Budget uncertainty begins anew for universities

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SPRINGFIELD — While students at Illinois’ public universities are busy cramming for final exams, campus leaders are facing tests of their own.

They’re being forced once again to put plans in place for operating without state funding after going nearly the entire 2015-16 school year without receiving any support amid the ongoing budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly.

A six-month spending plan that has kept schools afloat through the fall semester runs out Dec. 31, and there’s no indication that Rauner and top Democrats are anywhere close to reaching a deal on a budget for the rest of the year.

The four top legislative leaders and the governor had been meeting behind closed doors during the Legislature’s fall veto session and afterward, but Rauner canceled a Thursday meeting after House Democrats indicated that they wouldn’t present a budget proposal as the governor had requested. Democrats say it’s the governor’s constitutional obligation to present a budget plan.

As of Friday, there were no more meetings scheduled before the stopgap spending plan runs out.

Lawmakers aren’t due back in Springfield until Jan. 9, leaving only two days of lame-duck session before the new General Assembly is sworn in.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty because we just don’t know when lawmakers are going to come together on an agreement,” said John Charles, executive director for governmental and public affairs at Southern Illinois University. “That creates a lot of angst.”

Illinois State University chief of staff Jay Groves said public universities have been here before.

“This year looks very much like last year,” Groves said, adding that the difference is the money from two funding deals Rauner signed into law this spring and summer.

The six-month spending plan approved June 30 released $1 billion for higher education, including roughly $646 million for operations at the state’s nine public university systems.

Coupled with $350 million in operating money from an emergency funding measure in April, the stopgap brought the schools hit hardest by the impasse — Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois and Chicago State universities — up to 90 percent of what they received for the 2014-15 school year. The remaining universities were brought up to 82 percent funding.

While the stopgap funding could be used for expenses through Dec. 31, universities largely devoted the money to expenses from last school year.

As a result of the lack of funding last year, universities laid off hundreds of employees, left hundreds more vacant positions unfilled and instituted furlough days, among other cost-cutting measures.

Officials were reluctant to discuss what would happen if lawmakers and the governor aren’t able to reach a budget deal until well into the spring.

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“We’ll have to make those decisions at that time,” said Matt Bierman, budget director at Western Illinois. “We are of the belief that we are doing a good job advocating for our needs and that Springfield understands our needs and will react accordingly when the time is right.”

Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Chicago State each recently received a share of $17 million in additional emergency funding from the Illinois Board of High Education.

Bierman said his school will use the $8.4 million it received to cover payroll. Eastern Illinois likewise will use its $5.6 million for payroll and other operating expenses, officials have said.

Like Bierman, Illinois State’s Groves said it’s too early to speculate about what might happen if the budget impasse isn’t resolved soon.

“We are hoping that the General Assembly and the governor … will get together on a predictable and appropriate budget for public higher education,” Groves said.

To that end, the University of Illinois has proposed legislation that would guarantee funding levels for the system’s three campuses for five years in exchange for the university agreeing to a series of performance measures, including enrolling at a minimum number of in-state students. The bill didn’t advance during the fall veto session.

Other university leaders have discussed the concept, which the Board of Higher Education also favors, but they have yet to publicly back it.

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Budget uncertainty begins anew for universities

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