Jan. 16-29, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 1
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Legislators back slow growth

By Dan Heuchert

Three state delegates representing local jurisdictions, two Republicans and a Democrat, agree on one thing: the University should not be forced to grow rapidly, despite the upcoming bulge in the state’s college-age population.

State Dels. Mitchell Van Yahres, D-57th; Rob Bell, R-58th; and Steven Landes, R-25th, spoke Jan. 9 at the University’s annual Legislative Forum, which led up to the convening of the state General Assembly five days later. State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-25th, did not attend after a minor auto accident left his car disabled. He was unhurt.

Gov. Mark Warner’s proposed tax increases dominated the forum discussion, as they are expected to dominate the General Assembly itself. In his budget, Warner backs $140 million in new spending for higher education, but predicates that spending on passage of his tax plan.

Virginia public colleges and universities would welcome any increase. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia forecasts that an additional 60,000 students will enter state schools between 2000 and 2010.

The coming enrollment boom has led to speculation about the University’s future growth. Last year, the Board of Visitors, which by law is charged with setting enrollment levels, approved relatively modest undergraduate enrollment increases of 450 students by fall 2007. The question is, will the state ask the University to grow even more?

Bell — who earned undergraduate and law degrees from U.Va. — noted that other state universities would welcome growth, and planted himself firmly in the slow-growth camp. “I would not like to see U.Va. go the way of Ohio State,” he said. “I would not like to see U.Va. go the way of Virginia Tech. Let George Mason or Christopher Newport grow as much as they want.”

Van Yahres, a former Charlottesville city councilman and mayor, agreed. He pointed to the pressure the University’s growth puts on surrounding neighborhoods. “The University has to be cognizant of what is going on in the community as well,” he said.

Van Yahres and Landes both agreed that community colleges could absorb some of the growth. Landes also called for new focus on distance-learning programs and suggested that Virginia’s private colleges might be able to take some additional students.

The legislators declined to speculate about the prospects of a package of decentralization proposals being advanced by U.Va., William & Mary and Virginia Tech, saying that they had not yet seen the legislation.

The discussion of Warner’s tax proposals was similarly unclear. Virtually no one expects that the plans proposed by Warner, a Democrat, will pass unaltered through the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

But there are disagreements even among state Republicans, Van Yahres said, with senators generally more favorably disposed toward tax increases than Republican delegates. The intra-party struggle could lead to an extension of this year’s 60-day session or even a second session, he predicted.

If the governor’s $1.2 billion in tax increases fails to pass, it is unclear what would happen to the additional $140 million in higher education spending Warner proposed.

After the forum, Landes, who chairs the House Republican caucus, said, “It will be up to the House Finance Committee.” Even without tax increases, Landes said he expects economic growth to provide some additional revenues. “If the revenue is there, higher education will get a part of it. If not, we'll have to take a look at it.”

However, he cautioned, “In my opinion, K-12 is a higher priority than higher education.”

Bell, also speaking after the forum, said he would seek other ways to make up for the $140 million if the governor’s tax increases failed.


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