COLUMBUS - Kent State University's regional campus system became the subject of debate as state lawmakers struggle to met court imposed deadlines for creating a new system for founding Ohio's schools. While lawmakers work on a response to the Supreme Court order, which may call for a tax increase, State Auditor James Petro said it might not be necessary if lawmakers look at making more cuts to government and focus on running agencies more efficiently. At a budget hearing in Columbus, Petro said he would rather see lawmakers work on plans to pool tax funds to reduce the disparity between the amount of money spent at the state's richest and poorest school districts. Petro said the reduction to the higher education system may be appropriate and that the state ought to review how efficiently the colleges are operating. "We have a branch campus of Kent State University 14 miles away from the main campus," he said. "Could there be a little duplication of services there? Maybe?" State Sen. Leigh Herington of Kent disputed charges of unnecessary duplication by KSU. He said if Petro is referring to the nearby branch campuses in Stark and Geauga counties, then Petro should examine those branches. Herington said Petro would find the branches are justified. "You will find those branches are providing educational opportunities that do not exist otherwise in those communities," he said. Enrollment at KSU's seven regional campuses stands at 9,499 students, 31 percent of total enrollment in the university system, according to KSU's 1997 student profile. KSU Stark, the closest branch campus at about 29 miles, has an enrollment of 2,649. Regional campuses do offer services the KSU main campus does not, said Mary Southards, assistant dean of KSU Stark. "Many of our regional campuses offer two-year technical programs that are not offered at the KSU campus, so that's a unique service that allows people to come in, take classes and get back into the workforce," she said, today. "That serves a real need." The lifestyles of many regional-campus students preclude them traveling to main campus to take classes, Southards said. "We're talking about a population at the regional campuses that doesn't fit the profile of an average college student," she said. "It isn't so much distance as it is time. They have jobs, they have family responsibilities. Without access to a regional campus, these people would not go to school." The drive from the Stark campus to Kent takes more than 40 minutes in normal traffic, she said. During the hearing state lawmakers opted to push back their self-imposed Jan. 15 deadline for crafting a budget for the 1998-1999 school year in order to spend more time figuring how to fund education for several years to come. Senate President Richard Finan, R-Cincinnati, said the Senate needs more time to work on House Bill 650, which provides $5.23 billion for primary and secondary education next school year, and will miss the deadline set last June. Finan said senators want to significantly amend the bill to use it as a mechanism to respond to a March 1997 Ohio Supreme Court order. The high court gave the General Assembly until March 24 to come up with a complete overhaul of the public education funding system. "We are working toward a comprehensive solution and we want HB 650 to be the vehicle, and we are just not there yet," he said. Finan said the Ohio House will pass legislation this week moving the deadline back. Lawmakers are working under a more significant deadline of Feb. 4. Many have expressed the need to raise taxes to pay for the new reforms and Feb. 4 is the deadline for legislators to place a tax vote on the May 5 primary ballot. Meanwhile, senators are jockeying for changes in HB 650, which cuts $100 million from other state agency budgets to provide more dollars for schools. Several members of the Senate Finance Committee are upset with the bill's effort to cut $9 million from the state's higher education budget to fund basic education. Herington said he sees the state's higher and basic education systems working cooperatively and that a cut to college education hurts the future of Ohio students. "I truly believe in excepting higher education from budget cuts," he said. Gregory Browning, director of the state Office of Budget and Management, said Gov. George Voinovich's administration is sensitive to cuts to college education. He said the $9 million decrease represents .5 percent of all state funds for colleges and can be painlessly absorbed by the system. Lawmakers will continue working on a school funding plan this week and the Senate Finance Committee will consider changes to the budget bill next week.