UConn needs big boost in state aid to preserve sci-tech expansion

CTMirror.org file photo

The Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut

The University of Connecticut Board of Trustees sent an early message Wednesday to the next governor and legislature.

The state will need to significantly step up  spending on its flagship university — and Next Generation sci-tech initiative — to maintain UConn’s development into an elite research institution.

The trustees unanimously requested operating block grants of $234 million and $270 million, respectively, for the first two fiscal years of the next term, to cover the main campus on Storrs and the regional campuses.

The first number represents a 23 percent increase — or $44 million — over the block grant UConn received this fiscal year. By the second year, the university is seeking 41.5 percent, or $79 million, more than the block grant it receives now.

“That’s what we need to keep going,” said trustee Andrew F. Bessette, chairman of the board’s Financial Affairs Committee. “We don’t want to lose any ground.”

The university already has had to slow its pace for Next Generation Connecticut, the initiative it launched with Malloy in 2013 to dramatically expand educational opportunities and research in science, technology, engineering, and math over the next decade.

With an original goal of adding more than 6,500 students — primarily spread between Storrs and the Stamford regional campus — the ambitious plan also included a $2.4 billion capital building component to increase dormitory, classroom and laboratory space.

But after that initiative was launched, state finances went into a tailspin as Connecticut’s recovery from the last recession continued to trail that of most other states.

State finances closed modestly in deficit for three consecutive years between 2015 and 2017. 

Next Generation has added closer to 2,500 students and operating funds for that program within the UConn budget are slightly below 2016 levels now.

About $18 million of the extra funds UConn is seeking next fiscal year, and $21 million in 2020-21, would be needed just to get the Next Generation program back to its scaled-back, 2016 level.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Scott A. Jordan, chief financial officer of UConn (file photo)

“We know that state government has been cutting and we know we may be asked to deal with cuts again,” Scott A. Jordan, the university’s chief financial officer, said after Wednesday’s meeting. “But this is our opportunity to set our priorities.”

Though the next governor’s first budget proposal is due to the General Assembly in February, all state agencies and public colleges and universities routinely submit preliminary requests between the prior August and October.

And university officials noted there are many fiscal forces working against UConn in the next two years.

Though the state closed the last fiscal year on June 30 with nearly $1 billion it can deposit into its badly depleted reserves, nonpartisan analysts still project far greater amounts of red ink in the near future.

State finances, unless adjusted, are projected to run $2 billion or 10 percent in deficit in the first fiscal year after the November elections. And the potential gap grows to $2.6 billion or 13 percent in the second year.

UConn officials are well aware that large projected deficits have translated into deep cuts for public colleges and universities over the past decade.

Further complicating matters, UConn — like all state agencies and departments — also must provide most of its unionized employees with 5.5 percent pay hikes in each of those years. 

Those increases are mandated through a 2017 concessions deal struck by unions and Malloy. Workers agreed to a one-year pay freeze last year, a one-time $2,000 payment per employee this fiscal year, and a variety of new pension and health insurance restrictions.

In return, the state has waived its right to lay off most state workers through the 2020-21 fiscal year, and has extended its benefits contract with all unions through mid-2027.

UConn will need an extra $10.3 million to cover those raises in 2019-20 and $10.9 million in 2020-21.

State support for UConn operations has eroded steadily for nearly three decades, but the drop-off has accelerated since the last recession ended eight years ago.

This has contributed to frequent tuition and fee hikes at all public colleges and universities, including UConn. 

The trustees approved a schedule back in December 2015 that gradually increases tuition by 31 percent between the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2020.

State legislators also have charged that UConn has not done enough to control administrative and other costs.

The trustees also voted Wednesday to request an extra $18 million next fiscal year and $46 million above current levels in 2020-21 to cover fringe benefit costs.

The state provides this funding outside of the block grant, and it is used to cover a portion of the worker benefit costs the university must pay. If the university is granted the increase it is seeking, the state aid would cover 57 percent of fringe costs in the first year and 63 percent in the second.

UConn’s fringe benefit costs already are up 28 percent this fiscal year.

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