AUGUSTA — A measure that would stop certain budget cuts in Maine’s public university system ahead of a study of its finances isn’t likely to be considered this year.
The proposed law is aimed at stopping $36 million in proposed cuts for the fiscal year beginning in July that have sparked protests at the University of Southern Maine in Portland after plans to cut $14 million were revealed earlier this month.
President Theodora Kalikow’s plan for USM includes cutting four academic programs and as many as 50 faculty and staff members to reduce the school’s budget by 10 percent.
However, the legislative process may doom the bill essentially before it is unveiled, with a spokeswoman for Maine’s House speaker saying it’s unlikely to be considered and the university system saying it would handcuff them in making necessary changes.
The University of Maine in Orono is expected to release its plans for its share of cuts — $12 million — next week, said Ryan Low, the University of Maine System’s executive director of governmental and external affairs. Last week, the University of Maine at Augusta announced $2.7 million in cuts; and earlier this month, the University of Maine at Farmington said it would cut $1.65 million.
At a State House news conference on Wednesday, Marpheen Chann, USM’s student body vice president, said a network of campus- and community-centered protests is in the works at Maine’s seven public universities in response to the cuts.
He said lawmakers could face consequences in an election year if the bill doesn’t move forward.
“If nothing goes through, that’s our representatives, our legislators, saying that we’re going to kick the can down the road,” Chann said.
Rep. Benjamin Chipman, a Portland independent, is sponsoring a bill to place a 12-month moratorium on faculty, staff and program cuts ahead of a review of the university’s finances by a student- and faculty-led committee.
The system has said flat state funding, declining enrollment and recent tuition freezes have made the systemwide cuts necessary.
In 2013, the state appropriation to Maine’s universities made up nearly 42 percent of the system’s fixed budget, also composed of tuition dollars and interest. That share was slightly lower the year before, but it has fallen almost every year from a high of 72 percent in 1989 to the present, according to system data.
That matches a long-term national trend that has led to myriad budget cuts and tuition hikes at public universities.
In 2013, states spent 28 percent less per student on higher education than in 2008, when recession gripped the country, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Maine was on the low end nationally, but it still decreased per-student funding by nearly 16 percent over that period. Tuition went up by 17 percent. It was one of just five states where enrollment grew and full-time faculty numbers fell.
Necessity of the cuts, especially at USM, is an issue about which the university system and protesters have sparred of late. The system has said recently flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes have made the systemwide cuts necessary.
“We need to make these changes now,” Low said. “We know what the challenges are. We know what demographic issues we’re facing. They’re not great. Nobody likes them, but we have to right-size ourselves.”
Students and faculty members, notably Susan Feiner, an economics and women and gender studies professor, have called the cuts a symptom of an invented crisis, citing large reserve funds and high administrative overhead at the system level.
But the system said that using reserve funds to backfill gaps would be irresponsible, saying that the money is generally used for capital projects, scholarships and maintenance.
Still, the bill, a radical change in the university’s process pitched about three weeks before the legislative session is set to end, is gaining little traction in Augusta’s hallways.
To be considered, it must be approved by a panel of legislative leaders on Thursday. Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Chipman’s measure is unlikely to make the cut. Republican leaders also came out against the bill.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she encouraged discussion about the cuts on each university campus, saying she was impressed by the USM student activists.
But while she said she was undecided on her vote, she said the short time left in the legislative session would hamper the bill.
“It’s really tough to do good work in that time, and this deserves good work,” Haskell said.