Legislative Math Creates Budget Obstacles

One of the obstacles confronting logical higher education funding policy is legislative math.  I’m not talking about the tendency for lawmakers to talk in terms of two-year cuts and one-year tuition increases. I mean confusing net budget cuts for actual budget cuts.

When the legislature wrote the 2009-2011 budget in 2009, it included a cut in state support for CWU of about 30 percent.  The budget also assumed a tuition increase of 28 percent–a 14-percent increase in each year of the biennium–and incorporated federal stimulus funding. This was characterized by budget writers as a cut of only about 6.5 percent.

Total State Reductions to Central for 2009 – 2011 $36.9 million
State funding cut as a % of maintenance-level base 30% cut
   
Add back federal stimulus – $6.9 million $29.9 million
Change from state funds maintenance-level base 24% cut
   
Add increased tuition revenue – est. $17.1 million

(14% across-the-board increase in 2009-10 and 2010-11)

$12.8 million
             Change from state funds maintenance-level base 15.9% cut
The same cut considered as % of all tuition + state revenues 6.5%

CWU’s total budget cut for the 2009-11 biennium as of spring 2009? $36.9 million.  The sum doesn’t include reduced state support for health benefits and pensions and cuts to central service accounts–the funds used to pay other state agencies, such as the auditor.  With the steep drop in state support, the state became a “minority shareholder” in public higher education. For the first time in the history of the state, students would pay more for higher education than the state, about 57 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

The bottom line? Using any math at all, state support for higher education dropped like a rock–and has continued to drop ever since.

Flash forward to the future when many policymakers are asking, “What are you doing with all of that “extra” tuition money?” Huh?

Lawmakers who approved 14-percent tuition increases and perceive our state budget cut to be only 6 percent now suspect universities must have stores of unused tuition.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

In fact, our board of trustees has prepared for the impending budget cuts by requiring the university to establish a 6-percent “rainy day” fund–not just in anticipation of budget cuts but to prepare for any other contingency that might threaten our financial stability from floods and earthquakes to plagues of frogs (ok – probably not that…).

Taking note of this set-aside some policymakers assumed it was “extra” cash, simply sitting unused and unnoticed in a university account. Enter the Senate supplemental budget, which tapped these tuition accounts to backfill state cuts to the Need Grant. In other words, the tuition students paid to a public university backfilled cuts the state made in order to spend Need Grant funds in other budget areas–from parks to prisons.

Suffice to say, Ann, Steve, and university leaders have their work cut out doing what we universities do best–education. The lesson for this month: we have no “extra” funds, but are planning prudently for emergencies that may come our way.

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About Linda Schactler

Linda is the former Director of Communications for the Washington State Senate, and former deputy director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. From 2000 through 2010 Linda was the proprietor of Schactler Communications, an Olympia-based public affairs business. She holds a master of arts in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Linda can be reached at her Ellensburg office schactler@cwu.edu, 509-963-1384, or on her cell phone, 509-607-4103.
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