Seeking a pay increase for faculty and staff that keeps pace with inflation will be a major lobbying effort for higher education officials when the Legislature convenes next week.

Higher education officials view salaries as a crucial issue on the long list of needs facing Utah's nine colleges and universities. Faculty and staff have gone three years without pay increases, and studies show their salaries are20 percent lower than colleagues' at comparable, out-of-state colleges.A recently released survey from the University of Utah reports one-third of discouraged U. faculty are looking for new jobs.

Commissioner Wm. Rolfe Kerr plans to use such information in appearances before legislative committees this month.

Although the higher education budget request is the most austere in a decade, officials will emphasize the need to prevent further erosion of salaries by asking legislators to approve a 4.5 percent increase for faculty and staff.

That raise would be 1.5 percent higher than the 3 percent that Gov. Norm Bangerter has recommended for state employees.

Higher education officials also want full funding to cover cost increases in the employee benefit package, mainly medical/dental insurance.

The Bangerter budget recommends only half of the $3.1 million increase needed to keep benefits at their current level.

If colleges are forced to absorb one-half the mandatory cost increases for benefits, that will drop the pay increase, Kerr said. Utah Valley Community College officials have said it would slice 1 percent off any pay increase at that school, and a similar reduction would occur at the other institutions.

How faculties view state support for higher education may hinge on the Legislature's handling of salaries.

"If we get full benefits and 3 percent, it's a matter of degree. That's better than what the governor is recommending, but it's still further erosion in purchasing power," Kerr said.

The commissioner referred to a study by the Utah Association of Academic Professionals. It says that a Utah faculty member's 1988 salary, in real income, is 12 percent below the 1969 level.

Overall, higher education officials are seeking a $377.2 million budget. That would include a $27.9 million increase - or 8 percent - in total expenditures.

In state tax funds, the proposed increase would be $21.8 million - or 8.4 percent. Bangerter's proposal recommends an increase of $10.8 million - or 4.16 percent.

In the past three years, the largest increase in state appropriations to higher education was 3.15 percent in the 1986-87 budget. It was .05 percent for 1987-88 and 0.86 percent for 1988-89. All of the final appropriations were lower than the regents' - and the governor's - recommendations.

But Kerr said final appropriations can vary, so they exceed the governor's request in some years.

Kerr said he thinks state revenue in early 1989 will be greater than the projections of the governor's budget analysts.

"We're optimistic the February revenue will be much more positive. Whether or not there can be full funding remains to be seen. We don't want to be overly optimistic, but we think we have a good chance to get more than the governor's recommendation," he said.

Kerr is requesting a bare-bones budget that has not been inflated for negotiation purposes.

The additional money would cover increased utility and insurance costs, pay raises, minimal enrollment growth and economic development initiatives in nursing, engineering, research and vocational/technical training.

There are no increases for equipment, libraries, travel and supplies.

The commissioner said he fully realizes the danger of not leaving a budget cushion. "I would rather operate with the Legislature from a position of completeintegrity. I'd rather deal with a very straight-forward budget, communicate needs and take risks than artificially inflate the budget."

While the emphasis will be on the budget and related matters, officials also will be closely monitoring a bill that would give faculty and staff a seat on the Board of Regents and the institutional councils of the schools.

The regents haven't taken a position on the current issue, but Kerr said it would be inappropriate for faculty and staff to sit on a representative body that determines salaries. Also, it would be difficult to select someone who could represent the diverse interests of faculty at a research university as well as those of a community college.