University backers oppose funding cuts

Supporters of the University of Nebraska turned out for a four and a half hour hearing of the Appropriations Committee Feb. 14 to oppose funding cuts.

Under the state budget proposal offered by Gov. Pete Ricketts, the university system would lose $11 million in funding in the current fiscal year and $23 million in FY2018-19. During the agency budget hearing, administrators, alumni, teachers, students, business leaders and others lined up in opposition.

President Hank Bounds said the proposed cuts are on top of the across-the-board reductions already absorbed by the university system along with other state agencies. Nebraska University accounts for roughly 13 percent of state budget, he said, but is being asked to take approximately 34 percent of the total cuts in state spending.

In what he called “a conversation about Nebraska’s future,” Bounds said the university is essential to the state’s ability to grow its way out of the current economic downturn through workforce development, research and educational opportunity. Overall, he said, the university offers the state a return of $6 dollars for every dollar invested in the institution, which he said no other state agency can match.

“In my view, we are at a defining moment and we have a choice to make,” Bounds said. “Are we going to reaffirm the partnership between the state and its public university that has opened the door of opportunity to young people and driven economic growth for almost 150 years, or will you decide that you no longer see the value that the University of Nebraska provides?”

The administration already has outlined potential cuts that Bounds said would impact areas across the university spectrum. Proposed recommendations include eliminating the geography, art history and electronics engineering degree programs in Lincoln, closing the Haskell Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Concord, reducing the dental hygiene program in Gering and Scottsbluff, eliminating some staffing and faculty positions at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and eliminating the men’s baseball, tennis and golf programs at the Kearney campus.

Bounds said the cuts reflect either programs that are considered “low yield” or are a retreat of satellite programs to the university’s main campuses.

“This list I just gave you totals a little more than $9 million,” Bounds said. “We would still have more than $14 million to go and the decisions don’t get any easier. Today, I’m asking you to limit future damage to your university and restore our base funding of $580 million to FY2018-19.”

Among over a dozen student testifiers was Carlo Eby, University of Nebraska at Omaha student body president. As the son and grandson of house painters, Eby said he was one of approximately 44 percent of UNO students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Eby said that as a finance major and fiscal conservative, he understands the need for efficiencies in budgeting. However, he said, the state is in danger of going too far and placing an affordable university education out of reach for students like him. Eby urged senators to consider the impact on other first-generation students.

“They have faces; they have names; they have aspirations,” Eby said. “As their elected representative, it’s hard for me share with them the kind of reductions that are being rolled out. You can see the pain and confusion in students’ eyes as, with each cut, they realize that they are losing another opportunity.”

Tonn Ostergard, chairman and CEO of Crete Carrier Corporation and past chairman of the University of Nebraska Foundation, said the university does not have as much flexibility as the public believes when it comes to funding options.

For example, he said, 99 percent of the funds in the university’s $1.7 billion endowment are restricted and can be used only for specified expenditures.

“It’s not a piggy bank that we can tap into and use,” Ostergard said, adding that successful organizations make strategic investments even during difficult economic times.

Rich Herink, representing the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that the organization supports “less drastic” cuts to the university. The chamber surveys its members each year about their concerns, he said, and last fall 80 percent of respondents listed workforce development as the number one issue facing their businesses and communities.

“That’s the sixth year in a row [that] workforce is the number one issue that’s holding back companies in Nebraska from growing,” Herink said, and university graduates are essential to strengthening that resource.

No one testified in support of the proposed budget cuts and the committee took no immediate action.

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