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Gilmore leaves University in lurch

REMOVING excess spending from the budget is good. Cutting taxes in a strong economy is also good. But when such measures are taken, we must be certain that the spending is indeed "excess," and that the economy indeed is in such good condition that the budget can sustain tax cuts without damaging programs.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has done both of these things, using tax cuts as one of the key planks of his gubernatorial platform. While these measures may fatten our wallets, they can have serious negative consequences.

Among these consequences is the University's recent drop in U.S. News and World Report's college rankings. While the magazine's ranking is a flawed representation of a university's worth -- it places an inordinate emphasis on economics over academics -- we still should see the University's slip to No. 2 as a wake-up call to Gilmore's reckless budget policy.

A report released last Wednesday by Virginia Forward, an influential business organization, highlighted some of these problems. Virginia Forward's board is composed of members of various segments of the Commonwealth's economy, and while it includes some Democrats, it has a Republican slant. The report was inspired in part by the possibility that Gilmore's no-car-tax plan, combined with rising demand for services, could cause a billion-dollar deficit next year.

The report estimates that the Commonwealth should have spent $27 billion more on new roads and $6 billion more on education. Traffic problems have increased in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and something must be done to alleviate them. Gilmore's failure to reallocate spending, in addition to his tax cuts, could lead to up to $36 billion in deficits over the next 10 years -- a huge sum considering that the Commonwealth's overall budget is about $20 billion this year.

"Important spending needs that have been identified ... cannot even be partially met without some combination of cuts in other spending programs, tax increases or significant bond financing," the group's report said. The report calls for an additional $530 million each year for the next nine years to help keep Virginia's colleges competitive.

The effects of Virginia's budget flaws can be seen clearly at the University. Per-student state support in 1998 was $729 less than in 1990. Despite having one of the nation's best higher education systems, in 1998 Virginia ranked just 39th in per-student state support.

None of Virginia's universities are in the top 50 in research expenditures. Among the southern states whose higher education systems rank ahead of the Commonwealth in research expenditure are Florida, Georgia, Maryland and North Carolina.

The quality of facilities on Virginia's public college campuses also has been criticized. The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia rates the facilities on seven public college campuses as "poor" and eight more as "fair". Only two campuses managed a "good" rating. While SCHEV recommended $73 million for major building repairs for 1998-2000, only $43 million was provided.

Although there has been a concerted effort to improve faculty salaries, they still lag behind peer institutions, and the ramifications are all too evident. During the past two years, Virginia's colleges and universities have lost 275 faculty they wanted to retain, and an additional 241 have turned down their best offer to attract them.

These are the signs of a system in decline. Funding is dropping, rankings are dropping, and faculty members are fleeing. But this should not be the case.

Virginia still has one of the best, if not the best, higher education system in the nation, with such top- ranked schools as the University and the College of William and Mary. This is an impressive accomplishment for a relatively small state. However, Virginia is in danger of losing this distinction.

Virginia's taxes are relatively low. We have a healthy economy. Virginia's economy is booming as high-tech industry flocks to the state. Last year the Commonwealth had a budget surplus of $900 million. With this extra money in the budget, Virginia should not have failed to maintain its higher education system, and allowed its infrastructure to decline. There should be a way to cut up the pie so that higher education gets a healthy slice. If this is not possible, then we should expand the pie with higher taxes.

While Gilmore may be aiming for the conservative ideals of lower taxes and less spending, he is missing the mark here because he is damaging vital programs. He is hurting part of what has made this state great. Higher education is not a luxury, but a necessity. We are fortunate to have such a fine system in Virginia, but it will not last if the Commonwealth does not fund it adequately.

(Peter Brownfeld's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)