Legislators urge more open UConn budget process

A day after the University of Connecticut’s Board of Trustees adopted a $1.3 billion budget after discussing it privately for 90 minutes but not in public, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the legislature’s higher education committee urged greater transparency in the public university’s budget process.

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo

Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo

“I would hope that is something that they would make more public,” said Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, the co-chairwoman of the legislative committee that oversees higher education. “It’s about transparency when so much money is involved.”

“We are talking about more than a billion dollars in taxpayer money, and these budget decisions are being made in private? The public deserves better,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, the ranking GOP member of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. “I will continue to push UConn to be more transparent…The more sunlight, the better. I look forward to crafting legislation next year which will accomplish that goal.”

The UConn trustees’ Financial Affairs Committee also met for 5½ hours in private last month to craft the budget, which increases spending by nearly 9 percent.

“Allowing for input from the public is essential,” said Bartolomeo. “We as a legilslature spend months listening to stakeholders, including UConn, before we adopt a budget.

“I think that giving no opportunity for input is absolutely wrong,” she said. “Even as the chair [of the higher education committee], I have not seen anything from them.”

The university’s proposed budget was released to the public for the first time last Friday, four days before the trustees would vote on it, but UConn officials said Wednesday that they were justified in discussing the budget behind closed doors because it is a draft until it’s ready to be adopted.

It’s always been done this way, UConn President Susan Herbst told reporters after the meeting.

“The budget is a draft until the Board acts on it,” said Richard F. Orr, the school’s general counsel. “UConn made the determination that the public interest in withholding outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Rep. Roberta Willis, the House chairwoman of the higher education committee, said there are times when discussions surrounding aspects of the budget need to be private but doing an entire budget privately is not recommended.

“Narrow it down. I think they can have a public conversation about what’s on the table and make it clear that decisions have not been made,” said Willis, D-Salisbury.

The Board of Regents — the governing board for the state’s largest public college system — has met extensively in public to create their budgets. The regents oversee the state’s four regional state universities and a dozen community colleges.

On Thursday, the regents adopted their $1.2 billion budget for next year after a 30-minute discussion and without going into a private executive session.

Sen. Kevin Witkos

Sen. Kevin Witkos

The Board of Regents “holds public meetings to discuss their budgets, so why doesn’t UConn?” McLachlan asked in a press release.

Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said state lawmakers need to consider changing state law so budget meetings are held in public.

“If there is a way we can make the budget process at UConn more open, we should explore it. Certainly the process should allow for public input and discussion, since it directly involves taxpayer dollars,” said Witkos, the minority leader of the legislative committee that oversees higher education.

In a statement, UConn officials said their budget process is transparent.

“UConn’s budget is a public document.  It was presented to the Board of Trustees and its financial affairs committee on June 24 in public, voted on during public session, and is publicly available. The budget and hundreds of highly detailed pages of supporting and explanatory documents regarding UConn’s spending plans, revenues, costs, and capital projects were posted online, made available to the public, and shared with the news media on June 19,” reads UConn’s statement.

“The board meeting and all committee meetings were properly noticed. The board’s financial affairs committee, like the full board, is able to move into executive session for reasons defined under state statute and did so appropriately. The financial affairs committee did not make any changes to the budget or these documents during or after its executive session, no votes were taken in executive session, and the budget that was approved was the same budget that was made public several days before the trustees meeting, and is public today. Members of the public are given time to address the Board of Trustees at each board meeting.  There was a public comment session at this week’s meeting and no members of the public spoke.”

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