A proposal to cut state aid to higher education by $600 million over the next 18 months is a starting point for negotiations rather than a dictate, House Speaker Kirk Adams said last week in the wake of widespread criticism of the planned reduction.

The proposed cuts each year would range from 4% to nearly 12% of each school’s overall budget, including state and federal assistance and tuition revenue.

The $600 million in cuts are included in the chairmen’s options released by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Adams said the options developed by House Appropriations Committee chairman John Kavanagh and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Russell Pearce “clearly demonstrate the dire situation the state is in and just how bad the budget situation really is for the foreseeable future in Arizona.”

Adams said he has been meeting and will keep up conversations with university presidents and the president of the Arizona Board of Regents to develop solutions to a state deficit of $1.6 billion in fiscal 2009 and $3 billion in fiscal 2010.

“I will continue to work with the state’s university presidents on budget issues,” Adams said. “As we address this historic deficit it is imperative that cooler heads prevail.

“Overheated rhetoric is not helpful and serves to complicate what is already a difficult process. It is my hope that all stakeholders will approach these difficult decisions in the spirit of cooperation for the benefit of all Arizonans,” he said.

More than 900 people crowded into a meeting last week of the Board of Regents, which oversees the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University. Officials at all three systems said the reduction in state aid could require them to double tuition, close campuses, or lay off hundreds of staff and faculty.

Virgil Renzulli, vice president for public affairs at Arizona State University, said the cuts could require the school to close its ASU Polytechnic campus in Mesa and ASU West in Phoenix.

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