Davis column: Hard to do priority budgeting if you don’t set priorities

My column this week suggests that the presidents of the six four-year colleges should have complied with the governor’s budget office and shown the effects of a 15 percent budget cut.  They prefer to paint with broad brushstrokes as they make a strong case against any further reductions in the higher education budget. I write,

It’s the right message, inartfully delivered. The presidents risk reinforcing legislative perceptions that the higher education system is elitist and out-of-touch, not subject to the rules that apply to everyone else. Lawmakers are already skeptical enough.

These have been tough years for public higher education in our state.

Despite increases in the most recent budget, state support for postsecondary education is still 13 percent below the 2007-2009 funding level.

I go into a little more detail in the column. For more on the controversy:

Danny Westneat column in the Seattle Times.

When state officials asked the presidents of the public universities to model what another round of steep budget cuts would look like, they probably weren’t expecting the answer they got back.


We won’t do it, the presidents said.

“It’s idiotic,” Western Washington University’s outspoken president, Bruce Shepard, told me Tuesday.

Shepard’s memo to WWU faculty and staff explaining why he will recommend the school not comply with the request.

First, to engage in hypothetical exercises like this would cause damage lasting decades even if no cuts were ever made. This is simply because, when programs are identified as possibly being eliminated, our excellent faculty, staff, and students associated with the identified programs, understandably, seek opportunities elsewhere, doing so whether or not cuts actually are eventually made. Further, we will be unable to attract strong faculty, staff, and students to such a program if it has appeared on a hypothetical “hit list” even if no “hit” ended up being made.

Second, any decisions of such impact can only be made following our established transparent, widely participative, accountable, data informed, and strategic budgeting processes. Those are the processes by which we build an operating budget. They begin in December (and not mid-summer in the absence of so many critical to a well-informed and strategic decision-making process).

The OFM budget instructions.

For the 2015-17 biennial budget, OFM is asking agencies to re-base state program budgets to a level
below the Maintenance Level budget request for programs not protected from reduction by either state
constitutional provisions or by federal law. Agencies with protected programs and activities should
continuously evaluate these services for improvements that can be achieved within current funding. But
OFM is asking all agencies to identify, describe and prioritize budget reductions equal to 15 percent of
unprotected Near-General Fund Maintenance Level budgets.

And the letter to Gov. Inslee from the presidents.

…we must point out that a 15 percent reduction in funding would not only completely undo recent progress but would also put our state back on the path of historic state disinvestment in public higher education. It would also limit student access to our colleges and universities through reduced enrollments, increased tuition, or a combination of both and further undermine Washington’s long-term economic recovery.

Finally, a flashback to Gov. Gary Locke’s successful priorities of government budget process.

We decided to look at our Priorities of Government.
We are looking at what matters most to Washington citizens. We are focusing on results that people want and need, prioritizing those results, and funding those results with the money we have.

Nothing too radical there.

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