AUGUSTA, Maine — Proposals to merge the boards of Maine’s higher education systems and investigate the finances of the University of Maine System are among a litany of bills authored by state lawmakers that the Legislature will take up in coming weeks.
Monday was “higher education day” at the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee meeting, where a dozen bills related to the University of Maine System, higher education oversight and funding were up for public hearing and feedback.
LD 18, proposed by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, would direct the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, a group under the Government Oversight Committee that conducts independent performance audits of state government programs and activities, to conduct an audit of the University of Maine System finances and practices and report back by early next year.
Russell told the committee she has been frustrated and saddened by the recent cuts at the University of Southern Maine and the effect they’ve had on the community. Several teachers and students at the University of Southern Maine expressed concerns during the hearing that the cuts were affecting the quality of education and scaring some students away from attending University of Southern Maine during this time of upheaval.
University of Maine System officials recently announced plans to pluck $8.8 million from reserve accounts to balance the $519 million proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. Last year’s budget, which was about $10 million less, was balanced using $11 million in emergency funds and through the elimination of 157 positions.
Critics have argued the system overstated the severity of its fiscal problems, overreached with the cuts, or cut in the wrong areas. Some have argued the system should have made more cuts to administration sooner, rather than to professors and programs.
“It’s broken my heart to see a civil war develop so unnecessarily in my alma mater,” Russell said.
The University of Southern Maine and system officials have said that without reductions, the university’s model isn’t financially tenable.
“It’s time to turn our collective attention to the continued transformation of USM, and the management of this transition, into a fiscally sustainable, accessible, affordable, high-quality Metropolitan University for Maine,” university spokesman Chris Quint said Monday.
The University of Maine System board of trustees is responsible under statute for the oversight of the system’s budget process. University of Maine System Chancellor James Page told the committee that the system has been open about its budget challenges and made information publicly available on its website. The system and campus meetings regarding individual campus budgets also have been open to the public.
He also said the system has been the subject of “regular and rigorous independent reviews and audits,” including the recent S&P downgrade, and that further audits could be redundant and time consuming.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, told the committee that OPEGA typically takes up investigations at the request of the Government Oversight Committee after that committee hears a complaint. A Legislative order to review a certain issue would be “very unusual,” he said.
Several bills aim to reverse the recent waves of faculty layoffs and program cuts at the University of Southern Maine. Facing a $16 million budget gap, 51 total faculty positions were cut, along with eight administrative jobs and five academic programs.
LD 99, An Act to Stabilize the Faculty and Programs at the University of Southern Maine, proposed by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Cumberland, would provide an additional $2 million to the system in fiscal year 2014-15 to help bolster University of Southern Maine marketing in hopes of stabilizing declining enrollment trends.
LD 17, An Act to Restore Programs and Faculty to the University of Maine System, would provide additional funding over the next three years — $28.6 million in the current fiscal year, $45.6 million in 2015-16 and $58.8 million in 2016-17 — to restore faculty and programs that have been eliminated.
Page cautioned that even if the Legislature could provide more money to fund the restoration of programs and faculty, that will do nothing to solve the structural budget issues that caused those reductions in the first place. Once funding dries up, the problems would re-emerge.
More bills call for changes in the oversight of system finances.
LD 794 aims to require the system to increase the percentage of its budget set aside for classroom instruction from 27 percent of its operating expenses to 40 percent by 2018.
LD 393 proposes a unified University of Maine System and Maine Community College System board of trustees in hopes of prompting more cooperation and sharing of resources among the systems. Similar proposals were rejected in both the 2009 and 2011 Legislative sessions. The community college board has expressed concerns about loss of autonomy and argued that there’s already a high level of collaboration.
LD 939’s goal is to increase transparency of system finances by requiring the system to break down administrative costs down to the level of individual campuses.
Other bills include LD 538, An Act to Reduce Fees at Maine’s Postsecondary Institutions; LD 627, An Act to Make College More Affordable for Maine Residents; and LD 784, An Act to Authorize a Revenue Bond for a Student Loan Reduction Plan.
The text of each of these bills and accompanying testimony for and against each are available on the Legislature’s website.
The committee will hold work sessions on each of these bills on Wednesday and Thursday. After those sessions, the committee will decide whether to recommend passage or rejection before sending the individual bills on to the full Legislature.
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