Thursday, March 21, 2013

Universities ask legislators to restore Quinn's proposed cuts

By Meredith Colias

The presidents of four of Illinois' public universities testified today before the Senate Appropriations Committee, hoping to avoid Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed budget cuts for higher education.

The universities said they were operating with growths in enrollment over the past decade, growing costs for employee health care and millions in deferred maintenance, all while facing cuts and delayed payments from the state. In his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2014, Quinn proposed to further cut 4.9% in state funding for higher education. Al Bowman, president of Illinois State University, said reduced state funding had a direct impact on ISU and the ability of many students seeking a college education. “The impact on affordability is certainly something that we can’t ignore,” he said. He said more money is needed to provide some salary increases and maintenance updates.

The state has only paid about 20 percent of what it owes to public universities at this point, three months from the end of the current fiscal year. Even though the payments are slow coming, Bowman said the payment schedule is predictable and “something we’re able to deal with.”

Recently, Moody’s bond rating agency revised credit ratings for some state universities, including the University of Illinois, the state's largest university system, citing debt concerns and reliance on state funds for their operating budgets.

The U of I, with campuses in Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Springfield, estimated it would lose $32 million in the next fiscal year under Quinn’s budget. University President Robert Easter said the U of I is still waiting on $480 million in late payments. He said the university hopes to receive flat funding this year instead of the cut in Quinn’s proposed budget.

 Several committee members pushed back against some salaries at U of I, noting the university budgeted for a $1.1 million total salary increase for its top 10 officials. “The increase in that could probably pay for three additional faculty members,” said Sen. Michael Hastings, an Orland Hills Democrat. Easter said some of the increased salaries were for medical faculty who are also being compensated for their work in medical facilities. Some of the employees who received raises, including Easter, had moved from temporary status to permanent employment.

Easter said after the committee meeting that the U of I is left to figure out how to continue research and provide quality faculty with a reduction in state funds. The university has had to raise tuition, delay building maintenance and increase class sizes, he said. “Every one of these requires us to recalibrate.”

Governors State University asked lawmakers for additional funding beyond the $24.6 million it received this fiscal year. The university wants $2.5 million for a new building that would house classrooms. However, President Elaine Maimon said administrators would be glad just to avoid Quinn’s proposed reduction. “We requested a modest increase in the budget because we need it. However, we would be really pleased with a flat budget,” she told committee members. She said the school limited the freshman class that they plan to admit in 2014 and would like to be able to expand admission in the future. “Even with all we are doing to increase enrollment ... we really believe that if you could give us a flat budget, we could manage all of this and make the state proud of us."

 The president of Southern Illinois University, Glenn Poshard, said his university needed to continue to be able to provide a college education to students from more impoverished areas of the state. He spoke of the growing difficulty for families in southern Illinois to send their kids to college, due in part to the historic rise in tuition rates.

Poshard said regional disparities in income and K-12 education leave many students not as academically prepared to attend college or as financially stable as students from more affluent areas. “The other Illinois struggles to make ends meet,” Poshard said. “Illinois’ prosperity here is uneven and declining.”

He said for an average family in southern Illinois, the cost of in-state tuition for a single student was about half of the family’s annual income. The affordability gap “risks pricing students out of post-secondary education,” he said. SIU expects to see a $10 million decline in funds from the state in the next fiscal year. Poshard said the state has paid about 21 percent, or $42.8 million, of the $204 million it owes the university the current fiscal year.

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