Lawmakers, university leaders concerned over Senate budget proposal

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, center, speaks to a gathering in Amherst on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. At right is state Rep. Mindy Domb. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/9/2019 9:20:31 AM

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts leaders, higher education advocates and some local lawmakers are expressing concern over a state Senate budget proposal that would place a freeze on tuition and fees without providing the extra $10 million university leaders say is necessary to avoid program cuts and layoffs.

The plan is part of the $42.7 billion state budget proposal that was unveiled by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, and it was immediately met with pushback from administrators in the UMass system. The budget includes an additional $39 million in funding for UMass — an increase of 7 percent over fiscal year 2019. But the plan falls more than $10 million short of what university leaders are calling for.

“The inclusion of a statutory tuition freeze with no correlated funding to cover the university’s fixed cost increases is unprecedented,” wrote UMass President Marty Meehan and the chancellors of the system’s five campuses in a joint letter to Senate President Karen Spilka and the rest of the state Senate. “The line item language goes further in restricting fees that fund essential programs and services to students. As you know, all but 1 percent of the increase in the appropriation represents the state’s share of mandated collective bargaining costs.”

The leaders’ statement goes on to say that if the Senate budget becomes a reality, the UMass campuses will have to make $22.2 million in total budget reductions, including $8.27 million at UMass Amherst.

University officials were not the only ones expressing worry about the proposal.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association echoed those concerns in a statement from the president of the union, which represents librarians and faculty on the UMass Amherst campus. 

“On all of the campuses, inadequate state support for public higher education will lead to further exploitation of part-time faculty and even more cuts in staffing and programs, on top of previous cuts that have had a devastating impact,” President Merrie Najimy said in the statement.

“We are all concerned when there are going to be cuts,” said Risa Silverman, the co-chair of the Professional Staff Union at UMass Amherst. “Certainly, we would want to protect the staff, faculty — and students, really.”

Local lawmakers respond

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said that she believes in the tuition and fee freeze, given the “devastating impact” of rising student debt. But she also said that the budget news does not align with the goal of keeping higher education in the state affordable and that she takes seriously the concerns of UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and other administrators. 

“When he called us to pay attention to the alarming impacts, I pay attention,” Comerford said. As for whether the budget will be amended to include the funding increase university leaders desire, Comerford said, “We’re on a long road in terms of wrestling with this issue.”

Comerford herself is the lead sponsor of the Cherish Act — legislation that would address what supporters say is a more than $500 million annual gap in college and university funding. It would establish that the state fund public higher education at no less than its fiscal 2001 per-student funding level — adjusted for inflation — and freeze tuition and fees for five years.

Comerford is the vice chairwoman on the Senate side of the Joint Committee on Higher Education. State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, also serves on the committee. She said she is disappointed about the “so-called tuition freeze,” which “actually ends up being a cut.”

“It’s going to translate into cuts for programs, it’s going to translate into layoffs for staff and faculty,” Domb said.

The version of the House budget that passed last month included the same $558 million in funding for the university system but did not include a temporary freeze on tuition and fee hikes. Domb offered an amendment to that budget that would have included the extra $10 million the university is asking for, but it was never brought to a vote.

Domb said she does believe the state needs to freeze tuition to give families a break. But she added that underfunding that freeze and asking the university to “figure it out” amounts to taking resources away from higher education. 

Speaking of the tough spot the proposal puts UMass in, she added, “We’re kidding ourselves if we think they’re not going to take it from things that impact students.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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