Parameters of the budget discussions will be set this week.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn presents his budget address Wednesday, Feb. 16, and is expected to identify cuts that have already been made, debts that must be paid and the need for bonding in order to expedite those payments to vendors. The size of current obligations range from $8 billion to an estimate of more than $15 billion, and this does not include the total underfunded state pension obligations.
The legislature and past administrations have postponed the inevitable, pushing the actuarial scale of funding far into the future.
The failure of state government to balance its books, as required by the Illinois constitution, is not a new revelation. Neither is the legislative attempt to regulate entities that have been taking the steps necessary to conduct business in an environment of declining funding. That includes Illinois public universities.
Several pieces of legislation are posted for hearing this week in the Senate Higher Education Committee.
They include SB114, which would freeze all tuition and fees at last year’s rates, and ignores the “truth in tuition” provisions that cause any increases to be spread over a four year (or more) period. SB135 would give the General Assembly the power to set tuition and fee rates. This proposed legislation would set up a statutory conflict with the university Board of Trustees authority.
Currently, the legislature reviews university budgets in detail during the appropriation process. Line-by-line revenue and spending is provided to caucus staff, university officials appear at committee hearings, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education acts in a coordinating role to establish guidelines and recommendations.
The percentage of public funding for higher education has consistently decreased over the decade, yet the universities have taken the steps necessary to balance their budgets and maintain safe campuses, and they have exhausted resources in order to maintain critical infrastructure. The executive and legislative branches of government, having postponed necessary action during that time frame, run up multi-billion dollar deficits and added unfunded mandates to those institutions, now will consider action to dictate how to run those operations.
The week should be an interesting one, but it marks only the beginning of the legislative and budget process.
This is also the week that Sen. Christine Johnson takes over the 35th District representation from Brad Burzynski. The NIU community appreciates the efforts that Sen. Burzynski has ably performed during his 20-plus-year tenure, and we look forward to working with Sen. Johnson in the challenges ahead.
Ken Zehnder is director of state and local relations for NIU.