Hank Bounds (copy) (copy)

Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska system, told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee that his system endured budget cuts three times over the past two years (two were midyear reductions). 

LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska made its best argument Monday for strong state financial support, saying a powerful NU means a robust workforce and a sturdy Nebraska.

The NU system’s leadership asked the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for a more generous budget than is proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Ricketts has recommended a cumulative boost in state money for NU of about $52.5 million over the next two years, or increases of roughly 2.8 percent and 3.5 percent. The Appropriations Committee’s preliminary budget is similar to Ricketts’.

NU system leaders said the increase proposed by the governor will leave the university close to $5 million short for utilities and inflation. NU seeks a 3 percent increase the first year and a 3.7 percent boost the second year. NU President Hank Bounds and NU Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare of Lincoln asked the committee to fully fund NU’s request.

“I’m asking you ... to find a way to make the university a priority,” Clare said.

Bounds’ request focused on the next two years, but his comments addressed the university’s long-term future and, he said, the state’s. The university must be competitive with the public universities of other states to keep Nebraska’s strongest students in state, Bounds said.

As it is, Bounds said, half of Nebraska’s highest-performing high school graduates, as measured by the ACT test, leave the state. Meanwhile, he said, the state has a serious shortage of skilled workers.

Three budget cuts over the past two years have weakened the university, Bounds said.

“Limited resources mean we are not as competitive as we could or should be,” he told the Legislature’s budget-setting committee.

“Your university is ready to run faster, to be more nimble, to be bigger and bolder and more creative about producing the workforce, the research and the economic activity you need to grow this state,” he said.

Even if NU’s request were fully funded, Bounds said, NU’s state funding would only allow it to hold its ground financially. It wouldn’t enable NU to increase its competitiveness with other public universities, expand programs, build new ones and pursue its true aspirations, he said.

NU started the 2018-19 year with state money for operations totaling $574.7 million. The next biennium includes 2019-20 and 2020-21.

NU includes campuses in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis. The Nebraska State College System and community colleges are expected to address the committee Tuesday afternoon.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said in an email that the governor proposes to fully fund NU’s and the state colleges’ salary and health benefit costs over the next two years.

They may use tuition and fees to support further budget growth, Gage said. He said the two-year colleges may also raise tuition. The community colleges also tap property taxes.

The Appropriations Committee appeared, based on most of its members’ questions, to be generally sympathetic with NU. State Sen. Anna Wishart asked NU to be more ambitious with its requests. When NU stands before the committee next year, she said, “really come in with what these aspirations are.”

Over the past couple of years, Bounds said, NU’s “budget response teams” have trimmed $22 million annually from travel, information technology, human resources, energy, public relations and other areas. There have been many other cuts as well, he said.

This doesn’t allow the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to compete academically with its Big Ten rivals, he said. NU lags behind some other Big Ten schools in state-funded capital investments, state-supported scholarship funding and other items, he said.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said there is also an opportunity cost, or loss of potential benefit, by not investing in programs.

When Bounds was asked to prioritize NU’s needs, he said they would include more financial aid support to retain strong Nebraska students, better backing of engineering and technology programs, and increased support for first-generation students.

Not all of the senators on the panel expressed support. Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, who frequently criticizes the university, asked, when NU states that it has a $3.9 billion impact on the state, how does it arrive at that figure?

Bounds said NU uses an independent analyst and said the impact now is actually about $4.5 billion. “I’ll give you the study so you can read the details,” Bounds said.

Erdman also asked about the elimination of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s baseball team. And he referred to professors who have protested against gun rights and other causes, saying professors should be held to the same high standards of conduct that Husker football coach Scott Frost holds his players.

Bounds said those are personnel and legal matters.

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