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Chancellor's Column - June 2004  

Legislative Session Positive for Higher Ed

When the Legislature ended on May 28, many of our state representatives and senators left their offices for the last time, their terms as citizen legislators over. Because of term limits, many longtime education advocates are now moving on, but they leave behind a lasting legacy of tens of thousands of Oklahomans with college degrees, and we should all be grateful to them.

This session accomplished much, and higher education achieved several important legislative goals.

$34 million in new state funding was approved, which will allow Oklahoma’s higher education system to continue to provide quality instruction for the record number of students enrolled in our institutions. It will also increase scholarships and financial aid and enhance access to college across the state. The $802.1 million in total state funding represents a 4.4 percent increase over last year’s appropriations. This budget will allow us to improve the way we prepare our students for today’s job market. We will continue to meet the challenge of building an even stronger system with limited resources and we are thankful that the Legislature was able to stop the recent trend of shrinking appropriations. Still, we need to recognize that funding for public higher education in Oklahoma is about $60 million less than it was four years ago, and there are thousands more students on out campuses.

About $5.8 million of the new funding will go toward grants and scholarships awarded by the state, including $4.1 million for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP) and $1 million for Tuition Equalization Grants for students attending private institutions. The bulk of the remainder, $22.6 million in new dollars, will go to the institutions.

OHLAP, which pays the tuition for students from working families who meet certain academic and behavioral requirements in high school, still needs another $4.1 million to meet its scholarship obligations next year. It is expected that a portion of revenues dedicated specifically for OHLAP from the recently created Tribal Gaming Compact will take care of the shortfall. If it doesn’t pass this fall, we will request a supplemental appropriation in 2005.

Other legislative action also had an important impact on higher education.

Millions of dollars in national research funding may now come into the state due to the passage of HB 1904. It authorizes a $50 million bond issue that will help match the backlog of private donations for endowed chairs in higher education that have been waiting for state funding.

And, HB 2226 provided for some important flexibility in faculty retirement plans for our research institutions which should allow them to compete more successfully for quality faculty.

We had hoped that the $500 million capital bond issue could have advanced this session, but it had to be postponed until next year. Gov. Brad Henry has pledged to make the bond issue his top priority for early next session. This bond issue would trigger the first major statewide construction project on our campuses since 1992 and would have a profound positive economic impact on our state and the ability of our institutions to meet the needs of their students.

The governor and the legislative leadership faced many difficult issues during the last session, and we appreciate the support provided this year. We look forward to discussions during the interim on ways to continually improve our colleges and universities and produce more college graduates.