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ACHE budget proposal funds innovation

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — The proposed $1.9 billion budget the Alabama Commission on Higher Education approved Tuesday includes $50 million for a collaborative technology project between state colleges and businesses.

The project could provide support for Calhoun Community College's quest to become home to a regional robotics center.

It also would provide seed money to help attract federal funds to keep the program going in the future.

If the Alabama Consolidated Research Initiative and Technology Effort succeeds, ACHE Commissioner Gregory Fitch sees a future of collaborative projects among the state's two- and four-year colleges and a partnership with industry and state agencies that would position the state as a science and technology leader.

Funds would go to college and university research, technology, and work-force development proposals that promise to boost economic development for the entire state and not just one college campus.

Fitch envisions junior colleges like Calhoun collaborating with research universities like Auburn University or The University of Alabama at Hunts-ville.

And he sees Calhoun's dream of becoming home to a robotics center as the type of project ACHRITE funds could benefit.

"I don't want this to be a program that just puts a new computer in every classroom," Fitch said. "I want this to be something that two-year and four-year schools can do in collaboration for years to come to help economic development."

Fitch said the program's financial design would utilize long-term investing and federal matching funds so as not to depend on one-time money that may be available one year but not the next.

Susan Cagle, director of institutional finance and facilities at ACHE, said ACHE's budget request would, if approved, increase college and university funding by about 15 percent over the current year's operating budget.

ACHRITE will be part of the budget proposal ACHE will present to the Legislature at budget hearings Feb. 28 and March 1.

The commission also supports a $1 billion bond issue for education with K-12 receiving 60 percent of the funds and higher education receiving 40 percent.

ACHE Spokeswoman Margaret Gunter said the commission endorses the 60-40 percent split regardless of the bond amount the Legislature ultimately approves.

Gov. Bob Riley, Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, and at least two other lawmakers have bond proposals up for consideration during the upcoming legislative session.

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