Regents weigh impact of budget cuts
The Montana Board of Regents put a framework in place Thursday that would allow for cuts of up to 5 percent in the university system, the first of the state agencies to publicly heed the governor's request to do so. The board decided unanimously during a conference call to honor Gov. Brian Schweitzer's request to start planning for such cuts, even though it has unique constitutional authority among executive branch agencies to establish its own budget. The board recognized the cuts are needed as Montana grapples with dwindling revenues. Recent projects show that a once-robust surplus will be just about gone by mid- 2011. And projections beyond that show Montana, still one of two states not to hit a deficit, will possibly face more severe cutbacks. "It is a difficult time for our state, but most other states are having more difficult times," Regents Chairman Stephen Barrett said. Schweitzer has said state government needs to get ready to start cutting as revenue estimates continue to drop amid ongoing economic woes. He has been rolling out relatively small cuts on specific projects, such as halting some building plans and canceling The printed edition of the state government directory, to the tune of roughly $30 million. The other cuts coming could be much larger. The tentative plan laid out Thursday by the regents would slice $7.5 million from their spending plan alone. The regents said such cuts would inevitably affect students through increased class sizes, less financial aid, diminished services and possibly higher tuition. Other areas possibly hit would include downsizing the agriculture extension and research units. Thursday's move sets the stage for more specific planning by the colleges, and the final plan will be adjusted as cuts are implemented. "The bottom line is, of course, what we are aiming for," Barrett said. "We will follow this template to meet our objective." Proposed cuts at other state agencies are expected today. They will go to the governor who has the final say. All of the moves are being made with an eye toward the future. Analysts reported this week that the budget woes will continue past this two-year budget period and into the next, possibly requiring longterm downsizing or tax increases. Schweitzer said this week he opposes tax hikes to solve the problem.