Senators reject deeper cuts to University of Nebraska

March 21, 2018, 5:51 a.m. ·

Sen. Steve Erdman advocates deeper university budget cuts (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

The Nebraska Legislature moved slowly toward giving the state budget second-round approval Wednesday, rejecting a proposal for deeper cuts to the University of Nebraska.

The Legislature adopts budgets for two years at a time, with the main work taking place in odd-numbered years. But after the budget was adopted last year, state revenues fell short of projections. So the Appropriations Committee went back in and recommended adjustments to keep the budget in balance and maintain a 2.5 percent budget reserve.

The committee’s recommendation includes cuts to most state agencies of 2 percent in the current fiscal year and 2 percent next year, except for higher education, which would be cut only 1 percent next year. The proposal also uses $100 million from the state’s cash reserve, which contained more than $700 million two years ago, and would be reduced to less than $300 million a year from now.

Sen. Steve Erdman objected to that trend. “We’re taking money from the cash reserve and at some point in time, we’ve got to bite the bullet and make some cuts. And we don’t seem to want to do that. We want to keep taking from the reserve, transferring in, and it doesn’t make any sense,” Erdman said.

Nevertheless, the Legislature gave second-round approval to the cash reserve transfer on a voice vote.

As is often the case, critics of the budget bills were more vocal than supporters. Among those critics was Sen. Tom Briese, who objected that the budget increases state aid to schools, known as TEEOSA, by less than 1 percent. “The obvious, foreseeable and actual result of our failure to increase TEEOSA funding, and the obvious, foreseeable and actual result of passing this budget is a tax increase – a tax increase on our property taxpayers,” Briese said.

Briese is sponsoring a bill, LB1084, that would increase sales and other taxes to increase state aid and reduce property taxes. Sen. Jim Smith, chairman of the Revenue Committee, objected to that proposal, while supporting the budget. “What we’re discussing this morning is not a tax increase. This is a hard-fought effort to produce a very good budget. 1084 is a tax shift. 1084 is a tax increase,” Smith said.

The first major battle over the main budget bill occurred over a proposal by Sen. Steve Erdman to cut an additional $17 million from the University of Nebraska’s budget for next fiscal year. That would have reduced the amount of general fund dollars the university gets from the state to $557 million – the same 4 percent cut proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, as opposed to the 1 percent cut recommended by the Appropriations Committee.

Erdman said the university needed to become more efficient. “For the last seven years, the University of Nebraska has had a 40 percent increase in administrative expenses. At the same time, their student enrollment has gone up just slightly over 6 percent. So we definitely have a problem,” Erdman said.

Senator Lydia Brasch, supporting Erdman, pointed to university documents that actually show administrative expenses increasing from about $35 million in 2011 to $47 million in 2017, a 35 percent increase, while enrollment increased from just over 50,000 to just under 53,000, a 5 percent rise.

Pushing back against further cuts, Sen. Robert Hilkemann defended the increase in administrative expenses. “I don’t regret the University of Nebraska paying money for administrators, because I want them to get the best administrators they can possibly get,” Hilkeman said. “Why has the administrative cost gone up? We have more things that need to be administrated for, for example. We now have a cancer center at UNMC that requires administration that we did not need to have several years ago.”

And Sen. Adam Morfeld argued university budget cuts endanger an important legacy. “We made a commitment over 150 years ago to assure that we had a high-quality university system that was also affordable, “ Morfeld said. “Maintaining an affordable university system -- a key component of that -- is not continuing to cut their budget year after year, or hold it so low that they cannot keep up with inflation and cost of living adjustments.”

Senators voted 32-10 against Erdman’s amendment, leaving the Appropriations Committee recommendation intact. That would give the university $575 million next fiscal year, about $8 million less than the Legislature approved for the university three years ago, before the current round of budget cuts began.

This was the vote on Sen. Erdman's amendment.

Senators then moved on to the contentious issue of budget language that would prevent giving federal Title X family planning funds to organizations, for example Planned Parenthood, that provide or refer for abortions.

As opponents spoke against the proposal, supporters tried to invoke cloture to cut off debate and vote on the budget. That attempt fell three votes short, and the Legislature moved on to other bills, leaving a second round vote on the budget for another day.