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SPRINGFIELD — University of Illinois President Tim Killeen called investment in higher education "part of the solution" to the state’s well-documented fiscal issues during its annual lobby day Wednesday at the state Capitol.

Killeen, who is scheduled to address a Senate appropriations committee today, spoke with reporters about the university's $600 million operating budget request and $700 million capital-projects request.

"We're looking for a state budget that will take us back close to the 2015 fiscal year levels," Killeen said, adding that the $600 million would be a 16 percent increase over last year's funding.

He called fiscal 2016 — the costliest year in a multiyear state budget impasse under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — the "year that never happened," noting the university system saw a $400 million funding cut then.

Funding is "nowhere near where it was in the early 2000s at the turn of the century," Killeen said. "We're looking to get back to, I would say, normal, in terms of the state's support for higher ed."

Still, the UI came out stronger than most state schools in that span, Killeen said. The university system's 86,000 students across three campuses represent "significant growth" from before the impasse, and he said the increased funding would help add professors to accommodate the growth.

Despite the impasse, Killeen said, the university has frozen tuition rates the past five years in an effort to keep education affordable and accessible.

While the $600 million request would serve operational purposes and allow the university to focus on affordability, Killeen said, the $700 million capital request would fund just part of the UI system's $2.4 billion in deferred maintenance costs at state-owned facilities.

Those costs have grown for more than a decade, as Illinois has not had a capital projects bill since 2010. Lawmakers have been discussing avenues such as gas tax increases to help fund maintenance to roads, bridges and state-owned buildings, including those for universities and colleges.

Killeen said that while the UI requests seem large, investment in state colleges and universities is a way to combat fiscal issues — not to exacerbate them.

"We recognize that the state still has fiscal issues. We believe that we're part of the solution, not part of the underlying problem," he said. "In fact, the way you grow a tax base is by keeping people in our state, keeping talent, keeping high school graduates, and we're the biggest asset, I believe, to make that happen."

According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, 48.4 percent of Illinois public high school graduates who enrolled in four-year universities in 2017 left the state to attend college. Killeen said the UI was fighting against that trend, as evidenced by higher enrollment numbers, and college affordability in the state is essential to counteract the trend.

"When we survey students who are accepted to the U of I but didn't come, we ask them why," he said. "It's usually financial consideration. That's why the state funding is incredibly important to address this issue of loss of talent. And when a high school graduate leaves to go to college elsewhere, it's unlikely that they come back to contribute to the tax base."

Killeen said the UI has a "very rich innovation agenda" to provide more opportunities for student internships, job offers, opportunities to start small companies and more.

"So this is what a state needs to do to prosper in the 21st century," Killeen said. "Illinois (has) all of these assets; we're a big asset among that, we like to think. We need the appropriate level of support to really succeed on all of these fronts to make it truly prosper."

Capitol News Illinois is a newly created nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. Its mission is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.