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Higher education dodged some bullets but still took cuts in Legislature

Published: Sunday, March 13 2011 12:37 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — This year's legislative session was a mixed one for higher education in Utah, defined as much by what did not happen as what did.

An initial proposed budget cut of 7 percent was whittled down to about 2 percent, about $18 million, although that will still force tuition hikes as enrollment continues to climb.

A message bill from Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, that would have allowed guns to be openly carried on college campuses was changed to focus on buffer zones around school grounds.

And an attempt to ban tenure for professors hired at the state's public colleges after July 1, 2011, died in committee.

Utah State University scored two victories with approval for a veterinary school and an addition to a business building.

The joint veterinary program will accept 30 students a year — 20 in-state and 10 nonresidents — who will take the first two years at USU and then two years of clinical studies at Washington State University."

"This new program will not only allow us to extend our role in addressing important state needs," USU President Stan Albrecht said in a statement, "but will also buttress other research endeavors on our campus through collaboration with the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative and other USU programs."

The Legislature approved $1.7 million to get the program off the ground this year.

Until the last day of the session, it was unclear whether any higher education buildings would be approved. But USU's plan to add on to its business school had one advantage: $16 million in private pledges. Legislators decided to bond for $14 million to fund the rest of the project.

The state's other research school, the University of Utah, didn't fare as well as it missed out on even a portion of the $50 million it was seeking to update its aging electrical grid and to repair high-temperate water pipes like the one that failed in November, seriously scalding 12 workers.

Weber State University secured $31.5 million to build a new classroom building for professional programs, including its popular nursing degree at its growing Davis County campus in Layton. The facility will also house a charter high school.

The Utah College of Applied Technology's Tooele campus will get a new $10 million home. Lawmakers cut UCAT less than other areas of higher education, praising its job-training programs as a quick way to get people back to work.

And Salt Lake Community College received a $3 million down payment on a new site in Herriman for a campus focused on renewable-energy programs. The state is slated to eventually cover half of the $20 million land purchase, with other funding coming from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation.

In a legislative session that ended with a firestorm over access to public records, a bill snuck through with little attention that exempts a state-run college-savings investment fund, the Utah Educational Savings Plan, from open-records and open-meetings laws.

The fund, one of the most popular in the country for its low fees and tax incentives, now holds over $4 billion in assets, with 92 percent of investors living outside of Utah. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the measure was needed to keep UESP's investment strategies — its "secret sauce," as he called it — out of competitors' hands.

Legislators also extended financial oversight over private for-profit colleges, although any accredited school will be able to purchase an exemption.

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