Senate passes on adding oversight to state university spending

Republican senators are calling for public hearings to vet the budgets of the state’s public colleges and universities — a move Democratic senators overwhelmingly voted against last week.

“It’s just shedding light … Public disclosure is a good thing,” Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said last week before the Democratic-controlled Senate defeated the proposal.

This proposal is, in part, a result of legislative concerns that tuition continues to rise each year above inflation at the University of Connecticut and at the schools run by the Board of Regents. Some legislators have also expressed concern with administrative spending by the institutions.

State legislators have played little to no role in determining what the tuition will be at the state’s public colleges, as the higher education systems’ line-item spending and revenue decisions are made autonomously, without legislative oversight. Last fiscal year, the state spent $986.6 million on UConn and the Regents’ system, which was 5 percent of total state spending.

The defeated legislation would not have required legislative approval of college budgets, but only that lawmakers be provided with a copy of the Univeristy of Connecticut and Board of Regents proposed final budgets before they are approved. It also would have required that the legislature’s Appropriations and Higher Education committees hold public hearings on the proposed budgets.

Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said such legislative oversight is unnecessary.

“Members of the legislature both appoint and approve members of the board of regents who we task to study issues of budget carefully… We do have some say over their budget and that is their block grant,” the Democrat from West Hartford said before the vote.

The college system’s budgets are typically presented for the first time and approved after the General Assembly has approved the state budget, which finalizes how much the state will provide the higher education institutions. University officials do publicly meet with leaders of the budget-writing and higher education committees before the state budget is finalized.

Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee, said having an added layer is appropriate.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to go back to that common practice of at least having some amount of disclosure and a process where once a year they do come before the Higher Education Committee for a discussion of what is included in that budget and why the costs are going up,” Boucher said.

An attempt three years ago by the committee to have the public universities notify them before increasing tuition also failed, after higher education officials said that would undercut the authority of the universities’ governing board.

Two other bills aimed at increasing transparency in higher education spending are awaiting action by the General Assembly, following several missteps made by the previous president of the Board of Regents.

One bill would require the Board of Regents to report how it is spending the thousands of dollars it receives each year to cover members’ job-related travel and entertainment expenses. Another bill would require public colleges and universities to regularly report to lawmakers how their administrative salaries and their student-to administrator ratios compare to their peer institutions.