Western ‘hopeful’ as state budget stalemate drags on

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MACOMB — Western Illinois University administrators remain hopeful as the state budget impasse and resulting impact to public higher education stretches into its 20th month.
Western’s budget director and interim vice president for administrative services, Matt Bierman, said in an interview on Monday with the Voice that Western has the cash flow to get through the spring semester and into the summer.
“We continue to operate,” Bierman said of the university’s financial situation. “We’re managing it, and we keep an eye on it. The semester is going to be fine, and we’re going to get through the semester, and we will continue to re-evaluate and to advocate in Springfield. So cash flow, for the time being, is positive.”
Western’s spring enrollment revenue is what the university anticipated, according to Bierman. Western’s total spring enrollment is 9,469, a decline of 6.2 percent from spring 2015 and a drop in 904 students from the fall 2016 enrollment.
“We’re in the the range of what we had budgeted to receive this year, which is about $69 million overall,” Bierman said of the university’s spring tuition revenue. “We’re going to be within a few percent of that.”
Bierman said of the spring enrollment, “It mirrored what happened in the fall semester, so we expected to be down some. Since we had less students in the fall it made sense that we would have less students here spring to spring. We were hopeful for a little bit more, but it wasn’t something we were too surprised about.”
Western’s president, Jack Thomas, said on Monday the large December 2016 graduating class was partly to blame for the spring enrollment, which dipped from 10,373 in fall 2016. The university graduated 781 students in December.
“When you have that kind of a large graduating class, it’s a good thing,” he said.
“But the other thing is that we have a decrease in the number of high school graduates in our state, and Illinois is the second largest exporter of students.”  
Western currently does not have plans to spend restricted Auxiliary Facilities Systems funds to meet operational expenses during the budget impasse. Restricted AFS funds are collected through residence hall revenue and student fees to support campus facilities built with and maintained by funds from tax-exempt bonding. Using restricted funds would amount to a technical default on the university’s bond payments.
“We don’t plan to dip into the restricted funds,” Thomas said, “and as Matt stated, we’re OK right now. We’re still hopeful we will get a budget coming from the state. We can’t see the state not giving funding for this entire year.”
If the budget impasse continues through the spring semester and into summer, according to Thomas, the university will go back to the drawing board.
“If we don’t, then we have to go back to drawing board and institute some plans, some drastic plans that we do have in place to make sure that we can continue to go on,” Thomas said. “But we’re very hopeful that we don’t have to do that.”
The universits isn’t ready to share those contingency plans, according to Thomas.
“These are just internal plans, they’re not for the public at this moment, “Thomas said. “At that time we would let the public know if we have to deal with that.”
While Western is operating without its full state appropriation, the university has received some funds.
A $600 million budget stopgap measure passed by the Illinois General Assembly in April 2016  resulted in Western receiving $14.9 million in operating funds and $5 million in Monetary Award Program (MAP) funds for students in financial need. A second stopgap measure, passed by legislators on June 30, 2016, gave Western another $31.4 million in operational funds and $5.1 million in MAP funding reimbursement.
Bierman said in a July 1, 2016, interview with the Voice that the June 30 stopgap essentially funded an 18-month budget — the 2016 fiscal year which ended on June 30, 2016, and the first six months of the 2017 fiscal year which started on July 1, 2016.
“To put this in context, if we look at this as an 18-month budget,” Bierman said,”normally we would have received about $77 million during that 18 months. We’ve received $46.3 million. So we’re still short $30 million over the 18 months. So yes, it’s great we got $31.4 million, but we’re short $30 million dollars over an 18 month-period.”
In November 2016, Western received an $8.4 million share of $20 million set aside by the Illinois Board of Higher Education to help universities and community colleges. The $8.4 million paid for a month of payroll at Western, according to Bierman.
Thomas said on Monday the university continues to advocate in Springfield for Western as well as the state’s other public universities and communities. University administrators also continue to meet with local legislators to push for state support of higher education.
Thomas, who was appointed last April to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, spoke at a Feb. 8 higher education funding rally in Springfield and on Feb. 15 delivered a 2017 budget address to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly.
“We have been very vocal,” Thomas said.
“Our government relations person, Jeanette Malafa, was housed in Springfield and has really been vocal. We feel that we are meeting with the key legislators as well as the governor and others, I think that they are hearing us and they have responded and want to help us. But we continue to look forward to a full budget.”
The Illinois Senate on Wednesday tackled a “grand bargain” budget and spent an hour in caucus. Following the caucus, Democratic Senate President John Cullerton announced there would not be a vote Wednesday on the grand bargain. The Senate is set to reconvene at 11: 30 a.m. Thursday.

Reach Lainie Steelman via email at lsteelman@McDonoughVoice.com, or follow her on Twitter@LainieSteelman.

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March 1, 2017 at 11:28PM

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Western ‘hopeful’ as state budget stalemate drags on

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