UNO’s final budget forum highlights hurdles

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By Emily Johnson

In the university’s final budget forum of the academic year on May 5, UNO Chancellor John Christensen, Senior Vice Chancellor Terry Hynes and Vice Chancellor Bill Conley provided the UNO community with updates about current budget issues as well as future plans to cut costs and avoid future shortfalls. “These forums have provided important input,” Christensen said in a press release. “While we all know the current and future budgets are challenging, the UNO community has been measured, thoughtful and involved. I know we can overcome these short-term issues and become an even stronger institution.”

The forum was open to the public and took place in the Milo Bail Student Center Ballroom at 2 p.m. Director of the School of Public Administration John Bartle moderated the forum while members of UNO Student Government helped to conduct a question and answer session at the end of the panel’s presentation.

Conley said a 1.34 percent increase in faculty salaries and benefits, new campus building projects and UNO’s share of the University’s shortfall will lead too an estimated shortfall of $2.7 million for the 2010-11 academic year, assuming a 5 percent tuition rate increase and no wage increase for non-faculty. This, however, isn’t set in stone.

“We’ve told you before and we’re still telling you, we don’t know what tuition rate increases will be for next year,” Conley said.

UNO has take actions to avoid this, he said, such as merging its Information Technology and Telecom departments, consolidating Nebraska Business Development Center sites in Mammel Hall, revamping the parking contract with Crossroads and eliminating unfilled faculty/staff positions. Multiple budget principles have been constructed to continue cutting costs and curtail the effect on students.

On June 4, University of Nebraska President James Milliken announced the 2010-2011 budget, which, in spite of attempts to curb tuition increases, included a 6 percent tuition hike. For resident undergraduates enrolled in 15 credit hours per semester, it will mean a $135 to $170 jump per semester, depending on the campus they are enrolled at.

At the May 5 budget forum, Christensen said he plans to increase revenue by recruiting and retaining more students, increasing productivity and find more outlets for external funding.

“We need to be sure that this effort with the legislature is coordinated,” he said, and requested that the forum participants continued to use their contacts to help UNO survive thebudget slashes.

The chancellors invited Ron Withem, University of Nebraska associate vice president and director of Government Relations, to speak about his experience from a legislative standpoint with the recently completed Nebraska Unicameral Legislature’s session.

Reflecting back on the past biennium (two-year academic fiscal period), Withem said the 90-day session that ended in late May 2009 was a critical step toward establishing today’s situation.

“It was about this time a year ago that the receipts begin to look ugly,” he said. “The fiscal situation got bad and the governor ended up calling a special session last summer that cut $15 million out of the budget.”

Withem said the recent unicameral session (which drew to a close on April 14) was fairly uneventful, with the budget summary unaltered after it chose not to make a proposed $2 million cut.

“We ended up at this last legislative session in relatively good shape compared to the way we came in, but there’s some clouds on the horizon,” he said.

Withem said the University of Nebraska’s current $492 million is approximately 15 percent of the overall state budget.

When next the legislature begins writing up the budget for the 2012-2013 biennium, he said, the Appropriations Committee predicts a shortfall of $680 million. This will have to either be met with new revenue or more cuts.

Other fallbacks that Withem said could help ease the deficit is the University cash reserve, the Property Tax Relief Program rebates, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) or government Stimulus Package funds, minor cash funds that are regularly available and differences leftover between University over-budgeted spending assumptions and under-budgeted revenue increases.

This revenue increase, while estimated at 7.2 percent for the next two years, won’t be known until the first official Forecasting Board meeting for the 2011-13 biennium in October.

Critical elements of Milliken’s plan include no faculty and staff increases from the university system (although negotiations can be made at the individual campuses), one-time investments such as green initiatives that will eventually pay for themselves, $2.7 million toward operating costs of the Student Information System and a 6 percent need-based financial aid increase.

The financial aid will include the Collegebound Nebraska program, which mandates that a student from a family income or $50,000 or less is exempt from paying tuition. Almost 6,000 students qualify for the program this year, an increase of about 900 over the past two years, according to a University of Nebraska press release.

Milliken’s budget plan settles at a $10.1 million shortfall, in addition to the $8.5 million in reductions the university needs to make up for from the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

Milliken said the plan’s framework would guide the implemented budget reductions for the future.

“Tuition increases are never welcome, because we know that even a modest increase can have a large impact on students and their families,” he said in a press release. “This is why we will make the largest investment in financial aid in the University of Nebraska’s history this year. With this support, students will be able to continue to pursue an excellent education that will make them more competitive in today’s job market, increase their earning potential and improve the quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities.”

The Board of Regents will meet on June 11 to approve the 2010-11 budget and tuition rates as well as the 2011-13 operating and capital budget requests. The 2010-11 budget will be finalized in July.

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