State government's financial disarray is causing headaches for public universities, which are owed millions of dollars in state payments. Southern Illinois University, for instance, wasn't sure until recently that it would be able to cover its mid-December payroll. Still uncertain is whether the SIU system, consisting of campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville, will be able to cover a second payroll in late December. This week’s State Capitol Q&A examines the tough situation facing public universities and colleges.
State government's financial disarray is causing headaches for public universities, which are owed millions of dollars in state payments.
Southern Illinois University, for instance, wasn't sure until recently that it would be able to cover its mid-December payroll. Still uncertain is whether the SIU system, consisting of campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville, will be able to cover a second payroll in late December.
This week’s State Capitol Q&A examines the tough situation facing public universities and colleges.
Q. What's the problem?
A. In short, state government doesn't have enough money to pay for everything it is supposed to fund for the fiscal year that began July 1. As a result, public universities have received very little of the state money they should have in hand by now.
When it comes to higher education, the state budget appropriates the largest chunk of cash to the University of Illinois system, covering campuses in Springfield, Urbana-Champaign and Chicago.
Under the current budget, $743 million in general funds are supposed to go toward operating the UI campuses. To date, the U of I has requested about $340 million of that money and received just about $400,000, said Randy Kangas, associate vice president for planning and budget.
While the specific numbers differ, the overall story is much the same at other state schools.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education has asked all of the state's universities and community colleges to provide data about how much they've received in state payments versus how much they should have received. The statistics, still incomplete, show the institutions have collected not quite 1.5 percent of the more than $600 million they're owed nearly halfway through the school year.
Q. How is the problem being addressed?
A. Schools have been doing what they can to keep their spending down, officials said. That means delaying hiring decisions, purchases and physical improvements whenever possible.
At Western Illinois University in Macomb, for example, an elevator in the library hasn't been fixed because the school wants to be sure it can pay for its employees and its class offerings, said President Al Goldfarb.
"We're not at that point yet," he said. "But my concern is we will reach it sometime in early spring, if not sooner."
David Gross, governmental relations director for the SIU system, added: "The last thing you want to do is cut people or cut academic programs."
Schools also have turned to tuition money as a short-term fix for their financial trouble.
Comptroller Dan Hynes, whose office issues state payments, said he has been working with the universities and others who are awaiting state money.
"Believe me, we've been in constant communication not only with our universities, but our whole provider community," Hynes said. "The situation is getting untenable. We have $4 1/2 billion in bills that we can't pay, including payments to our universities."
"We've been talking specifically to SIU about their particular problems, and I believe we're going to be able to work through those so that they don't miss a payroll," he added.
Q: Will the situation improve?
A: That's hard to say.
It's not clear if Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers will be willing – or able – to agree anytime soon on a plan to generate more revenues for state government.
For now, the schools are basically treading water.
"We expect to be financially healthy for the next several months," said Jay Groves, spokesman for Illinois State University, which is owed more than $40 million.
In the past few days, at least some schools have received long-awaited payments from the state.
SIU recently sought a bare-bones state payment of $32 million so it would have enough money for the December payroll, Gross said. It received $15.5 million this week, which should be enough to cover the mid-December payroll, he said.
January should be a good month because universities will get an infusion of tuition money, said David Gross, SIU's governmental relations director. But after that, he said, universities likely will find themselves back in the same financially precarious place.
Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.