Compromise reached to provide oversight to university spending

Democratic Senators have decided they do want to hold hearings after all to vet the budgets of the state’s public colleges and universities — kind of.

Last week, a Republican proposal that would require officials from the University of Connecticut and the Board of Regents to come before lawmakers to explain their proposed budget before it is adopted was overwhelmingly defeated by Democratic legislators.

This week, a compromise was reached that would require college officials to come before legislators to talk about their budgets sometime before Valentines Day next year, but not necessarily before their budget is adopted. The budget hearing would also be required in 2015.

“With all that is going on lately in higher education [legislators are asking] that there be another layer of oversight for the next two years,” Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said when introducing the proposal.

This proposal is, in part, a result of legislative concerns that tuition continues to rise each year above the rate of inflation at the University of Connecticut, the community colleges and the four Connecticut State Universities. Some legislators have also expressed concern about  administrative spending by the institutions.

“It is very timely given the many changes that have happened with our [recently merged] higher education and the multiple issues that have arisen,” said  Sen. Toni Boucher, the Ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee. “It seemed to all of us a good idea… so they could come to us and explain the direction they were headed, the financial situation they encountered.”

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.

Wednesday’s proposal — which passed unanimously in the state Senate — now heads to the House. When introducing the proposal, Bye said the legislation was a result of her working with the House chairwoman of the Higher Education Commitee.

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.