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NU budget hearing

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds testifies before the Legislature's Appropriations Committee in 2018.

In an ideal budget, the University of Nebraska would be able to keep tuition costs low, offer more in scholarship money to the state's top students, and catch up to competitors in terms of faculty compensation.

But in reality, NU President Hank Bounds told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee during a marathon hearing Monday, the university is seeking enough in state funding to simply get by.

NU's two-year budget request would increase state funding for operations by 3 percent and 3.7 percent in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 years, respectively, to pay for wage increases for faculty and staff, higher utility costs and inflationary expenses.

Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed a 2.6 percent increase — or $15 million — in the first year of the biennium, followed by a 6 percent — roughly $34.5 million — increase in the second, bringing NU's total state appropriation to $609 million.

The committee's initial budget reflects that of the governor, marking an amount Bounds commented was an improvement over the budget cuts NU endured over the last two years, but one that falls short of meeting the university's needs.

"We are not as competitive as we could or should be," Bounds told the committee, adding the "minimal request" was calculated by determining what it would take to pay NU's employees and keep buildings open without shifting too much of the burden onto students and their families through large tuition increases.

Much of Bounds' interactions with the committee focused on what funding level NU would need to become more competitive with other universities.

Nebraska doesn't appropriate funds for student financial aid, Bounds said, which creates an environment where the top high school students in the state often pursue educational opportunities in places where they are offered more in scholarship money.

The recent slate of budget cuts has also made top administrators and faculty hesitant to take a job at NU, he said: "Faculty have choices, and sometimes they vote with their pocketbook."

Still, he added, NU was committed to educating and training students in order to meet workforce needs, filling the 35,000 openings of what he called high-skill, high-demand, high-wage jobs in the state.

University of Nebraska Medical Center student Regent Sarah Hotovy told the committee an investment in the university was "an investment in the young people of this state, rural and urban, from all walks of life."

"Keeping tuition affordable sends a clear message to young Nebraskans that their energies and talents are needed and welcomed in this state," she said. "We can't afford to have the best and brightest Nebraskans lured out of our state because of the cost of education."

Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln said NU's request was "a great investment." While it was not the kind of growth budget the university hoped to discuss with lawmakers, it would keep tuition increases small.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz asked Bounds what the university would look like if the Legislature was able to appropriate more in state funding than what the institution needs to get by.

"What we haven't had an opportunity to talk about is the opportunity cost of not investing in proactive things the university could otherwise invest in," Bolz said.

If given the chance, Bounds said he would funnel additional state dollars into engineering and information technology programs, ensure first-generation students had the support needed to succeed in college, build new facilities or renovate existing buildings.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said state lawmakers and university leaders need to start thinking about the future and begin infusing policy discussions with "some visionary aspects."

"We spend way too much time in this Legislature talking about the past. We spend a lot of time putting out fires and too small a portion of our time really aspirationally looking to the future and what we want to do and what we want to be," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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