Ricketts' proposed university cuts resisted; free speech changes proposed

Feb. 14, 2018, 5:50 a.m. ·

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposals for budget cuts to the University of Nebraska met stiff resistance in a public hearing before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee Wednesday. Meanwhile, a senator wants to modify a proposal dealing with free speech. And Sen. Steve Erdman fought back against criticism by Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Leading off the budget hearing, University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds said there’d never been a more important time for this conversation. “In my view we are at a defining moment in Nebraska’s history, and we have a choice to make. Are we going to reaffirm the partnership between the state and its public that has opened the door of opportunity to young people and driven economic growth for almost 150 years? Or will you decide that you no longer see the value that the University of Nebraska provides?” Bounds asked.

To help close a projected $173 million budget gap, Gov. Pete Ricketts has proposed cutting state aid to the university by $35 million over the current and next fiscal years – that’s 2 percent this year, and 4 percent the next. Bounds asked for no cut the second year, which would keep the appropriation at $580 million. And he recited a long list of programs that would be cut if the governor’s proposal remains in place. Those range from eliminating degrees in geography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to eliminating faculty positions at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, to eliminating men’s baseball, tennis and golf at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. And at the university Medical Center in Omaha, Bounds said, research faculty positions at the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center would be eliminated.

Bounds said Nebraska has the highest age-adjusted cancer rates for men in the United States, and the 14th highest for women. ‘Senators, we have some of the best cancer doctors in the nation right here in Nebraska who are working day and night to find answers to the statistics I just gave. But if we don’t invest, the numbers aren’t going to improve. Meanwhile, more of neighbors, more of our childrens will die from this awful disease,” he said.

That theme was picked up on by Ashli Brehm, who said she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33 in 2015, and cared for at the Medical Center. “This money is more than just a line in the budget. Ask my parents. Ask my husband. Ask my three little boys,” she said.

Bounds was met by largely sympathetic questions from committee members. But Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell wondered about the university’s long term strategy. “I hope that regardless of the outcome of this budget process that the regents, the chancellors and your office are willing to help set a long-term budget strategy, because from my vantage point in this chair, $30 million in increased appropriations year after year to just stand still -- it’s not sustainable. It’s not feasible in our current budget model,” Kuehn said.

Bounds said he didn’t disagree, but the university wasn’t just standing still. And he questioned another strategy that Kuehn has discussed, using the university’s $300 million in cash to ride out the budget difficulties. “I hear people sometimes put out information – ‘Oh, you have all this cash. You can deal with this with cash.’ That’s not true. We do have cash. But not all of it’s fungible. We have cash in our housing enterprise and we have bond covenants that prevent us from spending it on anything other than housing. Parking is the same way. Food service is the same way,” Bounds said.
The committee will now decide how much to propose the university should get, as it crafts its budget recommendation to the full Legislature.

Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Halloran is proposing to change a bill he introduced to promote free speech on campus, after an incident last August in which a conservative activist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was heckled and told to move. Halloran is proposing to replace the specific requirements in his original bill with more general directions. But he says another part of the bill is more important. “What’s left in the bill, which is (the) most important to me in proposing the bill, was some means or measure of having the university respond to the public once a year, keeping track of any infringements on their free speech policies, and how they administer those,” Halloran said.

Halloran says his bill would not have affected the university’s handling of a recent incident involving a student’s white nationalist videos. “To this point, I think they’ve addressed it properly. This individual, although we all disagree with him, and generally we all disagree with what he proselytizes, but he’s free to do it. One thing about freedom of speech, it allows us all to be stupid,” he said.

No one has yet designated Halloran’s bill as a priority, reducing chances it will be debated and passed.

And in legislative debate Wednesday, Sen. Ernie Chambers continued to berate his colleagues for failing to repeal a prairie dog control law he says infringes on property rights. Chambers filibustered a bill by Sen. Dan Hughes, his chief nemesis on the prairie dog law. “Jesus was nice. He said when the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch. What about when the stupid lead the stupid? The ignorant lead the ignorant? An ignorant man led enough of you ignoramuses into keeping that bad law on the books,” Chambers said.

Usually, his colleagues don’t respond to Chambers’ taunts. But Wednesday, Sen. Steve Erdman poked back. “A great philosopher once said ‘When the debate is lost, generally the tool of the loser is slander.’ And so I don’t appreciate being called an idiot or stupid or racist, and you’ve referred to me as racist in the past,” Erdman said.

Chambers continued filibustering until senators voted to shut off debate and advanced Hughes’ bill, dealing with towing abandoned vehicles, on a vote of 45-0.

Editor’s note: By way of full disclosure, NET Television receives some funding from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.