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BAKER REPORT: The start of the state budget debate

February 20, 2015

On Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner presented state legislators his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016 during his first budget address. While it was not specifically mentioned in the address, the proposed budget includes a significant 31.5 percent reduction in the state’s appropriation for public universities.

For Northern Illinois University, the governor’s proposed budget would mean a $29.2 million reduction in state support, dropping the state’s contribution to NIU’s budget from $93.1 million to $63.8 million.

The financial systems we have put in place over the past year and the significant contingency planning we’ve done in advance of the governor’s budget proposal position us to better deal with the current situation. Still, the dimension of cuts proposed in the governor’s budget are of a magnitude well beyond anything we’ve ever dealt with and would have a serious impact on our ability to deliver on our mission.

I am thankful for the leadership of Nancy Suttenfield, who today concludes her service as interim chief financial officer, in this regard. The work she and her team have done to improve financial transparency, establish guiding principles for budgeting and financial planning and create an infrastructure to bring those principles to life have helped keep NIU affordable for students and families.

We have actively undertaken efforts to hold the line in terms of cost of attendance. Last year, by dropping room rates, NIU was able to hold that cost constant for students this academic year. A streamlined and simplified university pricing structure will result in a drop in cost of attendance this fall.

The governor’s budget proposal and the implications for the financial sustainability of higher education is a reminder of the important work on which we have embarked with the launch of our program prioritization effort. This effort to align our resources with our mission and vision will help ensure that we are delivering the programs that will facilitate the success for our students as well as faculty, staff and stakeholders.

In addition, it is apparent that we need to continue to look for ways to deliver our services in the most efficient manner possible. We will look for the best thinking across our university and in partnership with other schools to discover creative ways of dealing with this challenge. Our objective is to be good stewards of our public funding and to hold ourselves accountable not only to the state, but to our students, parents and other stakeholders. I want to reiterate our commitment to college affordability as we strive to minimize the effects of state reductions on tuition and fees.

The magnitude of the governor’s budget proposal puts stress on our institution and others that ultimately could affect affordability in terms of time to obtain a degree, the number of program offerings available and resources available to deliver these programs. Unfunded state mandates and less-than efficient state purchasing procedures, while well-intentioned, put additional strain on universities like ours.

It is important to note that the governor’s budget proposal reflects the reality of the state’s revenues as they are today, and does not contemplate additional revenue sources or borrowing. Similar to how we are addressing our own university financial situation, the state has to look at both revenues and expenses. Dealing with the state’s $6.2 billion structural deficit is not an easy task, and tough choices will need to be made.

This is just the beginning of a legislative process that will play out over the next few months. During that time, a great deal of discussion and negotiations will occur. In conjunction with our peer institutions and stakeholders, we will continue to make our case to the governor and the state legislature for the value of higher education and what we deliver to the State of Illinois. In late March, we will address the higher education appropriations committee to make our university’s case.

Higher education is critical to our state’s economic prosperity. Budget conversations offer the perfect opportunity to show the impact our institution has made not only in workforce training, but in improving college and career readiness for students through engagement efforts, partnerships with school districts and community colleges and in the state’s research and innovation ecosystem. We look forward to having those discussions about the value we provide to our region and state.

A frequently-asked-questions resource has been developed and will be posted online. We are committed to continuing to be transparent and timely in our communications about the FY 2016 budget and will update our state budget website with appropriate information moving forward.

Together Forward,