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‘Less money than we need’: NU plans for modest increases in state funds over the next two years

August 4, 2018

LINCOLN — University of Nebraska leaders expressed mild hope Friday through a two-year plan that the state’s financial situation might improve within the next couple of years.

The NU Board of Regents unanimously approved the plan to request increases in state funds — 3 percent in 2019-20 and 3.7 percent in 2020-21.

State funding is critical every year for public colleges and universities, but disappointing state revenues over the past two years in Nebraska have made money tighter than usual. The need for more state money has been a consistent theme over that time for the NU system’s leaders.

The proposed increases refer to the NU system’s operating budget, including salaries, health insurance, general operations and utilities and not construction money. The operating budget typically is made up of state money and tuition revenues.

Chris Kabourek, chief financial officer for NU, said the new two-year request is much lower than usual. Since 2011, those requests have averaged 6 percent annually.

NU President Hank Bounds told the regents that 3 percent and 3.7 percent increases in state money are a reasonable request.

“It meets our minimal needs,” Bounds said.

NU and public higher education in general in Nebraska have faced midyear cuts twice over the past two years, the first of about $13 million for NU, the second about $11 million.

And the NU operating budget for 2018-19 — $574.7 million — is considerably lower than the $583.1 million with which the NU system started 2016-17.

This year the Nebraska Legislature fed more money to higher education than Gov. Pete Ricketts recommended. Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said Friday through an email that “fiscal restraint and property tax relief” are vital to the governor. He will continue to make those aims a priority, Gage said.

Gage gave no indication as to what the governor thought of 3 percent and 3.7 percent increases for the NU system. NU will submit its spending request by mid-September, and the governor will then make a recommendation to the Legislature.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, head of the Appropriations Committee, said in an interview this week that NU’s new request is “a good recognition by the university of the state’s finances.”

Stinner called it a low request and said it’s “something that we can work with. We’ll see what the governor comes up with.”

Bounds told the regents that NU — which includes campuses in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis — has to do “a better job of telling our story.”

As Bounds talked about NU’s history, University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior Cameron Scheele drew clever sketches that were projected onto a screen behind the regents. The sketches included the state, laboratory beakers, a cutworm, the new UNMC cancer center, a baby with a graduation mortar board and other items.

The regents applauded the drawings of Scheele, who is from Norris, Nebraska.

Bounds said the university needs to clearly convey the role it plays in Nebraska agriculture, early childhood education research, national defense, cancer care and research and infectious disease research.

Regent Howard Hawks said he believed Bounds’ state-money request was too modest. “I think we’re in a really difficult circumstance because the president is asking for less money than we need,” Hawks said.

Bounds said NU will have to bring in more money or make more of the budget cuts it has made over a couple of years. He said he can’t predict what NU enrollments will be or how much he will have to pay in salaries to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Nebraska at Kearney. Their faculties are unionized and negotiate raises.

He agreed with Hawks. “What I can predict is this won’t cover our costs.”

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