Legislative changes demand new strategies

The single biggest legislative blow to higher education over the years has been the state’s decision to pay a decreasing percentage of university costs.

So says Karl Boehmke, an astute legislative observer who retired last month as WSU executive budget director after 32 years of service at the university. He worked directly for the last three presidents preparing state funding requests, as well as creating and managing the university’s budget.

“In the ‘70s and before, there seemed to be a feeling among the public and the Legislature that it was the responsibility of the state to pay for a majority of the cost of college education,” Boehmke said. “Students paid 25 percent of the cost and the government paid the remainder. Now, students pay more than 50 percent of the cost of instruction. That is a big change.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he said, the underlying view was that the state and university had an “obligation to make higher education available, if students wanted to take advantage of it.”

More graduates
Today, despite major tuition increases, the Legislature wants a higher percentage of Washington students to get a college education. Recent state demographics have been conducive to achieving those goals. Due to the ‘baby boom echo’ there is a bumper crop of students graduating from high school.

But the same demographics show that trend soon will begin to decline and the challenge will become tougher.

“I think legislators will hold the universities accountable to attract and graduate more students,” said Boehmke.
“That is a nationwide trend. On the positive side, our state’s school-age population has been growing while others have already begun to decline,” he observed, pointing to the immigration of Asian and Hispanic families.

More science
Legislators’ emphasis on growing enrollment is driven in part by economics rather than educational philosophy.

“They see that the growth of the economy depends upon a majority of the state’s students getting a college education,” he said. “So, there’s pressure on the university to attract more students to enroll and earn college degrees.”

“Scientists and engineers are key to economic growth. We will be at an economic disadvantage if we don’t respond and grow” our population of graduates in those areas, Boehmke said.

To boost those numbers, legislators are providing additional funding in the STEM majors — sciences, technology, engineering and math.

“They want to direct specifically how funding will be spent, and want it to be targeted to new, rather than existing, activities,” he said.

Directed shortfalls
While directed funding allows the Legislature to ensure growth in specific areas, it has its downside. As additional money is funneled to STEM programs, lawmakers have failed to provide expanded funding for other academic and support areas.

“Many areas are seeing increasing costs without any increase in funding,” Boehmke said. “Every department pays for supplies, utilities, lab materials, travel and other goods. The costs for all these things increase over time.”

But directed funding does not provide any money to pay the increased costs.

“Part of that is paid for by increasing the tuition, which is another reason why students are paying higher costs than decades ago,” he said.

Research recognized
On the positive side, Boehmke noted, the Legislature has recognized the importance of research and increased its funding.

“However, many other states realized that earlier, so we’re playing catch-up.

California will spend $1 billion on biotechnology over the next few years. Washington state has its own plans with the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which provides $30 million over several years. So our efforts are small compared to what other states are doing.

“But investing in research is a trend that I think will continue.”

Voter initiatives
One trend that causes Boehmke and legislators concern is the movement to create laws via voter initiatives.

When bills move through the Legislature, he said, they go through several committees where they receive public comment and scrutiny. They are drafted and redrafted numerous times.

“The process is long and complex, but by the time a bill reaches its final version, it usually is better legislation because there has been a lot of input to address problems in the initial drafts. With voter initiatives, it’s either up or down with the original language. There’s no opportunity for refining the initiative.”

New legislative reality
Boehmke believes WSU has adapted as the Legislature has changed.

“We need to continue to look at what types of things the Legislature is interested in funding and build requests to satisfy the needs of the Legislature as well as meet university priorities,” he said.

To some extent, WSU also must play a role in educating and shaping the view of lawmakers. He pointed to joint UW-WSU efforts over the past several years “to show the advantages of research to the state’s economy.”

The university and its supporters, he said, “not only need to educate the Legislature, but also need to provide the public with a clear and easy-to-understand vision of why investment in universities is crucial for the well-being of the state. That is a new reality.”

2008 Legislature
As for the upcoming legislative session, Boehmke says it will be a “lean budget.”

“The Legislature typically funds only emergencies and great opportunities” during midbiennium years. “Now, with a possible economic downturn on the horizon, the Legislature will be interested in retaining as many dollars as it can in reserve.”

However, he said confidently, “the 2007-2009 budget is solidly in place. There’s no real danger that it will be reduced, and what we have in place is a good budget.” 

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