Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Standing Up for All Our Colleges, Universities & Students

By Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant

Hello again, everybody! We who represent rural areas often fight the notion that big cities should come first and small towns should get crumbs in the state budget.

A bipartisan group of senators joined to fight that notion when it came to funding higher education. The higher education budget included $34 million for capital improvements; most was directed – as you might imagine – to The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.

I represent both a regional university – Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant – and a community college – Murray State College in Tishomingo. Originally, Murray State College and all the state’s community colleges were left out of capital improvement funding.

Then, 32 senators – both Democratic and Republican – joined to oppose a funding formula that was patently unfair. The result of our efforts was that the money going to regional universities was spread out to include community colleges. OU and OSU were held harmless. It was the classic “good news/bad news” situation.

Community colleges were included in the capital funding, but at the expense of regional universities. Again, the situation was unfair, but less so. It is not right that OU and OSU did not share in the burden to make funding fair to all the colleges and universities.

While the Legislature has the power to appropriate money to the state’s higher education system, we do not have the power to direct where that money goes within the system. Oklahomans created the higher education system as a constitutional entity. That constitutional provision gives the Regents for Higher Education the power to take what money we send them and distribute it among the state’s colleges and universities as they see fit.

Earlier this month, 15 of us who were part of that bipartisan coalition sent the Regents for Higher Education a letter asking the board to “exercise its constitutional authority to allocate to each institution according to its needs and functions.” In short, we asked the Regents to use their constitutional authority to ignore the earmarks placed in the capital improvements bill by legislative leaders.

Those earmarks unfairly benefit only two institutions to the detriment of all the others. As of now, we do not know if the Regents will take that step; predictably, those who advocate for OU and OSU are already raising red flags, saying if the Regents do the right thing, it would put at risk very popular programs at those universities.

That’s called the “Washington Monument” strategy. Whenever Congress proposes cutting the National Park Service budget, the Park Service says it will close the important and popular Washington Monument, ending talk of budget cuts.

The fact is reallocating the $34 million in a more fair manner will boost campuses across the state without creating undue hardships at OU and OSU, the two wealthiest and best funded universities. I hope the Regents give our proposal serious consideration.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

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