New governor could be just what University needs

By Stephen Spector

Carrie Hightman had a funny feeling about Gov. Pat Quinn.

In 2007, Hightman was elected as the Illinois Board of Higher Education chairwoman and upon answering congratulatory phone calls, one came from then-Lt. Gov. Quinn. But he had more to say than his best wishes.

“He didn’t have to call me, but he did because he was interested in higher education,” Hightman said. “I came into his office and talked to him about how to operate campuses and talked about some other projects to reduce energy costs.”

Quinn replaced his predecessor as governor following the State Senate’s Jan. 29 vote to strip former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of his powers. As his agenda shifts, so do the concerns of those affected by Quinn’s decisions, including higher education.

While lieutenant governor, Quinn had already established an initiative to improve higher education in the state. Quinn has led a campaign called the Illinois Sustainable University Compact to improve energy sustainability at colleges across the state.

“I’ve got to tell you the change over (from former Gov. Blagojevich) is a breath of fresh air,” Hightman said. “During the former governor’s tenure, higher education was basically starved.”

While Blagojevich was governor, some state appropriations meant for implementation at the University for 2009 never made it past his desk. The governor vetoed over $96 million in legislature-approved appropriations for the University of Illinois system.

Among other higher education mandates issued during Blagojevich’s tenure include his request for the University to place 2.5 percent of its state appropriations in reserve and reducing state funding to the University by more than $58 million in his first term.

“I think we’re going to have a new day,” said State Rep. Lou Lang, D-16. “It’s been clear for a long time our zeal to help elementary and high school districts, and we’ve dropped the ball on public universities. Higher education has been given the short end of the stick.”

Following Blagojevich’s arrest on Dec. 9, Lang has introduced a bill to create the Higher Education Scholarship Act. It would principally allocate scholarship money to students entering universities, whether public or private. Lang said he is optimistic that the new governor will show a greater understanding of the need to support college students.

Yet, a heavy cloud of restraint parks itself directly over Springfield following recent reports that the state deficit is projected to approach $9 billion next year. Comptroller Dan Hynes conveyed the $9 billion gap in the state budget but said the number can dwindle if President Barack Obama’s stimulus package contains substantive money for Illinois.

In the meantime, state appropriations from general revenue funds are $743.3 million for day-to-day operations. That money is to be distributed to all three campuses.

“The state has more high priorities than it has to fund those priorities,” said Randy Kangas, assistant vice president for planning and budgeting for the University. “In all honesty, we don’t know what will be the absolute priority of Quinn.”

Lang said he expects the University to be receiving money from a capital construction bill to be passed this spring. Kangas remains hesitant of such a bill.

“There has been a capital stalemate for the last few years,” Kangas said. “2004 was the last time there was a capital construction bill, and we only got $12.7 million for repair and renovation.”

A little less than a month ago, the Institute of Government and Public Affairs reported that the University “is an engine that pumps more than $13 billion into the state’s economy each year.”

In addition, a University education “creates nearly $1.3 billion in future tax revenue for the state each year.”

Former state representative and IGPA expert Richard Winkel said legislators should consider these facts when appropriating money to the University in the future, and a new governor can be the extra push the school needs.

“I think Quinn will be a friend to higher education and will do the best he can under the financial constraints that now face the state,” Winkel said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get a fair hearing from the governor in the budget.”