Asu In Payson Tangled In Sales Tax Vote

Negotiations ‘progress,’ but sales tax rejection could blight prospects

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Arizona State University will “keep working” on building a branch campus in Payson, but the state budget meltdown could wash away the hard-fought gains of the past year, says ASU Vice President Richard Stanley.

“We are making progress,” said Stanley. “It’s just been slower than we would have hoped because of the uncertainty at our end of the table.”

For starters, ASU administrators are anxiously awaiting next month’s vote on a three-year, one-cent increase in the state sales tax — to 6.6 cents per $1.

Failure of the sales tax measure would immediately cost ASU about $48 million, on top of a cut of $105 million the university has already had to absorb, said Stanley.

The real question lies in whether the cash-strapped Legislature would offer any money to provide a per-student state subsidy for the 1,000 to 6,000 students the proposed Payson campus would eventually accommodate.

The Legislature has already not only cut base funding for the three state universities, but for the past several years has refused to provide money to fund enrollment growth. Normally, the Legislature has provided enough money for one extra faculty position for every enrollment increase of 22 full-time students.

“That formula has just not been provided for the past three years,” said Stanley. “The end result is that we have a substantially lower amount of money to work with from the state per student than before this whole thing started.”

As a result, the university finds itself caught in a frustrating financial trap — even when it comes to trying to establish a Payson campus with tuition perhaps 50 percent lower than on the main campus.

On the one hand, the rapid increase in tuition at the three state universities and the continued rapid growth in enrollment makes additional, lower-cost campuses more important than ever for students and communities.

But on the other hand, operating the campus depends on the Legislature’s willingness to provide some kind of per-student funding.

“The bigger question becomes does the state see that as an interesting and useful investment in the overall higher education system. Those campuses would cost less per student, but they would still require new money. That will be an open question for some time now.”

He said ASU will continue working toward completing the agreement to build a campus with dorms and various support facilities on about half of a 300-acre parcel on the border between Payson and Star Valley now owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but designated by Congress several years ago for sale or trade for educational purposes.

“You shouldn’t read anything into the delay” in signing a memorandum of understanding “other than it is a time of uncertainty across all government. We are continuing to work through our contingency planning,” added Stanley. “We’re not paralyzed, but we are having to be cautious and watchful.”

The proposed Payson campus would offer a limited number of BA degrees and some strong professional and vocational programs in areas like nursing, rural health care, business, sustainable and “green” industry and design and other programs well suited to Payson’s rural setting and a small, undergraduate-focused campus.

The proposed campus would include dorms, classroom buildings, wireless Internet that could include the whole town, classrooms where students could sit in on lectures delivered anywhere in the world, and a forested feel similar to the design of the famous University of California Santa Cruz campus.

Current plans call for Payson to set up a Community Facilities District, which would buy the land, build the campus, then lease facilities to ASU. The district could also partner with private developers to build support facilities like stores, a research park and perhaps a convention hotel.

However, the plan would take a body blow if voters reject the sales tax increase and throw the ASU budgeting process and state funding for university students into renewed turmoil.

Recent polls show that 55 percent of voters surveyed say they will vote for the 1 cent sales tax increase authorized by Proposition 100, put on the ballot by the Legislature in an attempt to balance next year’s budget.

Not only would failure of the measure create problems for ASU and plans for the Payson campus, but the rejection would cost the Payson Unified School District more than $1 million, triggering yet another round of layoffs.

Rejection would also likely force an increase in the number of prisoners released early from Gila County jails and deep cuts in the state’s medical programs for low-income residents, which provide coverage to about 30 percent of Gila County residents.

The income tax boost would provide about $1 billion annually for the next three years statewide.

ASU has absorbed substantial cuts already, although in the current budget year federal stimulus money cushioned the blow.

Contingency plans had initially included the elimination of many degree programs at two branch campuses in the Valley — ASU West and ASU Polytechnic. A previous story in the Roundup suggested that those cuts had been approved, but in fact they’re just potential cuts depending on the final numbers in the state budget after voters decide on the proposed sales tax increase.

ASU officials are also trying to figure out what to cut next year to make up for reductions in base funding that they covered this year with federal stimulus money.

“Starting next year, we assume that money won’t be around any more,” said Stanley. “We’ve been consolidating units and laying off people across all our campuses. When you add in the uncertainty about Proposition 100, we’re moving cautiously.”

But when it comes to the Payson campus, “we’re not stepping back and giving up on anything — it’s just a matter of slowing it down and being cautious and weighing all the priorities.”

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