OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education voted Thursday to ask the state Legislature for $1.22 billion in state appropriations for the next fiscal year, a $145.2 million increase from the current funding for the state's higher education system.

The proposed increase includes $43.1 million to meet ongoing obligations and for new facilities, $52.55 million to hire new faculty, add courses and expand course availability and $19.1 million to reduce the backlog of 347 endowed chairs at 15 state colleges.

Chancellor Glen Johnson said any increase in funding for higher education would provide “a great return on investment,” noting the number of associate and bachelor's degrees conferred by Oklahoma colleges has risen from 19,021 during the 2000-01 school year to 23,689, a 24.5 percent increase. During the same period, enrollment increased by 10 percent, Johnson said.

“Our pitch to the Legislature is going to be … there's not going to be a better return on investment than the investment in higher education,” Johnson said. “In terms of what the Legislature's and the governor's goals are - improving the educational systems, strengthening the economy - we believe our legislative agenda will drive their agenda better than … any other initiative that will be on their plate for discussion.”

Higher education received $1.076 billion in state appropriations during the current fiscal year, after officials had asked the Legislature for $1.19 billion. The previous year, higher education received more than it had asked for.

“The track record of the Legislature shows we've given some nice increases the last several years, even with their ability to raise tuition,” said State Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, the chairman of the House's Education Committee. “I think the Legislature has been very good to higher ed.”

Jones said the Legislature will “look at what the revenue picture will be like next year” and consider the request, although he said “there definitely are other needs as well.”

The Legislature's next regular session will begin in February.

Among the rising costs cited by Johnson are those for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, a scholarship program that offers a tax-supported scholarship to students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year, provided the students meet certain academic and behavioral requirements.

Regents approved a funding estimate of $54 million for OHLAP for the upcoming fiscal year, a number that will be provided to the state Board of Equalization and a $5.9 million increase over current funding.

Last year, legislators approved a measure to provide a permanent funding source for the program. Under the new law, OHLAP funding will be subtracted by the Board of Equalization from the total amount available for appropriation before the Legislature determines the budget.

Higher education officials estimate that about 18,900 students will receive an OHLAP scholarship during the 2008-09 school year, an increase of 1,600 from this year. During the first year of the program, 1996-97, 470 students received OHLAP scholarships.

“It's amazing the appreciation that is out there for this,” regents Chairman Bill Burgess, a Lawton attorney, said of the program. Regent Stuart Price of Tulsa called OHLAP “the G.I. Bill of the 21st century for Oklahoma.”

Johnson said it's also important that the backlog of endowed chairs addressed. He has proposed a $125 million bond issue, of which the $19.1 million would be used to service the debt on the bonds.

“This program has been very successful,” Johnson said. “Because it's been so successful, we have a backlog of between $85 million and $87 million. We've got to clear that out. We've got to match the private donors … so we can get that chair in place and move on.”