Southern Illinois University System President Randy Dunn stated in a letter to the campus community that the university cannot go for another 20 months without additional state support “short of hollowing out the core.”
Campus programs, services, facilities and regional support projects would be significantly affected if the impasse continues without agreement on a full state budget or stopgap appropriations for higher education until sometime after the 2018 election cycle, Dunn said.
Dunn also stated in the letter sent this past Wednesday that the university is shifting its advocacy push in Springfield in light of the fact that it appears talks have broken down in the Senate. What has been touted for weeks as a bipartisan “grand bargain” has thus far proven to be little more than an over-hyped flop.
While holding on to a sliver of hope for a comprehensive budget deal, Dunn said that worst-case scenario planning for the university means pivoting and going back to making “the strongest case possible for continued stopgap appropriations.”
At the same time, that also means considering another round of budget reductions to be implemented by July 1, the brunt of which will hit the Carbondale campus, Dunn said. Aside from the failure for lawmakers and the governor to pass full-year budgets for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the latter of which ends June 30, Dunn also noted that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint calls for cutting higher education by 15 percent, as compared to the last normal funding year for the state, fiscal year 2015.
In his letter, Dunn noted that a few of the less controversial bills associated with the “grand bargain” had passed the Senate on Feb. 28, but then necessary support for the tougher votes evaporated in early March. Senate President John Cullerton declined to call key pieces of legislation for a vote at word that nearly all Republican members had backed out on their support as of March 1, a self-imposed deadline from the GOP caucus.
It’s yet to be seen whether the deal can be revived as lawmakers reconvene this week with a heavy schedule of Appropriations committee meetings.
But Dunn said that it is the prevailing belief around Springfield that such hopes are growing dim.
“For more than a few respected political insiders, the Senate’s bipartisan plan was seen as the last best hope to get a budget deal done — without the stalemate lasting until we get beyond the next statewide general election in November 2018,” he wrote. “I would love to have the pundits be proven wrong and see the Senate reconnoiter over the coming few weeks to still put a budget together for this year.
“Any idea can be resurrected at any time, but at present, no one can identify a Plan B which is out there."
The so-called “grand bargain” was to include an income tax hike, sales tax and gambling expansion, pension reform, a partial property tax freeze and workers’ compensation reform. Republicans and Democrats could not reach accord on these controversial topics.
Short of a deal coming together, Dunn stated that a stopgap budget is the only way to protect SIU. He also noted the reality that a short-term financial lifeline from the state is not a guarantee, though he said it is imperative to protect the university system.
“We cannot allow our standing in the hyper-competitive higher education marketplace to end up junk bond status.”
In his letter, Dunn referred to a Jan. 3 Chicago Tribune article that quoted Rauner as stating he would be open to another stopgap budget only if there is a property tax freeze and term limits enacted. “And those politics will be very tough indeed, so we continue to wait,” Dunn wrote.
On Friday, the newspaper emailed an inquiry to the governor’s press office asking whether Rauner would support a stopgap funding measure for higher education if no budget compromise can be reached, and if so, what requirements, if any, he would attach to support of the aforementioned. A statement was provided via Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, which she said was attributable to Secretary of Education Beth Purvis. The statement provided bypassed the core of the question.
“Higher education has been negatively impacted by the General Assembly’s failure to pass a balanced budget, and this decision underscores the importance and urgent need for the Senate to reach a bipartisan compromise that is good for students, job creators and taxpayers,” Purvis said, in the provided statement.
A follow-up question pushing for more specifics on whether there is a scenario under which the governor’s office would support a stopgap funding measure for higher education if an overall budget compromise is not reached went unanswered.
In addition to higher education leaders continuing to make their case in Springfield, Dunn stated that another thing which must happen is the consideration of another round of budget cuts to be decided “as soon as practicable” and to be put in place by the coming fiscal year on July 1.
Dunn stated the cuts will affect Carbondale to the greatest degree because the Springfield and Edwardsville campuses have already undertaken major budget reviews leading to permanent reductions. As well, financial planning for the Carbondale campus continues into the spring, while the campus additionally must address its structural deficit due to enrollment loss, plus pay back borrowed reserves that have kept operations going through this year, Dunn stated.
Dunn stated he would provide more information in his March 29 “The System Connection” letter to the campus community. “Much of the attention at that time will be given over to sharing the actions that will need to be taken to get SIU Carbondale on a more solid financial footing if we are forced to head into FY18 without any state support.”
Dave Johnson, an associate professor of classics and the president of the SIU Carbondale Faculty Association, sent a letter to the association’s membership on Friday afternoon that addressed Dunn’s sobering note from earlier in the week.
“We are, in short, about to enter a new and more difficult phase in the budget crisis,” Johnson wrote. He continued that the Faculty Association will “continue to insist that cuts are justified by the fiscal situation, and that cuts are made to academics only as a last resort.”
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI