Senate Operating Budget is Released

One thing is clear now that both the House and Senate budget have been released: Lawmakers are paying attention to higher education. We are delighted to see such focus paid to our public institutions. Kudos to the hard work and advocacy of those who helped elevate awareness of higher education’s critical need for public support.

generic-piggy-bankThese proposals are sure to morph as lawmakers grapple with the opposite chamber’s priorities. Our advocates will surely be called upon as legislators try to negotiate a compromise. The session is scheduled to end on April 24.

Substantial Tuition Cut Proposed

The Senate proposal represents a significant departure from the House budget. As you may remember, the House proposed a capital gains tax as a major source of new revenue. In contrast, the Senate’s budget includes no new revenue. Lawmakers continue to disagree over the need for additional revenue.

The approach to higher ed funding, specifically, is vastly different in the two proposals. Of most significance is Sen. Andy Hill’s proposal to reduce the cost of resident undergraduate tuition by some 25 percent. Rather than freeze tuition as the Governor and House Chair have proposed, Hill has introduced a dramatic reduction in the costs of resident undergraduate tuition. While we applaud the effort to reverse the unsustainable trend of escalating tuition in our state, we are watching carefully to be sure this reduction doesn’t act as a cut to universities.

Sen. Hill included $221 million in his budget to backfill the institutions for the loss in tuition revenue, which doesn’t quite cover the estimated cost, according to the UW’s Office of Planning & Budgeting. The Senate budget would increase state funding to higher ed by about 20%, according to the Seattle Times, which is a proposal to be lauded.

Areas of Concern

Other aspects of the budget are more “troubling,” as Interim President Ana Mari Cauce said in a recent statement. We must be sure that public higher education funding meets the holistic needs of our institutions, which goes beyond the costs of tuition. A world class institution requires adequate funding for its faculty, staff, research, capital projects and more. We will continue advocating for a full investment in the UW’s budgetary needs.

Among the concerns presented in the budget is a proposed faculty and staff salary increase that falls below the raises negotiated in the UW’s collective bargaining process. Labor negotiations dictated a roughly 5% raise to be implemented over the course of the biennium. The Senate budget provides a flat $1,000 raise. It remains unclear whether lawmakers can legally “offer an alternative to employee contracts,” as stated in this Olympian article.

The Senate budget also includes significantly less of an investment in medical education than did the House proposal. The UW Medicine program in Spokane would receive just $1.25 million, and there are no increases in medical residencies.

The UW is looking to not only continue to educate its class of 40 students at the UW Medicine campus in Spokane, but also expand enrollment by another 20 students. The Senate proposed appropriation falls significantly short of the requested funding.

In addition, the Senate budget proposes to eliminate the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which is a source of critical research funding for many UW grants. Lawmakers have threatened to do this before. UW Impact activated alums to fight the proposed LSDF elimination last year, and helped secure Governor Inslee’s last minute veto for the 2014 supplemental budget.

This year’s Senate budget replicates those actions by terminating all existing grants, making no new grants and transferring the treasury balance to the general fund. That would mean immediate termination of about $7 million in grant funding to 18 different UW research projects in areas like breast cancer research and Alzheimer’s diagnostics.

The LSDF has served a critical role in funding the state’s health science research industry, generating $1 billion in economic activity, fueling many startup companies and saving millions in health care costs. We strongly urge Senate lawmakers to reconsider this short-sighted fund-swap, and we will work to protect LSDF funds in the final budget.

What’s to Come

Stay tuned for the Senate to release its proposed capital budget. As we mentioned earlier this week, the House proposal fell short of expectations in the major capital investments requested by the UW. You can read our take on the House budget here.

The House has passed its operating budget off the floor, and the Senate is expected to do so in the days to come. Budget negotiations will begin shortly thereafter when House and Senate Democrats will work with House and Senate Republicans to negotiate a merged proposal.

All details will need to be hammered out and voted on by April 26 in order to get the Legislature out on-time.