LINCOLN — A tuition freeze for students at the University of Nebraska and state colleges could be jeopardized if state lawmakers adopt the Appropriations Committee's preliminary budget.
The committee provided for a university budget increase of $36 million, compared with the $62 million increase recommended by Gov. Dave Heineman.
State colleges would get a $4 million increase, compared with the $6 million that the governor had proposed.
Heineman had called for state funding increases large enough to allow the university and state colleges to forgo tuition increases for in-state students for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said he doesn't expect the preliminary figures will be what the committee ultimately proposes to the full Legislature.
“This is a responsible first step in the budget process,” Mello said. “We know there will be adjustments made, both increases and decreases, in various agency budgets.”
The preliminary budget provides a basis for ongoing discussions about state spending. The next step is public hearings before the committee.
At those hearings, he said, committee members hope to find out more about the tuition freeze, including how it relates to recent fee increases for housing approved by the NU Board of Regents and how it would affect long-term tuition rates.
Mello also said the preliminary budget reflects a different set of priorities.
The proposal includes about $20 million to help keep school employee, State Patrol and judges' retirement plans healthy. Heineman's recommendations did not address the retirement issue.
University officials, however, expressed surprise and disappointment Thursday at the preliminary figures.
Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln, the board's chairman, said the agreement to freeze tuition was contingent on the governor's recommended increase for the university. A lower amount puts tuition hikes back on the table.
“We can't promise that tuition would be frozen,'' Clare said.
He described the university as a “tremendous economic engine for the state.”
“I feel like we're benefiting the state's economy, but it takes an investment from the state to help us,” Clare said.
“It's going to be very difficult for us to freeze tuition unless we get an appropriation close to what the governor proposes,” Regent Bob Phares of North Platte said. Phares is chairman of the regents' business affairs committee.
University President J.B. Milliken said the university cannot reach goals of growing enrollment; expanding programs in agriculture, medicine and engineering; attracting new talent to Nebraska; and contributing to the state's competitiveness without state investment.
“We have understood the economic pressures that led to five straight years of flat appropriations, but this is not a sustainable trend if we are to remain both affordable and competitive,” he said.
Stan Carpenter, chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, said the 3 percent annual increase in the preliminary budget is “a good place to start,” compared with the smaller increases of past years.
But it would not be enough for the colleges to afford a tuition freeze, he said.
“Hopefully we'll be able to talk to them and explain why a tuition freeze is a good idea,” he said.
The tuition freeze would apply to all in-state students attending the University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha, including the NU Medical Center, as well as Chadron, Wayne and Peru State Colleges.
The preliminary budget differed from the governor's recommendations on other issues, as well.
— The committee did not provide funds for a new central Nebraska veterans home. The governor had included $47 million.
— The committee did not provide money to buy an airplane from the University of Nebraska Foundation, which the governor had recommended.
— The committee put in less money than the governor to deal with the effects of the federal health care overhaul. Mello said committee members questioned the administration's cost estimates.
World-Herald staff writer Leslie Reed contributed to this report.
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