Money is tight at the Legislature this year, amid forecasts that tax receipts will continue to fall short of expectations.
If lawmakers can shake the couch cushions at the State Capitol to find $5 million in the nearly $4.6 billion proposed budget by Gov. Pete Ricketts, though, diverting it to the University of Nebraska – which has endured more than its fair share of cuts recently – would pay off in the long run.
Make no mistake: Ricketts’ proposed budget offered a major boost to the university system. His initial suggestion to bring NU’s annual state appropriation to $609 million by the end of the biennium next marks a significant improvement after three rounds of cuts in the previous two years.
But, if at all possible, lawmakers should find a way to close the gap between his suggestion and the university’s funding request, roughly $614 million in FY2021.
The difference between the two is $5 million. As the Journal Star editorial board wrote last August, the university submitted a “modest, responsible” number that should be met. While the proposed figure would address increased wages and benefit for staff, by far NU’s largest expense, President Hank Bounds stated in January that it wouldn’t fully close a $55 million recurring budget gap.
State appropriations haven’t kept up with current economic trends. The last two years, for instance, have seen funding below FY2017. In that time, the university has undergone three rounds of budget cuts – ranging from academic and athletic programs to research efforts – while raising tuition.
The university also dipped into its reserves to keep operations running as smoothly as possible, falling to 173 days of cash on hand – well beneath the Big Ten Conference average of 273 days. Fortunately, Bounds didn’t have to use the emergency power approved by the Board of Regents to unilaterally raise tuition midyear.
That path was not sustainable. Nor was it a sign of a state adequately funding higher education – particularly in as it experiences a workforce shortage.
The last thing Nebraska needs is college to be less attainable. Though tuition at NU compares favorably with its Big Ten peer institutions, many Nebraskans remain priced out of higher education – with the competition steep to keep students needed to fill many in-demand, high-skill jobs in the state.
Again, the governor deserves credit for recognizing this. Part of the funding boost he’s proposed included creating Nebraska Talent Scholarships – which also encompasses the Nebraska State College System and community colleges – for areas of study needed within the state.
For the first time in several years, Nebraska is having the right conversation about funding its public universities: “How much do we need to spend to reach our goals?” rather than “How much do we need to cut?”
Our answer to that first question would be for senators to find $5 million to fully fund NU’s request.