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Illinois universities warn of perils if budget cut

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois’ public university presidents Thursday spelled out a doomsday scenario of cuts should the state’s temporary tax increase expire as scheduled next January, a move they say would disproportionately affect the number of low-income students while others flee to schools outside the state.

The state currently allocates $3.3 billion for higher education. But Illinois expects a $1.5 billion loss of revenue if the individual income tax rates roll back in 2015 from 5 percent to 3.75 percent and corporate rates drop from 7 percent to 5.25 percent.

Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard told a Senate appropriations committee that higher education institutions are bracing for a 30 percent decrease in funding next year, which would mean increases in student-to faculty ratios, fewer course offerings and graduate assistantship programs and more classes being taught by adjunct professors instead of more highly paid tenured professors at Illinois’ nine public universities.

The tuition hikes, he said, would cut down on the ability for poorer students to earn college degrees.

“Our tuition has doubled over the last several years at our institution as well as most others,” Poshard said. “We had to make up for that loss of state funds and these families just can’t afford it. The average family income in southern Illinois is $36,000 a year,” he said.

Following several consecutive years of budget cuts, an unanticipated $1.2 billion increase in tax revenue last year from taxpayers selling assets before new tax laws took effect allowed lawmakers to slightly increase higher education funding for 2014. But university officials told the committee that the state’s financial troubles still are having an impact on schools’ day-to-day operations.

Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas says the state’s backlog of bills has already created budget headaches for his institution, which is waiting on $26.7 billion in money it’s been promised this year.

“The uncertainty of these payments requires great finessing in accounting,” he said, “it compounds and adds to the ever growing cost of higher education.”

Both presidents say increasing the state’s minimum wage – a current push by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Democratic state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, among others – could heighten budget problems, requiring millions more to pay their student workforces.

Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over what to do about the expiring tax increase, with disagreements likely to only intensify as November’s general election nears. Many Republicans – including three out of the four GOP gubernatorial primary bidders – support allowing the increase to expire as scheduled.

Quinn has so far stayed mum on the plan he will call for during his annual budget address on March 26.

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