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UMass Faculty Senate discusses student financial aid

The University of Massachusetts faculty senate held its 689th regular meeting Thursday, Nov. 12 and began with a visit by State Representative Stephen Kulik.

Kulik, vice-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was on the UMass campus for last spring’s meeting, a time which he described as “really, really grim.”

 “I always take away some valuable insights and comments from this,” Kulik said in his opening remarks.

Kulik began the senate meeting by reviewing the events of the legislative session of the current year, starting with Salvatore DiMasi resigning as Speaker and being succeeded by Robert DeLeo. DeLeo, Kulik said, came in with an aggressive agenda mainly focused on ethics, pension and transportation reform, as well as efforts “to make sure we got a balanced budget in on time” for fiscal year 2010.

According to Kulik, balancing the faculty’s agenda has thus far been very difficult. He said that, between the House of Representatives finishing the budget and the Senate taking it up, revenue estimates by the state fell by about $1 billion. That left a projected short fall of about $4 billion, Kulik said. However, they were able to get the budget balanced with the aid of stimulus money from the federal government and the state’s rainy day fund.

“We built up [the rainy day fund] in the good years of the economy to about $2.2 billion,” Kulik said.

“We also did increase revenue by increasing the rate and expanding the scope of the state sales tax,” Kulik said, referring to the fact that alcohol is now subject to the sales tax.

The General Court had a balanced budget by July 1. However, state revenue decreased through the summer and they had to make $600 million in cuts to local aid and other social programs.

“It seemed like a good number to go on,” Kulik said. “And it’s looking like it was right.”

“They solved our problem in fiscal 10,” he added.

In fact, the state ended October with a $22 million surplus.

Kulik believes that is unlikely for state revenues to decrease more than they already have.

“I think we can be pretty confident we’ve hit the bottom of the barrel,” he said.

But looking towards the future, Kulik said that the state still has a great deal of financial challenges to overcome, with the fiscal year 2011 presenting the most immediate challenges for legislators.

“We think it will be every bit as challenging, if not more so than fiscal ‘10 because we had the stimulus,” Kulik said.

According to Kulik, without the federal money, Massachusetts will be have to make do with $1 billion less in fiscal year 2011 than fiscal year 2010.

Since the state cannot count on money from Washington, he said the state needs to generate new sources of revenue. Kulik added that since the money for the budget comes from taxation, Massachusetts needs more people earning higher incomes and spending more. In short, Massachusetts needs jobs.

“The best way to grow jobs in Massachusetts is to invest in education,” Kulik said.

In addition, Kulik said that Massachusetts needs to be competitive with the rest of the country over the cost of living, which he also added is among the highest in the nation.

But to invest in education, reduce the cost of living and continue to pay for the social services many people remain dependent upon the financial security such services require, “We have to spend money we don’t have,” Kulik said.

The state can no longer use its rainy day fund in the future, Kulik said, adding that the funds are only available for the time being in emergency situations.

“If we dip below $500 million in our rainy day fund our bond rating will go down and our cost of borrowing will go up,” Kulik said.

One alternative according to Kulik would be through a revival of expanding legal gambling.

Kulik said that the Senate is ready to allow casinos and that Speaker DeLeo supports expanded gambling.

“I know that we are on a course to take up a serious expanded gambling bill early in the next legislative session,” Kulik said. However, he said that he is skeptical of casinos being a viable solution in the short term because of the lack of funding due to the bad economy. Kulik suggested slot machines as a possible short term solution. He also ruled out raising the income tax rate because of the unpopularity of the taxes issue with the voters. A number of years ago, a referendum required the legislature to lower the income tax rate to 5 percent. Currently it is 5.3 percent.

“There’s a give and take with referendum politics,” Kulik said.

After Kulik finished his remarks, the Senate returned to routine business. The University’s representatives reported that they are 92 percent ahead in funding from last year and that UMass has received $39 million in stimulus money.

During the meeting, the senate discussed financial aid for middle-class students, with the consensus being that students from high-income families do not need it and students from low-income families are already receiving adequate amounts. Also on the meeting’s agenda was plans for a “classroom building” to provide state of the art classrooms to replace cramped and crowded classrooms in older buildings.

The senators had also discussed shortening add-drop period because it can interfere with classes, and put two advising motions on the agenda for the next meeting set to take place in December.

 The Faculty Senate also voted last Thursday to change the name of Commonwealth College to Commonwealth Honors College, create a new physics class and designate it as a Physical Sciences General Education class, and several other routine and procedural matters. All motions carried with no opposition.  

Matthew M. Robare can be reached mrobare@student.umass.edu.

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