Western Illinois University is preparing to argue against Governor Bruce Rauner's proposed cuts to the school’s budget. Rauner wants to slash state aid to Western by 31%, or $16.5 million from the school's $52.6 million state appropriation. That would take Western back to funding levels not seen since 1985.
Budget Director Matt Bierman said this is only the beginning of budget talks. He said university representatives will spend much of the spring meeting with lawmakers who have until the end of May to approve a state budget.
“Between now and May 31st will be a couple long months of negotiating. We’ll go down and make our case and talk about specifically how Western is good not only for this region but good for the state as well as higher education in general and how we can be an economic driver in all that,” Bierman said.
Bierman said in the meantime he will draft budget scenarios for reductions in state aid. He said Western’s priorities are to keep the lights on, heat running, and employees paid.
Bierman said the only immediate way to come up with more money is to raise tuition, but at this point the university plans only a modest increase for next year.
“And that’s because our students are struggling to be able to afford to come here anyway. So raising the cost only probably hurts us in our enrollment numbers rather than help us from a budget standpoint,” Bierman said.
Bierman hopes Rauner’s proposal will not pass and that negotiations with lawmakers will result in Western taking less of a hit. “I don’t want to down play it in that this is not a big deal. This is a big deal, it’s serious. But now the responsibility is on us to try and make up some of that ground and go from there,” Bierman said.
Rauner did put some value in education. He allocated more resources to K-12 schools and kept funding for community colleges essentially flat.
“As Governor Rauner said in his budget address, ‘Everyone is going to have to sacrifice a little.’ Well, that’s fine but higher education in this case, public four-year higher education, is sacrificing more than just a little so that’s what we have to go down and argue and say, ‘Let’s even this out a little bit and say we provide more value than you are giving us credit for and you need to fund us a little bit more,’” Bierman said.
In a letter, WIU President Jack Thomas wrote that while Rauner’s proposed reduction is disconcerting, the plan serves as the starting point for discussions in Springfield.
“I assure the Western Illinois University community that we will do everything possible to mitigate the devastating impact of potential state reductions, and we will make every effort to protect our employees, students, and community,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas also asked that members of the Western community contact state legislators to ask for continued support of the institution.
Bierman agreed with the strategy. “Anybody who works here or has a degree from here or anyone connected to the Western Illinois region should have some focus on this too. It’s the livelihood of who we are in this community and in the Quad Cities. It is important for them to reach out and get involved in this legislative process and let their particular legislators know what their priorities are as a citizen.” Bierman said.
He said it’s much easier to negotiate with lawmakers who have already been contacted by their constituents about Western.