State Medicaid standoff beginning to cause uncertainty at university-level

There’s a debate currently underway in Richmond. Virginia House Republicans and Senate Democrats are at odds over whether to expand Medicaid – a federal program that subsidizes health care for low-income citizens – to about 400,000 people.

Democrats want to tie Medicaid expansion passage of the state’s budget, which the General Assembly needs to pass to cover the state’s expenses over the next two years. House Republicans, who are steadfastly opposed to expansion, have argued that the budget should be passed independently of the health care program. After months of debate, the General Assembly is still in deadlock – and a budget has yet to be passed.

All of this will have differing impacts across Virginia if a budget isn’t passed by the June 30 deadline. Though one of the biggest areas that receive funding from the state is the higher education system, and consequently, George Mason University.

Mason funds its expenses through a number of sources – including tuition, research grants and room and board fees to name a few. Another piece of that pie comes from the state budget. About 20 percent of Mason’s operating costs, or $172 million, comes directly from the state taxpayers.

“State funding is a critical component of our overall revenue structure,” said JJ Davis, senior vice president of finance and administration. “Our hope is that the state budget will be solved in a timely manner. At a very macro level, resolution of the state budget is clearly important.”

As the end of the semester approaches, university administrators are working to develop a budget for the 2014-2015 school year. Mason is a $911 million operation, and it’s difficult to know what to allocate money towards when 20 percent of the revenue source hasn’t been guaranteed yet.

So while the state grapples with consensus, a critical piece of information is being withheld in Mason’s budget planning process – making it unclear how much to charge for tuition or how to much to spend on academic departments. One example of these expenditures is funding to demolish and rebuild Robinson Hall.

“What [colleges] might not be able to do is extend certain contracts to new faculty hires. They might not be able to buy equipment right away,” Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education, told students in a Google Hangout with Virginia students. “This is equipment you could have in your classroom by September or August. Those are a couple of areas that come to mind that might have some difficulties that could have an impact on the academic quality in your student experience.”

Mason, which sets its tuition rate in May, has not yet had to make any cuts from budgetary uncertainty.

“There’s still plenty of time,” Davis said. “Yes, resolution to the state budget should be important… it’s 21 percent of our portfolio, but it’s not alarming. The greater clarity we have the better.”

For example, Mason has two new academic programs that are dependent on state funding, nursing and cyber security. If a budget is not passed until late summer, enrollment into these programs could be delayed.

Another uncertainty brought forth by the budget debate has been how Virginia will fund Mason’s programs. In the General Assembly, the Senate and House have put forward different proposals for funding higher education expenses.

In the Senate, while funds for Mason’s operating costs were reduced, financial aid increased by $2.2 million over the next two years. Alternatively, the House reduced funding for financial aid, but allocated more funds to cover the university’s operating expenses.

As debate continues, the state budget process continues to be fluid and it remains uncertain how much will be allocated to Mason and under what circumstances.

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