Universities could see funding restored in Illinois Senate budget deal

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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ public universities would see state funding restored to the level it was before the start of the ongoing budget impasse under a bipartisan “grand bargain” being considered in the state Senate.

While university officials welcome the prospect of additional funding, they said it’s important for the public to understand that the Senate proposal would still represent a funding cut over a two-year period.

The state’s nine public university systems have been funded through a series of emergency and stopgap spending measures since the 2014-15 school year ended and the standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly began. As a result, some schools, including Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois universities, have laid off hundreds of employees, and others have frozen hiring and made additional spending cuts.

The Senate package, which also includes tax increases, gambling expansion, pension reforms and a host of other issues, would allocate an additional $1.1 billion in the current year for higher education. That includes money for universities, community colleges and grants to low-income students through the Monetary Award Program.

Combined with nearly $1 billion for higher education that was included in a stopgap spending deal approved in June, the Senate plan would restore university funding for this year to where it was in the 2014-15 school year. Schools currently aren’t receiving any state funds because the stopgap deal expired after Dec. 31.

The various components of the package, cobbled together by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, are scheduled for committee hearings beginning Tuesday.

“Anything that gets us more money, we’re certainly supportive,” said John Charles, executive director for governmental and public affairs at Southern Illinois University.

Under the Senate’s proposal, Southern Illinois would receive $93.4 million on top of the $106.2 million it received from the June stopgap spending plan. But the university, like others across the state, used the stopgap money to pay for expenses from the 2015-16 school year, during which it received only $57.5 million from an emergency funding measure approved in April.

In effect, Charles said, because the June stopgap money was used for last year’s expenses, the $93.4 million from the Senate plan would be the university’s only state funding for the current year, compared with $199.6 million for the 2014-15 school year.

However, the university supports the plan, Charles said. If it’s approved, Southern Illinois will get through the rest of the year by continuing a hiring freeze and spending cuts at its campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville and medical school in Springfield, he said.

Eastern Illinois Treasurer Paul McCann likewise said the university would be grateful to receive any state funding.

“We have done the things that we need to do to make the university viable, and so we are appreciative of anything they can do for us,” he said.

Eastern Illinois, which has laid off more than 400 people in the past two years, would receive $11.2 million in additional funding under the Senate plan.

That’s on top of $26.2 million it received from the June stopgap and $12.5 million from the April funding measure, which were used for expenses from last school year.

The university received another $5.6 million in emergency funding that the Illinois Board of Higher Education doled out in November. It put that money toward payroll and other expenses from the current year.

Meanwhile, Western Illinois would receive $11.7 million under the Senate plan. It received $31.4 million from the June stopgap, $14.9 million from the April measure and $8.4 million from the Board of Higher Education’s November allotment.

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Matt Bierman, the university’s budget director, said the Senate proposal is a good first step toward bringing back appropriate state funding levels for higher education.

“We take (it) as a really good sign, as recognition that the universities have unfortunately been collateral damage in this budget process,” he said.

Bierman said that although the new funding would make a difference, the university wants to remind legislators that the lack of full funding for last school year “took a toll on the universities.”

Western Illinois laid off nearly 150 employees last school year.

Illinois State University is in a stronger financial position than some other universities, chief of staff Jay Groves said, but the lack of consistent funding has been a problem for the entire public higher education system.

Illinois State would receive $33.9 million under the Senate plan on top of $38.3 million from the June stopgap and $20.9 million from the April measure.

“It’s important and significant that they are having productive discussions about a full budget,” Groves said.

Even if the proposal is approved, schools “will still have some financial difficulty that we will have to address,” he said.

“We certainly look forward to a solution on predictable and stable funding for public higher education going forward,” Groves said.

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Universities could see funding restored in Illinois Senate budget deal

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