It’s not every day you see a protest targeting government officials that features some of those same government officials as podium speakers.
That’s what we saw Wednesday as about 700 UConn students, faculty and staff arrived at Capitol Hill, many on buses, to rally for lawmakers to reverse what they called spending cuts in Governor Ned Lamont’s proposed spending for the two years beginning July 1. The scene told us a lot about the University of Connecticut’s special place in the legislature and what we can expect to see as the budget comes together.
Among the speakers: Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Willimantic, and Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield. Both of their districts include all or part of the main UConn campus in Storrs, both graduate from UConn, both strongly support full university funding.
And they happen to be the co-chairs of the subcommittee that oversees higher education spending.
Another oddity in this UConn spending debate: Lamont says he’s adding money, not cutting, in what he calls record state spending. UConn, led by its new president, Radenka Maric, says Lamont is leaving the institution $160 million less than it needs in the next two years and nearly $200 million less than it received for the current two-year cycle.
Which side you believe depends on how you count. Not to worry, though: a fairly obvious solution emerged in the back-and-forth of a budget hearing that followed the rally on Wednesday afternoon.
I’ve covered a lot of flaps on public funding; I even wrote a chapter in a textbook about it years ago. I don’t remember a time when the two sides disagreed on whether the proposal on the table was positive or negative.
At the rally and hearing, looking past a physics professor and his baby with a sign, marching band, and dogs wearing UConn attire, we heard all the ways UConn promotes a state trying to be a better place — in terms of social equity, economy, liveliness and culture. For example, the university spun off $5.3 billion worth of dollars annually to the state economy and supported 26,000 jobs as of 2018, according to a 2019 study, conducted by, well, UConn.
And, as Maric has repeatedly stated, 70 percent of students are from the state and 77 percent of graduates stay in Connecticut after taking off their cap and gown.
“We are the only top university in the state,” Maric told lawmakers. “That means we’re accessible and affordable for Connecticut citizens.”
A compromise plan
Clearly, this fight for money isn’t just about money. He talks about a university and state with high aspirations and a governor who shares those dreams, but with the pragmatic pull of reality tugging at his pants.
“If inclusive opportunity and financial growth are truly a priority for the governor, the health and competitiveness of Connecticut’s higher education institutions should be a cornerstone of the budget, not an afterthought,” said Susan Tilbury, graduate assistant and doctoral student. testimony to the General Assembly Appropriations Committee for the hearing. “Education and research programs for the next generation of workers and innovators are critical to Connecticut’s financial future.”
Maric and others at UConn noted the 8,600 first-generation undergraduates at the university; tech spin-offs that are finally starting to show solid results; UConn’s reach for small businesses; the powerful presence of UConn Health; and the ways UConn helps address global crises such as climate change and human rights violations.
The problem exploded beyond UConn as groups like Recovery for All embraced support for higher education as an engine of racial and economic equity. Among those testifying for UConn: the head of the state’s Communist Party.
It’s hard to find anyone who disagrees with all of these big ideas, certainly not Lamont or his budget boss, Jeff Beckham.
UConn has had to cut back on spending in recent years. Flexer noted that the state’s contribution to UConn’s overall spending has shrunk from 50% to 26% and is declining. In fact, Flexer had hoped this was the year the state would begin to reverse that downward trend, with a projected state surplus of $3.2 billion and all.
So here’s the compromise plan: Give UConn more money than Lamont suggested; we all know lawmakers will do it anyway. But the state should require Maric and his chief financial officer, Jeffrey Geoghegan, to present a formal, strategic cost-cutting plan, not to cut schedules but to do things more efficiently.
Maric and Geoghegan both spoke about ongoing efforts to save money as lawmakers asked questions.
“We looked at what areas we can combine to control our spending,” Maric, an engineer with patents in the energy field, told lawmakers. he said. “We’re looking at how we can leverage, we’re looking at accountability … But at this scale it can’t be done overnight.”
What the money says
Does Lamont’s spending plan for UConn in the two years starting July 1 actually cut resources? The numbers tell two stories.
UConn’s two-year basic allocations have grown steadily from $613 million in fiscal 2018 to $753 million in 2022 to Lamont’s proposed $776 million over the next two fiscal years. Additionally, UConn received awards from recent state budget surpluses and more than $200 million in federal pandemic funds, bringing the total to $1.08 billion in the two years ending June 30.
Lamont wants to throw another $110 million in pandemic money to UConn over the next two years. But that still leaves the university $195 million short of where it is in the current two-year cycle.
Beckham, Lamont’s budget chief, is quick to point out that everyone knew that excess cash and federal pandemic aid money were one-time deals, to be used for non-recurring expenses during the crisis.
“They need to get back to regular operations which they should be able to fund from our regular baseline allocation,” he told me on Tuesday. “If they can’t do that, that’s at least circumstantial evidence that they’ve built the one-time revenue into ongoing expenses, they’ve built it into the basis of their budget, which is not a fiscally prudent thing for anyone to do. “
The grants are in addition to approximately $200 million in debt service paid by state taxpayers for construction over the years, which has radically reshaped Storrs and other campuses.
“Governor Lamont is a strong believer in UConn’s contributions to Connecticut’s economic growth, which is why he has proposed increasing state funding for the university every year since he took office,” Lamont spokesman Adam said Tuesday. Joseph in an email.
I’ll detail one other twist here among many: UConn was expected to pay about $108 million in the next fiscal year in retirement and health care costs, its share of Connecticut’s albatross of liability. He wanted to get out of that stranglehold to help researchers get grants from funders who don’t like to see their dollars go towards such expenses.
Lamont and Beckham, in response, restructured health care and retirement costs in a way that also left UConn where it was, trading some expenses in and out. Even the money is hardly the real relief UConn was hoping to see. Impractical, Maric declared.
UConn says it needs the extra cash for regular operations in part to pay for rising costs like salaries, which Lamont negotiated, and post-pandemic student services. Without it, UConn officials will argue on Wednesday, the university would have to dramatically raise tuition fees — at least $3,000 a year in Storrs — or hold larger classes and offer fewer of those amenities.
Nobody needs to talk about deep cuts; just a little more careful shopping. Susan Tilbury, that PhD candidate and assistant graduate, wrote: “I quit my job in 2021 (at the age of 51) and moved here from Kansas to attend one of the most innovative and unique PhD programs offered to UConn. The funding cut could make it impossible for me to continue my research to develop new interventions to promote human resilience.”
Resilience seems appropriate. We’re not sending Tilbury to Kansas.