$3.47 billion requested for state's public universities

$3.47 billion requested for state's public universities

SPRINGFIELD — Bowing to fiscal realities, the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved a state funding request for the state's colleges and universities Tuesday that is $254 million higher than last year's allocation — but still millions below what they received in 2014-15.

The $3.47 billion higher-education budget request — which includes money for public universities, community colleges, Monetary Award Program grants and other programs in 2018-19 — now goes to the governor and Illinois Legislature for their consideration.

Public universities would get just over $1.1 billion, a $24.1 million increase from this year.

But presidents of the state's public universities had petitioned the board for another $100 million to restore their funding to 2014-15 levels, before the two-year state budget impasse. While recognizing the state's financial plight, the presidents' Dec. 11 letter said the recommendations would place more burdens on their schools after a funding cut this year and "two years of financial calamity" before that.

"The two-year budget impasse cost public universities tens of millions of operational dollars, and the lack of capital funding forced institutions to cancel or dramatically cut back on necessary construction and maintenance projects," they wrote, adding that they have also cut expenses while controlling tuition and fees to respond to criticism about rising college costs. "The divestment in Illinois public higher education must stop now."

Executive Director Al Bowman said the board understands the universities' position, and their request is "certainly legitimate," but the board believes that the recommendation "should reflect the state's current financial situation. If we're asking for an extra $254 million, we found it difficult to request an even larger amount, even though the universities need the money."

Under the IBHE's recommendation, the UI system would receive about $596.1 million, including $295.8 million for the Urbana campus. The UI had requested a 16 percent increase, about $98 million, to $681 million. The $583 million it received this year is 10 percent below the 2014-15 level, and it received only a fraction of that in 2016.

SURS: $67 million

UI spokesman Tom Hardy said Tuesday it was disappointing that the IBHE "did not concur with the public universities' recommendation for a reasonable higher education appropriation to return us to the level of funding that preceded the devastating, two-year budget impasse. In the coming legislative session, we will continue to advocate for adequate, reliable funding of public higher education — a critical asset for the welfare and prosperity of Illinois and its people."

Bowman said a major portion of the increase for next year — $100 million — would go to the Monetary Award Program, which provides need-based grants for college students. Currently, the program covers just 41 percent of the students eligible, he said.

Another large chunk, $67 million, would go to the State Universities Retirement System, to meet state obligations for employee pensions. In all, $1.6 billion of the $3.4 billion recommended for higher education next year would go to SURS — nearly half.

"It's a promise that the state made to its employees. The universities will have to learn to live with modest state support going forward. This situation is not going to change," he said.

Altgeld a priority

The board on Tuesday also recommended a $1.925 billion capital budget, including $476 million for "capital renewal" — repairs and renovations — and $1.45 billion for building projects. That includes $1.05 billion for public universities, $430.1 million for the UI system and $195.5 million for the Urbana campus.

Four UI projects, two from Urbana, were included on the IBHE's priority list:

— $43 million toward the $90 million renovation of Altgeld Hall into a new data sciences institute (No. 20).

— A $54 million remodeling of the Main Library at Urbana (No. 10).

— $150 million toward a $200 million renovation of the Advanced Pharmaceutical and Innovation Institute at the UI Chicago (No. 12).

— $58.2 million for a renovation of Brookens Library at the Springfield campus (No. 9).

'Very realistic'

Not on the list was money to replace the century-old Feed Mill just south of the Assembly Hall, where developer Peter Fox would like to build a new ice arena. It was No. 3 on the Urbana campus priority list, officials said.

The IBHE's operating budget request also includes $20 million in emergency capital funding to deal with health and safety projects.

The state hasn't funded a comprehensive capital program since 2010, although some UI projects have received money since then.

Bowman is doubtful legislators will approve a new capital program in an election year, "but we at least wanted the record to reflect what the needs are," he said. "I think after the election that conversation will be very serious."

He is more optimistic about the operating budget request, calling it "very realistic."

"If we can convince legislators and the governor that this is the appropriate budget, I think this will go a long way toward helping families gain confidence in the public higher education system," he said.