LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska system made a full-fledged, many-speaker argument Wednesday for solid state support before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
NU backers included representatives from three chambers of commerce, a former speaker of the Legislature, Agriculture Builders of Nebraska, a cancer survivor, an NU regent, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s student-body president and others. Thirty-two people spoke at the nearly 4 ½-hour hearing.
At stake is millions of dollars in state support for the NU system. Gov. Pete Ricketts has recommended two more cuts in operating support for the university — one midyear trim totaling about $11.5 million and another of about $23 million in 2018-19 — because of disappointing state revenues.
The university originally had been budgeted for $580.6 million in state money. NU made it clear Wednesday that it intended to fight for that cash.
NU President Hank Bounds and others repeatedly argued that higher education is the driver of a strong economy, a skilled workforce, economic development and recruitment and retention of workers in the state. They also expressed hope that state revenue forecasts will look better soon.
As the meeting got underway, the hearing room was full — packed with students, faculty and others — and an overflow room had to be set up.
Students waited hours to ask the senators to keep college affordable. Several of them said they already were thousands of dollars in debt.
Devin Wiebelhaus, a UNL student, skipped class to testify at the hearing. He left the hearing to take a rushed test, then returned to speak against the cuts.
"I think one bad test is worth helping protect my university from further cuts," he said.
Questioning from the nine committee members seemed generally friendly. Bounds’ testimony and question-answer session consumed an hour and 40 minutes.
“We are at a defining moment in Nebraska’s history,” Bounds said in his opening statement. “We have a choice to make.
“Are we going to reaffirm the partnership between the state and its public university that has opened the door of opportunity to young people and driven economic growth for almost 150 years?
“Or will you decide that you no longer see the value that the University of Nebraska provides, and make it harder for us to offer affordable and excellent education to our 53,000 students?”
Board of Regents Chairman Rob Schafer of Beatrice told the committee members the number of students in each of their districts that could face a tuition increase.
Schafer, an attorney, recalled how his father’s farm struggled during the crisis of the 1980s and how the electricity was sometimes shut off. Schafer said he nevertheless was able to attend college. But escalating tuition will not allow people of modest income to do the same, he said.
The university this week revealed proposed cuts if the budget situation fails to improve.
They include cutting the geography and art history programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and eliminating the NU Medical Center Munroe-Meyer Institute developmental neuroscience programs.
They also include merging the University of Nebraska at Kearney College of Fine Arts and Humanities with the College of Natural and Social Sciences. Baseball and men’s tennis and golf also are to be whacked at UNK.
Schafer said he has asked Bounds to look for further cuts, too. Those could include slices to Nebraska extension programs and the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.
Omaha cancer survivor Ashli Brehm said UNMC’s strong cancer program helped her fight the disease.
“I remember asking my nurse, ‘Am I going to die from this?’ ” Brehm recalled.
The nurse said: “Oh, no, honey.”
She said she received “the best of the best in treatment.”
“This money is more than just a line in the budget,” she said, her voice quivering. “Ask my parents. Ask my husband. Ask my three little boys.”
Carlo Eby, UNO’s student body president, expressed concern about tuition increases. He challenged lawmakers to explain the increases to hardworking students and tell them that the university is still affordable.
State Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell asked perhaps the hardest questions. He asked Bounds how, if inflationary costs continue to drive up NU’s funding needs, the Legislature should handle that.
“I would say that frankly, Senator Kuehn, that’s not my role,” Bounds said. “But I do think as a legislator, you need to hear from me about how this (the proposed cut) is going to impact the future of our state.”
Bounds said the university hopes to increase its enrollment, keep looking for more efficiencies and try to lower compensation costs.
Mike Flood of Norfolk, a former speaker of the Legislature, told the committee that he’s among those leading a pro-university group called One Nebraska.
Flood said he recalled budget challenges when he was a senator a few years back. He said he knows what it feels like to be in their role.
“I want to hope,” he said, “that there’s a better day ahead this session.”