The University welcomed the fiscal year 2002 higher education appropriations bill approved Thursday by the Michigan Senate, which will increase the University”s funding.

University Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia Wilbanks praised the bill.

“Overall, I think the Senate bill is a good bill. We”re getting close to the end of the (higher education appropriations) process,” Wilbanks said.

The bill, passed on a 32-1 vote, was an amended version of a bill passed by the House of Representatives in March. The Senate version boosts the University”s funding to $375.2 million, a 4.7 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. The House version proposes the University receive $365.4 million, a 2 percent increase over the previous year.

The two versions must now be reconciled in a conference committee consisting of members of both chambers of the Legislature.

“It”ll probably be the hardest-fought and longest-endured of all of the conference committees,” said Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Salem Twp.), a member of the Higher Education Subcommittee.

Almost half of the additional $9.8 million the Senate added to the bill was taken from the MEAP Merit Scholarship Trust, a measure supported by most legislators.

Nearly one-third of the additional funds the Senate appropriated are conditional on a repeal of the Tuition Tax Credit program, which gives tax credits to the parents of students attending colleges that keep their tuition increases under the level of inflation. A repeal of the system was initially endorsed by Mary Lannoye, Gov. John Engler”s state budget director.

However, just before the May 15 Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference, Engler announced many appropriations, including higher education, would have to be slashed due to the slowing economy.

Smith said it was necessary to substantially amend the House bill.

“In order for us to come up with any new dollars to spend, we have to come up with new revenue and that translates to a repeal of the tuition tax credit and the distribution of the merit trust fund surplus dollars,” she said.

“(Now) the governor is saying that there are no guarantees that the dollars will go to higher education because we have a tight deficit budget,” Smith added.

Rep. Sandy Caul (R-Mt. Pleasant), chairwoman of the House Higher Education Subcommittee, said a repeal of the tuition tax credit program may not pass in the House. In addition, Caul said representatives may not be as willing as senators were in using monies from the Budget Stabilization Fund, or “rainy day” fund, to finance higher education.

“I think that a number of my colleagues in the House will have difficulties taking funds from that fund and putting it into higher education funding,” she said.

The only person to vote against the amended bill was Sen. Dale Shugars (R-Portage), who, in a speech on the Senate floor immediately after the vote, said the bill did not afford Western Michigan University enough dollars.

“Western is one of two universities reduced in the Senate bill, and that”s a significant deduction over $2.5 million. If Western doesn”t get this satisfied, it”s projected that they will have a 17 percent increase in tuition,” Shugars said.

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