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Thursday, May 23
The Indiana Daily Student

IU lobbyists fight for more state dollars

With Senate budget recommendations expected within a week, it remains unclear how the state will ultimately fund IU in light of vanishing tax revenue throughout the ongoing economic downturn.

A severe funding shortfall could eventually force University officials to cut academic programs, raise tuition or lay off staff, officials have said.

University lobbyists in Indianapolis continue work this week to convince legislators of the need for sustained University appropriations. And while they said those efforts have not been in vain, they added that it’s tough to reconcile a discrepancy between budget recommendations already released by both Gov. Mitch Daniels and the House of Representatives.

The House recommended a 1 percent increase in IU funding, but Daniels proposed a 4 percent cut.

Senate Democrats say the split speaks to a difference in priorities between the governor and legislators. But, they add, his proposal came before the guarantee of a federal stimulus package.

This marks one of the toughest years for higher education advocates, faced with a recession that threatens to impact most sectors of Indiana’s government.

Lobbyists and administrators said they like the House version of the budget and the 1 percent funding increase for the University. It’s a change in tone from recent years, when University leaders bemoaned increases that failed to keep pace with the 3 percent inflation rate.

And while officials in Indianapolis such as Tom Morrison, vice president of public affairs and government relations, don’t criticize the governor’s proposal, Morrison said another round of significant funding cuts could be “institution-altering.”

This year, University funding was cut 1 percent amid the worsening financial storm. To balance the budget, IU President Michael McRobbie instructed University leaders to cut spending 1 percent across the board.

McRobbie realized, officials said, the need for proactive measures, to trim spending and convince weary legislators.

“You’re always looking for efficiencies,” Morrison said. “And this year it’s been important because of the cuts.”

***

Tom Morrison’s office is on the 17th floor of a downtown Indianapolis skyscraper. A Ball State University degree hangs on the wall as the drone of the Statehouse Web cast plays through computer speakers. It’s his first year at IU since leaving a similar position at Ball State.

Friends tell him, “Boy, did you pick the wrong year to change jobs.”

Morrison said he knows the Statehouse “players” and expressed optimism despite the challenges for a person in his position.

“I think it will be closer to here than here,” he said, using his hands to predict where Senate proposals will fall – likely closer to House recommendations than those of the governor.

But State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, isn’t convinced. Historically, the Senate sides “much closer” to the governor, he said. This year, it’s a question of how close.
Those recommendations determine a starting point for budget negotiations. It’s a fundamental difference, Pierce and other legislators said, between how they see Indiana progressing and the vision of the governor.

“A properly funded University is the key to a properly functioning economy,” Pierce said.

Pierce said University officials were unlikely to criticize the governor’s proposal.
“This administration has shown itself to be vindictive whenever an organization shows its motivation,” he said, adding that he is impressed McRobbie appears unwilling to accept the governor’s requests.

Morrison won’t play politics, however. He’ll eventually need votes from everyone, he said.

“One of the things I have to do is balance rhetoric with reality,” Morrison said.
He won’t use threats to sway lawmakers. But if the legislature cuts University funding far enough, he said IU would have to concede by slashing its own budget in turn.

State Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, and Pierce said they fear University layoffs and rising unemployment in their districts.

“If there isn’t any money in the coffer,” Morrison said, “what are you to do?”

***

In the lead-up to budget negotiations and eventual approval, University officials are looking to economize operations to save money and communicate symbolically with lawmakers.

Those measures include a salary freeze for about 400 top administrators and a University-wide hiring “frost.” They also formed a committee to examine how to counteract the soaring price of health care.

Such actions are effective, said Steve Ferguson, board of trustees president and former state legislator.

It shows the University is confronting the challenges presented by a tough economy, he said.

When McRobbie addressed the Senate Appropriations Committee recently, he reiterated ongoing efforts to economize. Tough economic conditions do not “displace our need, they only accentuate it,” McRobbie said, according to prepared talking points. 

To convince legislators of the need to sustain appropriations, appearing proactive is the key, Morrison said. When financial markets began to tilt last year, McRobbie converted variable-rate debt to fixed-rate, locking in favorable interest rates.

“All these things happened before they had to tell us to do it,” he said.

Morrison said Indiana’s budgeting process is hardly the crisis being played out in other statehouses across the country. Elsewhere, he said, university funding could be cut 20 percent.

But that’s not a concession. Morrison said he and others – McRobbie, Pierce and Simpson included – will continue fighting for sustained funding.

No one knows what the Senate will do, Morrison told the trustees recently at a meeting. A few weeks later in his Indianapolis office, Morrison again did not pin down an appropriations amount that could satisfy University officials.

“If I said today, ‘Gosh, I just hope we break even,’ that’s one of those careful-what-you-wish-for situations,” he said.

The thinking being, Morrison said, that maybe he could have gotten more.

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