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State higher education officials defend Pritzker’s proposed budget increase

Northeastern Illinois University interim CFO Ann McNabb, left, President Gloria Gibson and Acting Provost Wamucii Njogu testify before the Illinois House higher education budget committee during hearings on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed budget for next year. | Peter Hancock/Capitol News Illinois photo

SPRINGFIELD – Higher education officials defended Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed $137 million increase in higher education funding for next year before a key House committee on Thursday as some lawmakers expressed skepticism the full request could be funded.

Nyle Robinson, interim director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, called the proposal “the largest increase that higher education has seen, if passed, since Fiscal Year 2002.”

“There were actually four years there when there was a budget cut of over 6 percent,” he told the House higher education budget committee. “So the total operations appropriations, even with this, would be 16 percent lower overall than it was in 2002.”

Included in Pritzker’s proposed budget is a $52 million increase, or about 5 percent, in operating funds for state universities; $13.9 million in new funding for community colleges; a $50 million increase for the Monetary Award Program, or MAP, grants; a $10 million increase for the second year of the AIM HIGH financial aid program for first-year university students; $3.8 million for minority support programs at community colleges; $4 million for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission’s outreach services and operations; and $590,000 for the Illinois Math and Science Academy and the State Universities Civil Service Commission.

Pritzker has referred to those proposals as a “down payment” on revitalizing higher education after years of budget cuts and shortfalls.

Robinson said higher education took its biggest hit during the budget impasse of 2015-2017, when colleges and universities lost about $1.2 billion of state funding they were expecting to receive.

“We understand, every sector of the state budget suffered during the budget impasse,” he said. “However, almost everyone eventually got paid. Public universities and community colleges did not.”

Among the universities still reeling from funding shortfalls and declining enrollment is Western Illinois University, in Macomb, which announced last week it was laying off 132 employees.

Also struggling is the Chicago-based Northeastern Illinois University, whose president, Gloria Gibson, testified before the budget committee Thursday. She said the school needs the 5 percent increase to pay cost-of-living increases for faculty and staff as well as other expenses.

“It’s our general operating budget,” she told the committee.

Some committee members, however, suggested a full 5-percent increase across the board may be difficult to fund.

“Obviously, the state has very, very little money, if we would call it money, to increase anything at this point,” said Rep. Carol Ammons, an Urbana Democrat who also chairs the House Higher Education Committee. “So the question is, if we did not get to 5 percent, what would that do to your general operating budget?”

“It would be devastating,” Gibson said. “We received 2 percent this year, but we also had a decline in enrollment. And so the 2 percent increase we received this year helped, and we are very appreciative of that. But when you couple that with declining enrollment, we really did not see an appreciable increase.”

One portion of the higher education budget that lawmakers may try to trim is the State Universities Civil Service System, an agency that performs centralized human resources functions for all community colleges and universities.

Some committee members, including Rep. Jeff Keicher, a Sycamore Republican, asked why the Illinois Board of Higher Education, or the individual schools themselves, couldn’t perform that function.

Jeff Brownfield, executive director of the agency, said the state might realize some small efficiencies through that, but, “in essence what you would do, though, is you’re taking what we have, and you’re just taking our folks and putting them under a different hat.”

But Keicher said he still wants to examine the possibility of consolidating the Higher Education Civil Service System into something else.

“Because we’re dealing with higher ed appropriations, and our universities have been devastated over the last couple of years,” he said.

The committee will continue holding hearings into other segments of the proposed $3.4 billion higher education budget throughout the session as lawmakers work to put together a final budget for the upcoming fiscal year.