Is higher ed reorganization happening? Depends on whom you ask

Missing from the 467-page budget agreement announced last week was a plan to reorganize the state’s public colleges and universities–and now there’s disagreement between the Malloy administration and some top Democratic legislators over whether a deal for the restructuring has been reached.

“There were some outstanding issues that needed to be resolved before the House, Senate and governor could stand together and announce a budget deal. This was one of them. His plan for higher education is one of the centerpieces of the budget,” said Mark Ojakian of the state Office of Policy and Management. “Had there been no agreement, I can tell you quite frankly that the governor likely would not have stood up there and agreed to a budget.”

But several legislators close to the negotiations have a different recollection, and as a result, leaders of the Appropriations Committee have decided not vote the reorganization bill out of committee before their Tuesday deadline.

Legislators who attended budget meetings with the administration said they never agreed to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to combine the four-campus Connecticut State University System, the dozen community colleges, the online Charter Oak College and the Department of Higher Education under one Board of Regents. Collectively those institutions have nearly 100,000 students and 6,600 full-time staff. The University of Connecticut is not included in Malloy’s proposed shakeup.

“I have agreed to nothing,” Rep. Roberta Willis, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee told her co-chair following a meeting at the State Capitol Monday. Her committee approved the proposal last month, but with the expectation that the details would be fine-tuned in consultation with the administration.

That hasn’t happened, she said, and now she has more concerns than before.

“They aren’t willing to compromise,” she said. Willis said she wants to know what jobs will be cut to achieve the projected $4.3 million in savings, why the reorganization has to happen before a strategic plan for higher education is complete and how the budgets and autonomy of the various institutions will be protected under the merger.

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven and a member of the Appropriations Committee, has a similar view.

“I’ve asked a lot of questions and have gotten very few answers. We need to see the plan first before we can agree on any sort of deal,” he said. “Just because we all walked out of that room at the end of the meeting does not make it a deal.”

Ojakian is in charge of the higher ed reorganization for the Malloy Administration. Asked why the budget released last week says that the reorganization “is not provided” and the institutions will remain separate entities, Ojakian said, “The budget had already gone to print.”

Malloy said Monday creating one governing board “will go forward… We need to do something and we’re going to.”

Appropriations Committee members said just because the governor’s reorganization will not make it out of committee, it does not mean that a compromise can not be reached in the coming weeks. The regular legislative session ends June 8.

“It just hasn’t been made yet,” said Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chair of the committee. “There are people who are not absolutely buying into that proposal and are not supportive.”