General Assembly resumes

Economics to be main focus of session discussion; higher education may suffer.

While students are settling in for their second day of classes, state legislators are returning to Indianapolis for a four-month lesson in economics.

The final will come in May, when they will be asked to fund the state and drain the $760 million budget deficit - all at the same time.

Rep. Tiny Adams, D-Muncie, said it can be done, but not without compromise and some "tough decisions" that will impact Ball State's financial future.

"I think we have to be careful," Adams said. "There's got to be a lot of compromise."

A plethora of laws will be introduced during the session, including one that would put a faculty member on universities' boards of trustees. The biennial budget, however, will eclipse every other issue, just as it did last year.

Last summer, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1001, which, among its other provisions, raised the sales tax and taxes on gasoline and cigarettes.

Adams, a member of the budget-crafting Ways and Means Committee, said he will not support raising taxes again this time around, even if it means sacrificing higher education initiatives.

Ball State, using recommendations by the state's Commission for Higher Education, is seeking an increase in this year's operating budget by 2 percent and next year's operating budget by 1 percent.

The money would replenish Ball State's base budget and restore the cuts made by Gov. Frank O'Bannon in the spring.

But this will only help Ball State get by, said Mike Baumgartner, the associate commissioner for facilities and financial affairs at the CHE. If the university wants to advance, he said, someone else will have to pay for it.

"This is not, by any means, what higher education needs," said President Brownell at the University Senate meeting in November.

The recommendation, for instance, does not fund building the proposed Communications Media Building.

It also fails to allot any money for cost-of-living adjustments or salary increases. So if the university wants to increase its faculty pay, it will have to seek alternative funds, including tuition increases.

But that someone else won't be the state, Adams said. In fact, he said the commission's numbers will probably be too high.

Ball State will plead its case to the Ways and Means Committee in late January, said Tom Morrison, the university's director of state fiscal relations.

Morrison said he hopes the Senate and House will pass a budget by the end of May, thus, foregoing a special or extended session.

"There's been a lot of talk about it, and it will be difficult." Morrison said. "We hope that the General Assembly continues to make higher education a priority."

If legislators don't pass a budget, Ball State's trustees may have to wait before drafting Ball State's budget, which could delay any announcements on summer and fall tuition.

Adams said bipartisanship is needed in order to pass the budget, but that goal will be difficult to maintain, given the makeup of the House and Senate.

According to the Associated Press, Democrats control the House, but only by a two-seat margin. Currently, Democrats have 51 seats, and Republicans hold 49.

Republicans have a much stronger grip on the Senate, which holds 32 Republicans and 18 Democrats