ATLANTA – A few hundred college students rallied on the steps of the Georgia Capitol on Monday to protest budget cuts they say could make college too expensive at a time when education is needed with a shrinking pool of jobs.
“Education is the last thing that should be cut,” said Will Avery, a graduate student at the University of West Georgia.
Students suggested increasing the state’s tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack or boosting taxes on the state’s richest residents. Both options are unlikely in the GOP-led state Legislature, where many leaders have pledged to balance the state’s budget without raising taxes.
Georgia’s budget is staggering from 15 months of declining revenues. Gov. Sonny Perdue last week was forced to make a new round of cuts to keep the state out of the red.
The state’s 35 colleges and universities had already been facing about $265 million in cuts for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Perdue has proposed moving $113 million in federal stimulus dollars forward into the current fiscal year, meaning colleges are facing another $113 million hole for the next fiscal year.
The cuts to the universities will also be offset some by $124 million in formula funding to deal with student enrollment growth.
Students argued that, with the economy sputtering, education is more vital than ever.
“This is our future,” said Ryan Jones, a student at Georgia Southern University.
“If we can’t afford to go to college, where is the next generation of leaders, where are they going to come from?”
Other students suggested that lawmakers who favor steep cuts to higher education will feel the wrath of voters at the ballot box.
State legislators are set to take up the revised budget proposal this week and could make substantial changes to Perdue’s proposal.
Ultimately the Board of Regents will decide whether tuition hikes, layoffs or furloughs are needed to meet the budget figure set by lawmakers.
John Millsaps, a spokesman for the university system, said the Board of Regents would meet after lawmakers wrap up their session likely sometime in April to determine what to do.