Gov. peeks at U’s budget

Kelly Wittman

For the first time, Gov. Arne Carlson’s staff has seen the University’s budget request before it has even been approved by the Board of Regents.
A nine-member team made up of the governor’s staff members, local business leaders and University administrators met Monday for the second time in two weeks to discuss the request and the University’s financial needs, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, vice president for Budget and Finance. This year’s request has also been developed around priorities set by Carlson.
The request asks the state for about $230 million in operating funds for the next two years. In 1994, the University requested $174 million, a number Pfutzenreuter called conservative.
The discussions make this request process unique, Pfutzenreuter said, because University leaders have never met with Carlson prior to the governor making his own budget recommendation.
The Board of Regents will vote on the biennial budget request at its meeting Friday and forward the request to the governor, which is normally the first time he sees it. Carlson will then send his recommendations to the Capitol, where legislators will review the two proposals before determining how much state money the University will receive.
Pfutzenreuter said he believes the regents will have no objections to the request, which is formulated by top University administrators.
Marvin Marshak, vice president for Academic Affairs, said the recent meetings allowed administrators to present the University’s situation and plans for the future in order to educate the governor and his staff. The meetings are not a negotiation process, he said.
A third meeting is scheduled for Monday.
The governor invited the University to present its budget to his office early this year so he will be better able to decide just what parts of the request he can support, Marshak said.
But the governor’s recent hands-on approach to University affairs has caused some to question if he is involving himself too much in University business.
After surgeon John Najarian was acquitted of felony charges last spring, Carlson called for the University to reinstate him as a professor and reimburse him for his legal fees. The governor also formed a committee last week to study the issue of tenure reform.
But Brian Dietz, the governor’s communication manager, said that Carlson’s number-one concern in this instance is not to take control, but to make sure the budget is not bloated or out of balance with realistic expectations. Inheriting a $2 billion deficit from the previous administration has made the governor attentive to spending, Dietz said.
The budget request has also been formulated around four priorities the governor sets for institutions receiving public funds. The four areas are education reform, an educated citizenry and work force, economic vitality and government accountability.
Using the governor’s four priorities is not giving him too much influence in the budgeting process, Pfutzenreuter said. “The state gives the University nearly a quarter of a billion every two years. That’s not a small chunk of change,” he said.
In addition, Marshak said it is not unreasonable to design the University’s budget around the governor’s priorities because they are very similar to the University’s. Carlson’s call for an educated citizenry and work force lines up with the University’s own priority of lifelong learning and continuing education, Marshak said.
“If the governor had things on his list that were not our priorities, we wouldn’t include them,” Marshak said.
While the governor’s staff has had no strong reaction to the University’s budget proposal, they’ve been very attentive and receptive, Marshak said.
The University plans to use the money requested in the budget to raise faculty salaries, which were found to be some of the lowest in the nation when compared to other top research institutions.
The University also plans to invest more money in the Office of Information Technology, a move advised by the North Central Association of Colleges, which recently visited the University and renewed its accreditation. The office will improve computer systems throughout the University.
The budget request also asks for enough funds to limit tuition increases to 2.5 percent per year for the next two years.
Marshak said it is hard to know if the University will receive the funds it is requesting. The Legislature will have to balance the University’s needs with the needs of others in the state, he said.