Seeking state money for higher education in Illinois used to be somewhat routine.
Colleges, universities and education agencies sent wish lists to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, whose members crunched the numbers and presented them to state legislators. Lawmakers, in turn, provided the funds — usually a sizable chunk of income for the state’s public institutions.
That was before the two-year budget impasse threw that ritual off-kilter. Schools and the state board twice went through the formality of requesting funding from Springfield only to see their funding dissipate during the stalemate.
Now, state education officials are discovering that getting back to normal isn’t so easy.
A rift has emerged as education leaders debate how aggressively to push lawmakers for state aid. At the heart of the issue is how to finance the state’s public universities following two years of almost non-existent state funding.
Presidents of the state’s nine public universities wrote a letter openly opposing the budget that the state higher education board presented at its meeting in December. In unusually blunt terms, the presidents told the board its request to state lawmakers was too conservative and would “place further burdens on public universities” after “two years of financial calamity.”
“The divestment in Illinois public higher education must stop now,” the letter said. “The continued lack of support threatens to further erode confidence in the state and its institutions of higher learning.”
Budget negotiations, some feel, offer a chance for the higher education community to promote its institutions and push lawmakers to make them a fiscal priority.
Some board members supported the presidents’ demand to seek more state dollars while others, including Chairman Tom Cross, feared pressing legislators for more money out of a depleted government may seem tone-deaf and could backfire.
“I think this board needs to maintain its credibility and you lose it if you’re not cognizant of the financial situation of the state of Illinois,” Cross said at the meeting. “We can advocate for universities and also be responsible in your ask.”
The board delayed a planned vote on the budget and discussions continue.
The board’s funding proposal seeks about $3.47 billion for public universities, community colleges, grants and various higher education divisions for 2018-19. It would be a $254 million increase over current funding, according to the board report.
The share for public universities would be a little more than $1.1 billion, a $24.1 million increase from this year.
That isn’t enough for the school presidents. They want the board to request $1.2 billion from the state, matching the allocation for public universities in 2015, the last year there was a budget before the impasse began.
This year’s state allocation is 10 percent less than what schools received in 2015. Righting the ship for public universities should mean returning to the days before the deep cuts from the impasse took hold, the presidents argue.
“The two years of impasse really damaged the image of higher education in the state of Illinois,” Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said. “We’re trying to get back to the image that will keep students in the state and pursue their education at Illinois institutions. The way to do that is to provide stable funding and appropriate funding, and we thought (fiscal year 2015) was the last time that did that.”
Randy Dunn, president of Southern Illinois University with campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville, said one goal of the letter was to show that presidents would more loudly advocate for their schools, just as they called on board members to do.
“I think the presidents through the budget crisis spent maybe too long sitting on our hands, not speaking truth to power about the damage the budget crisis was doing to our institutions,” Dunn said. “I implicate myself in that. I think collectively we don’t want to be seen as sitting on the sidelines as we go into this budget negotiation.”
Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University in University Park, agreed.
“I think it’s hard for the general public to really understand why it is important to invest in public universities,” Maimon said. “So it was really a sense of mission that we had: In every way that we can, we needed to try to get this message out. It isn’t for us; it’s for students and it’s for the state of Illinois.”
Some board members seemed to accede. Cherilyn Murer said she felt Illinois needed to emulate other states that give stronger political and financial support for its public universities.
“The fact is that higher education has to become a significant priority,” said Murer, of Homer Glen. “The legislature is going to do whatever they choose to do and they will cut to whatever level they wish to cut.”
Christine Wiseman also indicated support for the presidents’ position.
“I don’t think we lose credibility by advocating on a principled basis what is necessary for our institutions to do the job they have to do,” said Wiseman, of Palos Heights.
Others shared Cross’s concerns about the viability of state finances. IBHE Executive Director Al Bowman said getting a $254 million increase is far from certain. Some also suggested the board will have to demonstrate how more money will produce better academic and financial performance at its schools.
“If we’re looking for consistency, are we also going to ensure to the state that enrollments will rise, bond ratings will go up, there will be more affordability and there will be more degree completion?” said Sherry Eagle, of Chicago. “The time has passed for asking for dollars and this is what you’re going to get. Assurances are hard to make right now, but so is giving money.”
The financial deficiencies of Illinois public higher education go far beyond the $100 million more the universities want.
The tab on backlogged maintenance on university buildings runs about $5.5 billion, said Nyle Robinson, the board’s deputy director of fiscal affairs and budgeting. Replacing all the state-owned education facilities would cost $26.3 billion, according to a board report.
The proposed budget seeks $1.51 billion in capital investment, as well as $20 million for projects that pose extreme risks to safety and operations if not fixed. The General Assembly has not approved any new capital funding since 2011. Even if the state legislature approved that kind of money, Cross said doling out the funds would be akin to deciding between a school with failing pipes or a school with broken pipes.
“Every year without a capital bill, this just gets worse and worse,” Cross said. “We’re trying to address the most urgent needs on this list.”
The board will convene a special meeting over the next two to three weeks to revisit the budget issue, Cross said. The two sides diverge on strategy and may not concur with the final numbers but both presidents and board members share the same clear goal: avoid another budget crisis at all costs.
“There should be an absolute principle from both parties that there will not be another budget impasse,” said Maimon of Governors State. “If there’s another budget impasse, the reputation of Illinois — I don’t know where it’s going to go.”
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January 15, 2018 at 06:51AM