Budget Update

Jan. 28, 2010


I know these are very stressful times for us all as Washington struggles with extraordinarily serious revenue shortfalls. Uncertainty greatly intensifies the stress. I wish there was clarity. There is not.

My promise to you, of course, is to always candidly share whatever we know about matters such as the budget as soon as we know it. Right now, what we know is this: the budget situation is VERY fluid.

I, and many others working on all our behalf, have been spending long days – long weeks – down in Olympia. And, we hear everything ranging from: “higher education was hit disproportionately last time so you should be spared this time” to the Governor`s proposed higher education budget reduction of $90M to some on the Senate side who have said they will need to cut higher education by almost twice the amount the Governor proposed. (Details on the Governor`s proposed additional cut – the $90M – and its implications for Western can be found in an earlier message I sent to you.)

The uncertainty is further compounded by the need to consider additional revenue (e.g., closing “tax loopholes,” increasing or adding fees and taxes). If any of that happens, and it is a big “if,” the political scientist in me thinks that the legislature would wait until the very last minute to reveal the plans, pass what is possible (if anything), then adjourn. Anyway, we are hearing nothing about revenue other than that some private leadership discussions may be taking place.

For Western, our intention – we had the budget instructions all written back in December – was to provide direction to planning units based upon the Governor`s proposed budget, once that became public. That happened several weeks ago. For us, that budget proposal of a $90M cut to all of higher education would have been an additional $3.8m base budget cut to Western`s operating budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

To assure thoughtful (rather than merely expedient) cuts to a fiscal year that begins in a few months, our stated intention in those budget instructions was to use one-time reserves to cover the $3.8M for 12 months so that the base budget cuts would take place by the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year rather than at the beginning. With the increasing fluidity in Olympia, though, it was not clear that the Governor`s number would stick. Nor was it sure, given some cut levels others are talking about, that we would have the capacity to postpone the implementation of cuts by use of one-time reserves.

So, we have done several things. We have delayed issuing the budget instructions to planning unit leaders, waiting for a clearer picture. None of us want to have to propose cuts that prove unnecessary because, even if not made, serious damage can result. Given this delay, we have revised the budget timeline, pushing out decision dates to provide planning units with additional time. The revised strategic budgeting timeline is available online.

We, centrally and at the planning unit levels, have also been vigorously analyzing many options. All have downsides, certainly. But, as the budget process picks up on campus, these options will be developed for the campus to consider, with the numbers and understandings in place and as is necessary to collectively reach conclusions in an informed manner.

There is some good news here, too. Because so many are working relentlessly on behalf of protecting higher education and its critical role in building brighter futures for Washington, messages are beginning to be heard. I hear it more and more and others are reporting that legislators are coming to understand just how severe the consequences already are for the cuts made to date. Weeks ago, I would have bet that those proposing twice the Governor`s cut had a reasonable chance of prevailing. While we still may end up in the vicinity of the Governor`s proposed cut (somewhat above or somewhat below), I think the complete disaster scenario is becoming less likely.

Several of the bills I know are of particular interest. The so-called “furlough bill,” (actually, they call it “planned layoff”) is being actively considered. I believe it will pass simply because our legislature, given the crisis does need to be taking actions. I reflect upon that in my recent blog because, as you know well, such an approach does not work in higher education. So, our approach has been to seek amendments that allow us to proceed in ways that are least damaging and disruptive: to our mission, to our students, faculty and staff. With the critical help of our union allies, we have, together, made significant progress here.

The legislature has been considering a number of proposals that would delegate more authority to governing boards to set – within varyingly complex limits – the resident undergraduate tuition at their particular institution. There has been excellent discussion but no certain outcome. The discussion itself has been helpful in making the case that such flexibility is no panacea. This follows, in part, because of the very real limits upon how high tuition can go while still assuring affordable access for those with lower (and even middle class) incomes. And, certainly it is no panacea if, as happened this biennium, each dollar of additional revenue coming to universities from what amounted to a 30% biennial tuition increase is matched by a cut to state support of three dollars. Still, Washington is well-served by six very different universities. We do have to depart from one-size-fits-all approaches if we are to protect and perpetuate the advantage Washington currently has in providing diverse higher education opportunities. But I do believe that tuition flexibility could be an important tool if it is implemented correctly.

We are energized by the on-going work of so many people on behalf of Western. There are the efforts of the Trustees and Regents across the state, with Western Trustee Sharpe, along with his colleagues on the Board, very much in the lead. Sherry Burkey, Steve Swan, Bill Lyne, Catherine Riordan, Jane Vroman, Dan Larner, Susan Banton, Marsh Riddle Buly, Steve Garfinkle, Morgan Holmgren, Matt Jarrell, 40 other Western students, and Larry Otis and other active alums have spent time in Olympia – sometimes most of weeks – working on our behalf and in a fully collaborative and collegial approach. There are too many others to adequately name but include leaders like Paula Gilman, Renee Roberts, Eileen Coughlin, Stephanie Bowers, Kathy Wetherell, Steve VanderStaay, our Deans, and colleagues in Institutional Research and Budget and Finance who, on the spur of the moment, drop everything to provide the facts and figures we need to be able, in an informed way, to quickly address the 50 or so bills we are currently tracking in Olympia. All certainly have my deepest appreciation; I am confident that have yours as well.

There are strict limits on what any of us may do as state employees on “state time” and using state resources. You, the people who are Western, do have, though, the opportunity to participate and express your feelings in your own way in coming weeks. Our students, led by their Associated Students leaders, will be conducting a rally in front of the PAC from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on February 5th. In addition, many groups across the state, including the United Faculty of Washington State and the Public School Employees, will be rallying in Olympia on February 15th to encourage the legislature to engage in hard conversation about new revenues for the state. Rallies make great statements and are most effective when the number of participants is large. Alumni are writing letters. Newspapers, after we have had serious conversations with them, are editorializing. Lastly, but most important, is simply expressing our feelings to our elected representatives. I know it takes time, but personal letters make more of a difference than any of us realize.

Communication within the university is also so important. However, after writing a message such as this, I sometimes fear that I am simply imposing upon you with a message sharing only what it is that we do not know. But, be assured that communication remains a critical commitment here at Western. And, we understand that is a two-way responsibility, so never hesitate to let me, governance officers, and other leaders on campus know what you are thinking.

My best,


Page Updated 11.27.2013