Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lawmakers want say in university budgets

By Lauren N. Johnson

While the presidents of several of Illinois' public universities are predicting tuition increases, which they say result from a lack of state funding, some lawmakers are proposing that the General Assembly exert more control over the budgets of the state’s institutions of higher education.

Currently, universities set their own tuition rates and fees. However, Senate Republicans suggested as part of their recently unveiled budget plan that lawmakers should have some say in how the universities spend the money they collect from students. Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said legislators should consider capping how much tuition revenue public universities can spend each year.

“Families going to these universities are making cutbacks at home, and they are being asked to pay higher and higher tuition,” Murphy said. He emphasized that it would be important to place the cap in the least harmful way to universities. Republicans also project $200 million in savings from a proposal elimination of half of university tuition waivers and say such savings could reduce what they characterize as runaway tuition increases.

Tom Hardy, spokesman for the University of Illinois, said if the Republican plan were approved, some academic programs might have to be cut completely. “We’re going to lose ground,” Hardy said. University employees have not had a general salary increase since 2008, according to Hardy.

The proposal has not been introduced as legislation, but the Republican budget plan says lawmakers and university officials should begin a “conversation” about the issue.

Another measure, Senate Bill 135, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval, would strip power from university trustees to determine tuition rates and fees.

Under that legislation, Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University and the University of Illinois would need to seek approval from the legislature before raising the cost for students above the current rate.

Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the legislature would continue to work with the trustees and their respective university presidents. Lauzen said involving lawmakers in the public universities’ budgeting processes “would be some kind of accountability, some kind of checks and balances, on their power to spend that money that comes from the income fund, which is tuition.”

However, Sen. Ed Maloney, a Chicago Democrat and chair of his chamber's Higher Education Committee, said, “Clearly the only relief that universities have is increases in tuition, given the fact that there has been really no additional funding from the state.” He added that the biggest impact on public university systems would be “the unknown.”

Maloney introduced Senate Bill 1773, which would set up a process for performance-based funding of universities starting in 2013. The bill passed out of a Senate committee on March 15.

Dave Gross, a spokeperson for Southern Illinois University, said the state owes SIU about $140 million in unpaid bills, noting that if control over the income fund is taken away, universities could fail to make payroll, and layoffs would likely occur. “We’re taking those tuition dollars while we wait for the state to pay us. We’re floating in the state’s inability to balance its own budget,” Gross said. The state owes the other public universities hundreds of millions of dollars, as well.

Hardy said, “[University budgeting has] been pretty effective the way it’s been working for the past 15 years. …When we see the way it’s done in other states, the biggest factor of tuition increases is the spiraling decline in state support of higher education.”

In New York, tuition revenues from the 64-campus State University of New York system go directly to the state, and the legislature then doles out amounts of that revenue to go to each campus. That practice has become a point of controversy because New York's public university system suffered faculty losses and a $640 million cut from its budget last year. Soon after that cut, George Philip, president of the Albany campus, suspended five humanities programs as result of budget shortfalls.

Murphy said, however, that under the Republican plan, tuition dollars would not be lumped into the general revenue fund and could not be diverted to other state costs. Instead, lawmakers would only have the power to limit how much tuition revenue universities could spend.

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