University Presidents Wary Of Rauner Budget Cuts

A woman walks on the U of I campus in Urbana in a February 19th photo.

In this Feb. 19 photo, a woman walks on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. Illinois' public universities are bracing for a 31.5 percent cut in state funding that Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed as he tries to cut the state government's budget deficit.

(AP Photo/David Mercer)

Eastern Illinois University, then Southern, then Western -- each sent a team to a House appropriations committee to defend against the reduction.

Eastern’s president, William Perry, said he could trim his school’s budget by 10 percent. Southern’s president, Randy Dunn, offered five percent. Western’s president, Jack Thomas, said his school had cut to the bone and couldn’t cut any more.

Perry said a proposed 31-percent cut in higher education state funding would do long-term damage to his campus, with the potential for hundreds of layoffs and were too big to be offset by tuition hikes.

“We cannot put it on the backs of students," he said.  "We’ve got to figure out a way to get it done.  There’s a song I remember from the 60’s.  Canned Heat did it. But it’s Wilbur Harrison – originally did it.  And it’s.. ‘Let’s work together.  It’s united we stand, divided we fall, come on people, let’s get on the ball, and work together.”

Randy Dunn, president of SIU, warned lawmakers Thurday that the deep cut Rauner wants would torpedo the governor’s own goal of attracting new businesses to the state.

“We spend a great deal of time talking to very wealthy people -- people who own businesses, run corporations, lead very successful careers guiding this state in its business economy -- i have yet to talk to one of those individuals of pulling back on the higher education system in this state," he said.

House committee chair Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago), challenged the members to make their decisions based on information, rather than along party lines.

“I think it will be very interesting to see how we end up voting on a budget this year, compared to over the last three years, where we had partisan votes here on this committee," he said.  "These universities are not a Republican or Democratic institutions; these are our institutions."

Dunn told the committee that if he relied on students to cover the cuts, tuition would have to double.   

University of Illinois Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr told university trustees at their meeting Urbana Thursday that adjusted for inflation, that 31-percent cut would take state support of the U of I back to 1950s levels.

Student population in the University system is now three times that of six decades ago.

Additionally, Knorr said public universities may have to begin absorbing a greater part of employee expenses, in what's known as a "cost shift."

"I think we have to be wary," he said.  "They are talking about University employers picking up an additional share of healthcare costs. That's going to be in play here this session."

Universities have been told before that they may have to pick up some of the state's pension tab, but that proposal was put on the back burner as the state litigates its pension overhaul law.

Story source: WILL