College and university presidents were asked by lawmakers Wednesday to defend why they have nearly $90 million in unused funding.

"We believe we are good stewards of the funds you've allotted to us, we try to be open and transparent as far as providing reports of the money that makes our institution what it is," Utah State University President Stan L. Albrecht said.

USU, along with eight other colleges and universities and the Board of Regents, stands to lose $20 million in carry-over money if the recommendation of the state analyst is approved by the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee and the Utah State Legislature.

Following an audit conducted late last year, higher education as a whole was found to have $82,994,000 in non-lapsing funds, down nearly $8 million from FY 2006, but still higher than any other state agency. The institutions reported to the office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst that these balances are used to cover retention of current employees, fund various upgrades and updates across campus, complete authorized facilities and provide an institution-specific reserve, similar to the state's Rainy Day fund.

Presidents of the institutions told legislators they'd be hard-pressed to provide for the needs of students, faculty and staff with the impending budget cut.

"We've been saving for our needs," University of Utah Vice President Dave Pershing said. Like many of his counterparts, Pershing said the U. is faced with the need to fund competitive compensation packages, make up for lost out-of-state tuition revenue and enrollment uncertainty, as well as provide for gaps in program funding.

"The money we have not spent is dropping due to improvements and upgrades and we predict in the future to be at a safe 2 to 4 percent range at the university," he said.

Weber State University has had to implement changes to comply with ADA requirements and make its campus safer, while Southern Utah University has used unencumbered monies to retain key faculty members. Snow College is entirely dependent on its meager $27 million operating budget, said Chief Financial Officer Marvin Daw.

Dixie State College was forced to use a large portion of its non-lapsing funds to make up for one of the largest escalations in building costs the state has ever experienced to complete a new health sciences building by April of this year. The College of Eastern Utah has used the surplus to climb out of a $6 million deficit over the past seven years. Utah Valley State College provides self-funded insurance to save money and Salt Lake Community College does what it can to keep tuition low.

"It's not our intention to ring the bell," Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, said. "We respect the leadership you provide." He cautioned the presidents to watch their spending.

Lawmakers discussed imposing a "target" percentage, which would keep each school in the same range as well as provide an explanation for taxpayers on how their money is being spent in higher education.

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