Education
5:30 am
Mon September 10, 2012

Higher Ed and the Candidates for Governor

In the last budget, one of lawmakers’ most controversial decisions was to cut the state’s contribution to New Hampshire’s public universities by 48 percent. Restoring those cuts has emerged as a big issue in the governor’s campaign. But how that will happen is a question politicians have yet to answer.

The people who don’t approve of the cuts that the New Hampshire legislature made to the university system – like UNH president Mark Huddleston – describe those them in a certain way.

Huddleston: When the legislature cut our budget, in as draconian a way as they did, by 48% …

When the budget passed Governor Lynch said the cuts would put college out of reach for too many students.

You could expect people like a University President or a Democratic governor to support more funding for higher Ed but he’s not the only one.

A recent poll that UNH commissioned found that 81 percent of New Hampshire residents are in favor of restoring the cuts, so long as tuition is frozen, and financial aid for low income students is increased.

And the candidates for governor are paying attention to those numbers.

Hassan: What I have focused on is first restoring the university funding that was cut by this legislature.

Smith: I would like to look to see if we could do going forward is restoring some of that funding but making sure that every penny goes toward tuition costs.

Cilley: So absolutely we need to at least restore the funding, which still puts them behind, by the way.

Those were gubernatorial candidates Maggie Hassan, Kevin Smith and Jackie Cilley. The three of them say that good schools with low in-state tuition is an important piece of New Hampshire’s future economy. They say restoring the cuts is a budget priority.

In exchange for doing so Maggie Hassan would ask the schools for a two-year tuition freeze.

Kevin Smith says he is considering only returning part of the money, and wants it all to go towards decreasing tuition.

As for Ovide Lamontagne he’s a little less sure that he’ll be able to restore those cuts.

Lamontagne: I’m certainly sympathetic to that, I would like to restore our funding stream that was available prior to 2011, but before we even can address that I think we need to look at reforming the delivery system for higher education on the public side.

Lamontange says he hopes that New Hampshire schools can keep tuition low by lowering administrative costs and squeezing other efficiencies out of the system. He also has proposed a learn-to-earn program, through which businesses hire recent grads and pay-off some of their student loan debt.

But for the next governor restoring any funding is going to mean finding the money. And some of the candidates have been decidedly vague on just how to do it.

Hassan has the most concrete proposal of restoring the cuts to the cigarette tax. Kevin Smith says his jobs plan will boost the economy so that tax revenues will rise on their own. And Cilley says every revenue source is on the table.

But no matter what the candidates say, they will have to work with the legislature on the budget and that body features folks like House Speaker Bill O’Brien, who gave his opinion on ed funding on the Exchange this past summer.

O’Brien: We, by increasing funding, by increasing loan aid we have allowed it to become inefficient. Its union is seeking a 16 percent increase in pay. Its workers are inefficient.

University officials say they are already working on increasing efficiency but gains there won’t free up significant funds.

Unless there’s a major shakeup in the legislature, NH’s next governor might have to set his or her sights lower. The leaders of UNH and the community college system point to another top priority: restoring $5 million in scholarship money to needy students from the state’s UNIQUE fund.

This money was the cream off the top of an investment program for parents saving to pay for college for their kids. It too was raided during the last budget’s cutting frenzy, and all four candidates say they would like to restore those funds.