AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of University of Southern Maine students switched from protest to persuasion Wednesday, when they took their objections to cuts proposed at their campus and others in Maine to the State House.
The students and Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, hope to introduce an emergency bill that would impose a moratorium on the implementation of cuts within the university system for a year, including some that have already been announced.
The moratorium would stretch from March 1, 2014 through March 1, 2015. It aims to give a panel of stakeholders — including students and faculty — time to explore the budget and propose solutions.
“In the long run, this bill sets up a democratic way for funding and finances at the school to be studied,” said USM economics student Mike Havlin during a news conference Wednesday at the State House. “In the short run, it saves our university. Without the moratorium, I’m worried for the incoming students.”
The Legislative Council, 10 legislative leaders who are scheduled to meet on Thursday, will determine whether Chipman’s bill moves forward this session.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, a member of the Legislative Council, said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that the threshold for accepting any new bills this year will be high given that the end of the legislative session is less than a month away.
The likelihood that the bill will make it through the council is dubious, given the practical ramifications of a budget cut moratorium on the university system and the fact that university officials and Republican House leaders oppose it.
Two of the four Republican members of the Legislative Council — Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport and Rep. Alex Willette of Mapleton — said Wednesday that they would not support the bill.
“There will always be disagreement about how and where cuts are made, but that is a decision for the university, not the Legislature,” said Fredette in a prepared statement.
In an emailed statement in response to the proposed bill, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page urged action rather than further analysis of the system’s budget problems.
“We appreciate the students’ engagement in this process — that is a good thing and shows that they care about education,” he said. “We have a budget issue that must be addressed for the upcoming fiscal year, and the time to act is now as the gap will only grow greater by next year, if we simply continue to study the problem.”
Page has said that if the system continues on its present course, a systemwide budget shortfall will grow to $90 million in five years.
“We are listening to the students’ viewpoints and will continue to do so, but at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to the people of Maine to ensure the system is on sound financial ground and will be here to serve generations to come,” Page said.
Some of the USM students who gathered Wednesday at the State House said the university system should use surplus funds to avoid the cuts during the moratorium. They said those funds total more than $180 million, but Ryan Low, the university system’s director of government and external affairs, said available funding totals only about $15 million because the system plans to keep certain cash on hand for self-insurance plans, loans made to the campuses and future capital projects.
Furthermore, Low said using the surplus to temporarily delay cuts would only make cuts more painful a year from now when the double whammy of declining student population and shrinking revenues isn’t likely to resolve itself.
“As a system, we need to right-size ourselves,” said Low.
In 2012, the university system announced it would freeze tuition rates for at least two years. Asked whether they would support tuition hikes to help with the budget situation, students Wednesday said there are other solutions.
“Before we see tuition hikes, we expect to see pay cuts for upper-level administrators,” said Havlin.
In an interview earlier this month, Page stressed the responsibility he feels the system has to play in the future of Maine’s economy.
“We also want to make sure we have a special focus on research and economic development that’s going to be for the benefit of the state,” he said. “We allocate resources to support efforts that are going to in turn support Maine industries.”
Critics fear that supporting Maine industries comes at the price of diminishing liberal arts education.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on Monday that USM “seems eager to downsize liberal arts and social sciences for reasons that go beyond money.”
“We are not moving away from liberal arts,” countered system vice chancellor of administration and finance Rebecca Wyke on Tuesday. “No one is suggesting that we reduce that.”
Caroline O’Connor, a USM student who is behind a grassroots effort called #USMfuture and is working with Chipman on his bill, said part of her goal is to investigate whether USM is receiving its fair share of the system’s resources.
“This bill seeks to make clearer the ties between the financial state of the University of Maine System and the department eliminations and faculty retrenchments at USM specifically,” she said.
Earlier this month, Page told legislators that the system’s financial position is dire and because of a $36 million revenue shortfall, up to 165 positions across the system’s campuses would have to be cut in the fiscal year that begins in July.
Last week, layoffs of 12 full-time faculty members at USM caused protests on the Portland campus. Those layoffs are in addition to another eight faculty members — and four entire departments — which are scheduled to be cut in July.
In late February, University of Maine-Farmington President Kathryn Foster announced that 18 positions have been eliminated as part of a 9 percent campus spending reduction in fiscal year 2015. Fifteen of those positions were already vacant.
Last week, University of Maine at Augusta President Allyson Handley announced the elimination of 24 full- and part-time positions, 10 of which were layoffs. In addition, 33 staff members will see their hours reduced.
University of Maine Vice President for Administration and Finance Janet Waldron will announce how Maine’s flagship campus in Orono plans to cut $10 million from its budget at two meetings, which will be held 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Friday, at the Wells Conference Center.
None of the proposed budgets have been finalized. The system’s board of trustees will vote whether to approve the campus budgets in May.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that President Paul Ferguson will announce UMaine plans to cut $10 million from its budget. The university’s Vice President for Administration and Finance Janet Waldron will make the announcements.