Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) that instead of listening to the testimony from another official who came in Dynes' place, UC Budget Director Larry Hershman, the senator announced, "I will walk out," and then did so as Hershman began speaking.

"He sold us out in ways that are truly, truly dismaying," Vasconcellos said of Dynes. "It is shameful and stupid."

Hershman told the lawmakers that UC administrators were backed into a corner. They had seen their budgets cut by $500 million since 2001, had been forced to raise fees by $500 million and had watched faculty salaries fall far behind other universities, he said.

"We believe we had to stop the bleeding," Hershman said. "It was going to take us years to restore what we lost ... At least this gets us on a path toward recovery."

Under the agreement, it would take until mid-2008 for the universities to get back to the level of support they received before the cutting began in 2002-03.

Lawmakers have rejected the plan in budget hearings, and a large number of Democrats say they will not vote for any budget that diverts 7,000 students.

Reed and Hershman reminded lawmakers that last-minute budget deals last year forced the university systems to take tens of millions of dollars more in cuts than they had been prepared for. Both said that despite promises from Democrats to stand with them and fight the governor's plans, they feared a final budget deal that could force them to turn away even more students than proposed by Schwarzenegger and cut spending even deeper.

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