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Legislature begins budget discussions

As lawmakers take steps to cut state spending this year, their budget axes are expected to hit universities in ways that could eliminate jobs and some degree programs. Republicans taking charge of the state’s budget for the first time since 1898 are promising deep cuts to close a projected $3.7 billion gap. And the $2.7 billion total the state budgeted last year to run the University of North Carolina’s 16 campuses isn’t off limits, said expected Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

“For anyone to suggest that any part of the state budget is going to be immune from consideration for reductions, they’re not looking at the situation in a realistic fashion,” Berger said this week.

Some $620 million in state funds were cut in the past four years and mostly took a toll on administration, so further trims will be felt by students, said Jeff Davies, the UNC system’s top operating officer.

“We are seeing more pain on the academic side of the house,” Davies said Tuesday. Deciding where layoffs among the university system’s 47,000 workers statewide fall will be determined in the months ahead, Berger said. Even the $64 million expected from not-yet-finalized tuition increases of up to 6.5 percent for the next academic year is not safe: The money could be taken to pay for other programs.

Universities have projected that a 10 percent budget cut would mean eliminating 2,000 positions, half of them faculty members, along with 6,400 fewer course sections. Campus library hours, tutoring and advising also likely would be reduced. The UNC School of the Arts would have to examine closing its film school. The departing UNC system president, Erskine Bowles, even commented that it might be smarter to close an entire campus than chip away at every university if North Carolina’s economic health doesn’t improve soon.

Tuition and fees are expected to continue rising in the coming years, Davies and others said. But a 6.5 percent limit on tuition increases mean students likely won’t make up for state spending cuts. In previous recessions in the early 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, undergraduate resident tuition jumped by 20 percent or more in the worst year. “I see the economy continuing to remain challenging for the next couple, three, years,” Davies said.(Emery P. Dalesio, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, 1/25/11).

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