Both houses of the Michigan Legislature agree higher education funding should increase this year. They just can’t seem to agree on how much.

While the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to increase funding to the state’s universities, the state Senate rejected the increase the next day because the amount allotted by the House wasn’t as high as the senators would have liked.

A bill passed by the state House would have allocated $332.4 million in funding to the University for the 2008-2009 fiscal year – an increase of more than $8.9 million from last year. The legislation would have increased higher education funding to each university by an average of 2.8 percent.

Though Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) voted in favor of the House bill, she said other senators held off approving the 2.8-percent funding hike in hopes of securing a 3-percent increase that was passed by the Senate in March.

That version of the bill gave the University just over $9.7 million in additional funds – more than any public university in the state.

Members of the House and Senate are expected to start negotiations on the bill next week.

Leslee Fritz, spokesperson for the State Budget Office, said any talk of increased funding is good news for Michigan’s universities.

“There is a general agreement among everybody that higher education deserves and needs an increase in funding,” Fritz said. “Now it’s just the question of how much and how to distribute it.”

Fritz said part of the problem has to do with differences in how the House and Senate split up the $2.35 billion allocated to fund higher education, but she said the bigger setback has to do with a $200 million shortfall in Michigan’s general fund. When the Senate passed the 3-percent increase three months ago, the state’s budget was projected to be about $9.8 billion, but Fritz said funding has proved to be less than anticipated.

Though the $200 million cut probably won’t come solely from higher education, Fritz said there’s no way to tell which part of the state’s budget will take the biggest hit. She said lawmakers will have a clearer picture of what to negotiate after leaders in the House and Senate meet with state budget directors next week.

That’s when Rep. Pam Byrnes, a Democrat whose district includes the University’s North Campus, will begin work with a six-member conference committee to decide exactly how the higher education funding will be split.

Byrnes said she didn’t anticipate any big cuts would come, but added that when state funds are tight, higher education is usually first to feel the pinch.

“I’m hoping that top decision makers realize the value of our investment in higher education,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes said a finalized version of the state’s budget would probably be passed before the July 4 recess.

The University Board of Regents is set to meet Thursday to make recommendations for the University’s tuition rates. Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said no decisions would be made until the final state budget was passed.

Wilbanks said the University doesn’t like to rely on preliminary estimates of state funding when important financial decisions are made, especially given the recent decline in higher education dollars.

“I think it’s important to recognize that when students stepped foot on campus last fall, state appropriations had provided $323 million to the University,” Wilbanks said. “In comparison, students who were on this campus in the fall of 2002 had a $363 million appropriation from the state.”

Despite the earlier cutbacks, Wilbanks said she welcomed the state’s renewed commitment to higher education.

“This is really the first meaningful increase that we’ve seen in a number of years,” Wilbanks said.

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