Regarding the Senate's Proposed 2013-15 Budget

Colleagues:

Yesterday, the Washington Senate majority coalition released their proposed budget. Budgets (this one exceeds 200 pages) are complicated documents and can take days to fully understand.  Still, I do want to provide you with an update but please understand that what follows is preliminary and will be more fully refined in the days ahead.

Please also understand where we are in the process.  After months of hard work -- by the legislature, by so many of you doing your best to assure legislative outcomes that mean brighter futures for the state we are proud to call home -- we are now entering the beginning of the end game.

It's still a beginning though for we have only the Senate proposal.  The House has not yet released their budget proposal; each house must then find common ground sufficient to be able to pass a budget; those two budgets must then be reconciled through a conference committee and that penultimate budget must be agreed to by the Governor.

As in the past, we will track the various budget stages through a chart that focuses on Western's funding.  That chart is available here with the latest Senate budget proposal having been added.  As the process further unfolds, that chart will be updated.

Now, to the Senate proposal.  There is both good and bad from the perspective of Western's commitment to meet the critical needs of the State of Washington.  And, the good is largely rhetorical while the bad is substantive.

Clearly, the poisonous attitude faced by public higher education in years past and that began to turn around only last session has changed.  Higher education is no longer seen as the place to go to make more cuts.  At least, not overtly.

And, indeed, the Senate proposal appears to increase investment in higher education.  In a companion bill, tuition would actually be cut -- further good news.

Are they both achieved in the Senate budget proposal, though?  Simple answer: No.

First, we must remember why tuition soared even as costs per student dropped at Western (dropped year after year after year). Tuition rose while costs dropped because Washington was among the tops in the nation in cutting state support for public 4-year higher education.

How do we build out of that history?  Earlier this session, the six public higher education institutions presented a thoughtful plan that would allow tuition to be frozen.  Considering only Western, the Senate proposal falls short of that plan by at least $14M.  And, if the companion tuition reduction proposal is included, the shortfall grows to $17.1M for Western.

Also consider what happens to funding per student.  As this chart shows, the Senate proposal continues, indeed, appears to accelerate, what has been an already disastrous slide in state support.

This will mean that our carefully targeted proposals to apply Western's strengths to critical state needs will not be funded.  But, it means more as we will once again be looking at reductions.  While no plans have been made for reductions, inevitably, there could be consequences for such matters as enrollment size, access to classes, time to degree, and the filling of critical open positions.

I need to take you a bit further into the weeds to understand why the rhetoric does not match the reality.  Consider these three aspects of the Senate Budget proposal:

 

  • $60M of the Senate proposal for higher education comes from a 20% tax on foreign students. That tax simply will not work.  We are in a competitive market for foreign students.  Foreign students already pay double the average cost of instruction, thereby substantially subsidizing education for Washington students.  A further 20% tax will drive away numbers of current foreign students, creating a hole in budget revenues that will actually be larger than the unrealizable $60M.  The money assumed in the proposal is just not going to be there so the picture will turn out to be significantly worse than what appears in the already grim charts I have referenced.

 

  • The budget assumes, without identifying any, that there are millions of dollars of efficiencies to be obtained.  The six Washington publics are already tops in efficiency in the nation and, among those six, Western ranks at the top.  We are never satisfied, always looking for more efficiencies but to pull these budget numbers out of thin air is magical thinking or, more accurately, an attempt to disguise what is, plain and simple, another damaging budget cut.

 

  • The addition of "performance dollars" is also problematic.  Western never shies away from performance funding because our performance is top notch.  But, in this proposal, the funds are one-time and come at the end.  Legally, we cannot commit dollars we do not have.  We also cannot deficit spend.  So, we cannot use the promise of possible dollars sometime in the future to make the investments necessary to ratchet up performance even more.  And, in the end, if we qualify for the one-time dollars, what do we then do with them?  As one-time dollars, they cannot be used to sustain the kind of investments necessary to continually improve quality, access, and performance.

 

The unwillingness to be seen to be cutting into higher education is a step forward.  The effort to claim a reinvestment in public higher education is also a step in the right direction.  I want to express my personal appreciation to all who have worked so hard to bring us to this turnaround point, legislators included.  Rhetorical commitments matter.

I also want to thank all of you, who are Western, for your dedication and professionalism during years of budget constraints. 

Still, there is much work left to do: we must help our legislature to see that higher ed is the major tool they have available to build brighter futures for our state.  But, that tool requires more than favorable words and appearances.

Remember, it is the beginning of the endgame.  Now, it is ever more important to stay fully engaged so that the support for brighter futures for Washington through higher education is not simply rhetorical but substantive as well.  

Engage in whatever ways you find appropriate.  As always Western Advocates is one means for staying informed.  And, staying engaged.

Thanks, again, for all you do for Western,

My best,

Bruce

Page Updated 11.27.2013