SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers took their first steps toward tackling the budgets for public and higher education Tuesday with the appropriations committees for both systems meeting to look over revenues and priorities for the 2014 legislative session.

Spencer Pratt, fiscal manager for the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, started Tuesday's meeting with a presentation on state funding of Utah's colleges and universities. Over the past three decades, the percentage of an institution's revenue provided by taxpayer dollars has decreased and the disparity between schools has grown, he said.

In 1985, Pratt said, the state provided between 70 percent and 80 percent of a college or university's funding. By last year, those figures had fallen to about 40 percent to a high of roughly 70 percent.

"State funding for higher education has changed considerably," Pratt said. "The general trend is down and the spread has increased significantly."

As the state contribution falls, schools increasingly look to tuition hikes to cover the costs of expenditures, he said.

"When the state funds go down, the expenditures don’t necessarily go down," Pratt said. "So the reliance on tuition has increased significantly over that same time period."

The bulk of the committee meeting consisted of an overview of funding and policy issues facing higher education, with lawmakers also commenting on the specific discussion points they'd like to tackle over the next few days of committee meetings.

Among the questions raised by lawmakers were whether the state should actively incentivize careers in economically impactful fields such as engineering over so-called "degrees to nowhere" in the social sciences, and whether schools are best served by autonomy or direction from the Legislature.

Sen. Steven Urquhart, R-St. George, commented that the higher education budget has fewer line items than other public sectors. Instead of a series of detailed mandates, he said, funding is appropriated to Utah's public colleges, universities and applied technology schools with the expectation that administrators will operate their systems productively and effectively.

"We've given them a lot of autonomy," Urquhart said. "My perspective is they've done well with it."

But Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, suggested the state may have an interest in shuttering some degree and certificate programs that don't align with market needs.

Valentine began his remarks acknowledging that he might "start a little bit of controversy," before adding that he would like to see school presidents report on the programs that contribute little to Utah's economic growth.

"Someday we’re going to have to get to the point of saying we can’t continue doing everything at every institution, and if (lawmakers) have to make those decisions, we will make bad decisions," he said.

Earlier Tuesday, the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee met to begin discussion of the its base budget, including the Minimum School Program that sets formulas for per-pupil funding.

“It’s a very tedious but a very crucial process each year to take our precious tax dollars and channel them appropriately for the benefit of our precious children,” said Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper.

Committee members raised concerns about duplication of classes, enrollment allotments for specific schools, and school counselors not having enough information about programs.

“We need to do more than look. We need to move. … We’re doing a huge disservice to our students by not figuring this out,” Urquhart said.

Contributing: Madeleine Brown

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