Officials within Connecticut’s public college and university system warned Monday that a spending plan recently advanced by the state legislature would force layoffs and tuition hikes if it were approved without a boost in higher education funding.
Although the budget plan recommended last week by the Appropriations Committee includes $82 million more for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system than Gov. Ned Lamont’s two-year plan, CSCU officials argued during a morning press conference that it would necessitate dire cuts.
“Students will get far less and they will pay much more,” CSCU President Terrence Cheng said during the event in Hartford’s Legislative Office Building. “The reduction in services will hurt our enrollment. The Board of Regents will need to evaluate which of our institutions and campuses have the resources to sustain these types of cuts and which campuses do not.”
The plan approved by the committee leaves the regional school system about $335 million short of its current services, according to Ben Barnes, CSCU’s chief financial officer. Under a “worst case scenario” plan, Cheng said that funding shortfall would force mitigation strategies including 654 full time staff layoffs and the elimination of 2,914 part time positions.
Meanwhile, the system would attempt to raise nearly $35 million in tuition increases resulting in 10% tuition hikes over two years for community college students and a 5% increase for university students for the 2024-25 academic year.
John Maduko, president of the Connecticut State Community College, said a decrease in support for higher education represented a “deathblow” for the system’s administrators.
“We’re now asking the questions that as leaders, we don’t want to ever ask in higher education, in terms of who stays and who goes, in terms of what services can we maintain and what services have to go,” Maduko said.
Monday’s press conference was the latest in a string of media events by interest groups objecting to the budget proposal drafted by the legislature’s spending committee. Despite a projected budget surplus of roughly $3 billion, the state policymakers are constrained by recently re-approved fiscal guardrails including a spending cap designed to ensure that excess revenues are used to pay down unfunded pension liabilities.
Faculty and staff from the University of Connecticut, which is separate from CSCU, rallied for more funding at the Capitol back in February, after the governor made his budget recommendations.
The governor’s administration has argued that the budget proposal actually represents an increase in baseline higher education funding. That funding has been supplemented in recent years by expiring federal pandemic relief and it is the evaporation of those funds that leaves colleges and universities with a shortfall.
Jeffrey Beckham, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and Lamont’s top budget advisor, issued a statement Monday reiterating that point.
“CSCU’s request for additional funding appears to be based on a belief that one-time federal funding to compensate for COVID-related costs should continue in perpetuity,” Beckham said. “Simply asking for ever-increasing operating subsidies is not sustainable.”
However, Barnes told reporters it was unreasonable to refer to the pandemic funds as “one-time” support because it had been used to fund ongoing costs including wages and benefits for employees under an agreement negotiated with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition.
“They [the legislature] did not fully fund the SEBAC raises. Instead, they gave us one-time funds from [the federal American Rescue Plan Act] and carry forward and other sources and now, pretending that those can just go away without impacting our operation is not realistic,” Barnes said.
Both Democratic co-chairs of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, Sen. Derek Slap and Rep. Greg Haddad, spoke during the press conference about the need for greater investments in the public higher education system.
Haddad, who stayed for questions, said he voted against the Appropriations Committee proposal for the first time in his career on account of the funding levels.
Asked how policymakers could boost that funding given fiscal restraints, Haddad said he was heartened by comments from Democratic legislative leaders, who said last week they would look for ways to bolster support for priorities including higher education.
“That’s a conversation that needs to be serious and it needs to yield results and I hope that’s ultimately where our budget will end up,” Haddad said.
The funding methods contemplated by legislative leaders are likely to meet pushback from the governor, who last week complained of accounting “gimmicks” and “games” included in the legislature’s revenue proposal.
Asked how the legislature could boost CSCU’s funding while complying with fiscal guardrails, Barnes, a former OPM secretary under Gov. Dannel Malloy, declined to offer advice.
“That’s definitely outside of my job description right now,” Barnes said. “I spent enough time in this building and talking to folks in the appropriations business to know that there are ways that they can do it. There’s nobody who has more ability to do what they want than a sovereign legislature in the United States.”