Policy Wonk: Disinvestment in UMaine is staggering

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In 1968, the University of Maine System was founded, pulling seven campuses under a single board and chancellor. The Legislature appropriated 15.2 percent of undedicated state revenues to meet the operating budget of the system.

In 2013, the Legislature appropriated 6.3 percent of undedicated state revenues to meet these budgetary needs.

Put another way, during the first 20 years of the UMaine System, legislative appropriations (with slight downward fluctuations) met an average of 65.4 percent of system operating budgets. From the early 1990s to the present, legislative appropriations have steadily declined; in fiscal 2013 these appropriations met only 43.3 percent of the E&G budget. This number will decline further over the next five years, as state appropriations are projected to remain constant while budgeted costs will continue to rise modestly.

The decline in operating budget support for the UMaine System was almost imperceptible during the Curtis administration; the decline accelerated slightly during the Longley and Brennan administrations.

A buoyant economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s allowed a slight improvement in budgetary support for the system during the McKernan years. But when the dot-com bubble burst, these modest gains were lost during the King years.

The Baldacci-LePage years have seen new lows in legislative support for the system – lows that are expected to drop further.

It should also be noted that the capital construction needs of the system – bricks and mortar, labs, libraries, research and development facilities, equipment, infrastructure – have fared no better over the last 45 years. Governors and Legislatures have largely ignored their own studies calling for a more robust meeting of system-wide capital construction needs.

A Joint Select Committee on Research and Development was appointed in 1998 by the 118th Maine Legislature. It was charged with carefully reviewing the system’s capital construction needs relating to R&D, and it offered a series of recommendations. The key provision called for “a significant and steady investment at a level of $15 million per year for capital construction at the UM System to renovate and construct research facilities.”

Nothing of this magnitude was forthcoming in 1998 or in subsequent years. Ten other legislative proposals were voted down by the Legislature.

In short, this 45-year decline in operating budget and capital construction support for UMaine cannot be laid at the feet of any one governor or Legislature. Republicans, Democrats, independents have all participated in this loss of vision, this failure to see that a strong public university system is the key to both a stronger economic future for the state, and the upward mobility of thousands of Maine people.

It is no answer to say that cutbacks in legislative appropriations to the system can be made up by tuition and fee increases, and/or by pursuing private outside funding sources more aggressively.

The pool of private funding dollars (as well as state and federal grants) is limited and has shrunk with the recent economic downturn. Moreover, Maine competes with other state (and private) universities for these dollars. We do relatively well, but not well enough to make up for the Legislature’s loss of vision and budgetary cutbacks.

The same is true for fee and tuition increases. The system has pressed these revenue streams as far as it justifiably can. In competition with other public universities and colleges, it cannot go too far raising tuition or it will lose students to more affordable out-of-state institutions.

Moreover, raising system fees and tuition to fully offset increasingly severe cutbacks in legislative appropriations misses the whole point of a public land grant college system.

Public universities were historically designed to serve the higher education aspirations and needs of average income Maine citizens. It would be ruinous for Maine and the UMaine System to emulate the Bowdoin-Bates-Colby tuition models.

Bottom line: Maine’s elected officials must recover their vision, their commitment to public higher education. If the average legislative fiscal commitment made in the first five years of UMaine System existence was in place today, the appropriation from undedicated state revenues in fiscal 2013 would have exceeded $400 million.

If the average legislative appropriation made in the first five years had been adjusted annually for inflation, the fiscal 2013 appropriation would approximate $330 million.

The actual fiscal 2013 legislative appropriation was $194 million.

Obviously, the magnitude of disinvestment in UMaine operating budgets is huge and it has gone on for years. A full recovery will take years.

Going forward, the levels of annual investment in the system’s budget must approximate $330-$400 million. Additionally, the system’s capital investment needs must begin to be meaningfully met.

These levels of higher education investment, though formidable, are possible if the Legislature would reduce the present level of corporate welfare benefits. These often go to wealthy corporations who do not need, and have no just claim to, scarce Maine tax dollars.

Channeling these dollars to the UMaine System will benefit us more economically, and nothing would do more to raise the hopes and expectations of an entire state.

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Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.

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