Regents chief: More cuts would mean pain

Three years of budget hits have not diminished the quality of education that public university students receive in South Dakota, but the cuts can’t continue, the director of the Board of Regents says.

Jack Warner told the Argus Leader editorial board Thursday that despite a reduction in state support of almost $28 million the past three fiscal years, “I haven’t seen cuts deep enough to affect our fundamental quality.”

Certainly some of the consequences of those cuts have been painful, he added. South Dakota State University trimmed 90 positions through layoffs, restructuring and the elimination of existing job vacancies for the coming fiscal year. The University of South Dakota has cut 74 full-time positions the past three years.

But Warner said university administrators have done a good job of softening the effect on academic integrity. He’s not sure that will continue if the cuts continue.

“If we have too many more years of no pay raises, we will lose good faculty, top faculty,” he said. “Some of our best faculty are beginning to get offers.

“And if we have more cuts, we will have to cut programs that are more viable than the ones we’ve already had to cut.”

Asked whether he was preparing for more cuts in the next legislative session, Warner said he was taking Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the Legislature at their word, that this year’s 10 percent cut across state government was a one-time move that will eliminate South Dakota’s structural deficit.

“At this point, I anticipate there won’t be any further cuts,” he said. “If they go any deeper, there will be a serious impact. This is enough now.”

Daugaard said the conservative budget adopted this past session will help in future years. “It is not unrealistic to believe that the state will be able to consider increases for K-12 and higher education next year,” he said in an email.

But that’s also based on current projections, the governor said. “I cannot make any promises,” he added, “because our circumstances could change.”

Republican Sen. Larry Tidemann of Brookings, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he, too, can’t absolutely guarantee that budget cuts are done. But he also thinks that even with no growth in the economy, if it stays flat, there will be about $40 million more available next legislative session to apply toward K-12 and higher education, Medicaid and other state programs.

“I’m fairly optimistic that we will not be looking at huge cuts next year,” Tidemann said. “And if we have any growth at all in sales and use taxes, that’s also going to be available.”

He agreed with Warner that “there is no fat left, no meat left on the bones” of higher education. So if further cuts are necessary next year, “then we’ll have to talk about making major changes,” Tidemann said. “How many institutions can we take care of? That will become a major discussion if the economy doesn’t grow slightly.”

But Warner doesn’t think closing institutions is necessarily the solution. The state needs more college graduates, he said. It needs more opportunities for people to get degrees. And it needs to lure in more people from out-of-state to go to college here.

He thinks closing one of the six public universities would diminish the number of college graduates the state would have. It would create infrastructure issues for the remaining schools, which would have to add buildings and faculty to accommodate any big influx of new students.

The state also would lose alumni and foundation support with consolidation of the system, Warner said. And it could compromise the viability of a community losing a campus, he added.

“Do you want to educate fewer students?” Warner asked. “That’s a serious question to be debated. I think South Dakota needs more college graduates and more opportunities to get a degree.”

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