- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - College and university presidents from across Oklahoma urged lawmakers Wednesday to ease cuts to higher education as the state grapples with a $1.3 billion hole in next fiscal year’s budget.

Chancellor of Higher Education Glen Johnson and the presidents of some of the state’s 25 colleges and universities held closed-door meetings with House and Senate budget leaders to outline some of the dire consequences of further cuts.

“To this point, this fiscal year already, the cut to our system of higher education has come to $112 million,” Johnson said after the meeting. “That represents over an 11 percent cut since the beginning of the fiscal year.”

Athletic programs have been slashed, including basketball at Carl Albert State College in Poteau and volleyball and equine sports at Redlands Community College in El Reno, Johnson said. The aquatic center at Oklahoma City Community College was also shut down, he said.

Some institutions have implemented early retirement offers and furlough plans, while others have eliminated programs and consolidated operations.

“Even with these cuts, as a system, we have remarkably been able to meet our degree completion goals as part of Complete College America,” Johnson said, referring to the program that aims to increase the number of college-educated workers.

Still, higher education officials are competing for scarce state funding at a time when devastating cuts are being considered for the state’s health care system, prisons, public schools and other popular state programs. And some Republican lawmakers are convinced that higher education, with the ability to raise tuition and seek federal or private funding, still has some room to trim its budget.

“Higher ed has to modernize,” said Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie. “It’s still a lumbering 1980s era-type dinosaur, whereas I think you can look at higher education institutions in other states and see that they’ve modernized and are adapting to current times and technologies in a way that drives down the cost to the students.”

Murphey also made reference to a state question heading to the ballot in November on a one-cent sales tax that would provide another $120 million annually for higher education.

“If we continue at this pace and the voters approve their funding proposal, it allows them to stay antiquated longer than they otherwise would,” Murphey said.

Johnson said no decision has been made on whether tuition hikes will be implemented at state colleges and universities, although such increases are likely.

“The largest determinant is what happens with the budget,” Johnson said. “I will say that we are very affordable in terms of tuition and fees, housing, books and all the related costs of going to college.”

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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