Budget Negotiators Should Recognize Higher Education Needs

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine
Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman.

It’s that time of year again in Sacramento as the temperature begins to heat up along with the business of putting together the 2015-16 State Budget. This week, Governor Brown will lay out his revised Budget blueprint based on up-dated revenue results and projections. That’s when the real deliberations can begin.

The Budget plan unveiled by the Governor in January, in accordance with legal requirements, is something of a straw man. As usual with Jerry Brown, revenue estimates in the January plan were conservative, to say the least. The Governor is generally not a big spender and does everything he can to keep money off the table and expectations low , as interest groups and constituencies line up to plead for their share of General Fund dollars.  

One area that fell short in the January budget proposal is higher education, specifically the University of California and the California State University system.   That plan provides about $100 million each for UC and CSU in already pledged dollars that had been contingent on passage of Proposition 30—the Governor’s temporary tax increase initiative. This proposal leaves an almost $100 million dollar hole in the CSU 2015-16. It also makes the UC dollars contingent on a roll back in UC tuition hikes proposed in the event that the State doesn’t come up with adequate funding. Hopefully, the May revise will correct those deficiencies.

It is no secret that past fiscal crises in Sacramento hit the public higher education system hard. The State is paying far less of a share for UC and CSU than it did two decades ago. One consequence of that drop in State support has been sharp increases in tuition and fees for both systems. There is no question that students and their families are shouldering a bigger burden than they have in the past. Our public higher education institutions have learned how to do more with less and both UC and CSU are spending less per graduate than they have in the past. That said, there are clear signs that our public four-year campuses are feeling the pinch. Some of the best educators and researchers are being lured away in the wake of fiscal uncertainties at California schools. It is becoming more difficult to recruit the best and brightest faculty. Students are finding it more difficult to find the classes they need, while thousands of qualified applicants are being turned away.

The State can afford to kick in more.   State revenues for the first quarter of this year were $1.3 billion above projections. Assembly Speaker had predicted that 2014-15 revenue may come in as much as $8 billion above the amount budgeted. Sure, K-12 and community colleges are entitled to the lion’s share of those dollars—not necessarily a bad thing—and paying down past debts is worthwhile, but there should be room to kick in an additional $100 million each for UC and CSU.

It is no secret that California’s higher education system is the spark plug for the state’s economy. Our workforce needs an additional one to two million college graduates in the next decade. Every State dollar invested in higher education produces many times that amount in economic productivity and increased revenue to the State.

Reports are that legislative Democrats have put additional funding for UC and CSU on their priority list for discussions with the Governor. That is a good thing. Hopefully, there will be a meeting of the minds that recognizes the need to adequately fund these indispensable institutions.

Whether or not the next revision of Governor Brown’s proposed budget adequately address these critical concerns, it is vital that they be addressed in the final State Budget for 2015016, Let the negotiations begin.

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman. Please visit yestohighered.org

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