Legislature may cut UW operating budget after passage of I-601

Though the current legislative session should be brief, UW officials are concerned about long-term trends coming out of Olympia following the passage of Initiative 601.

Lawmakers are tightening the belt in the current budget year to prepare for I-601 restrictions coming in 1995. Among the possible cuts is Gov. Mike Lowry’s plan to trim research universities’ 1993-95 budgets by 1.5 percent. For the UW, that means a $7.6 million cut that would eliminate 50 full-time faculty and staff.

While the governor’s proposals will see changes before the legislative session ends March 10, UW Director of Government Relations Bob Edie says it’s a warning sign for what’s ahead.

“We had a 3.2 percent cut two years ago and then a 4.6 percent cut at the start of the 1993-95 biennium. That’s reduced the UW’s state budget by $53 million at the same time that we’ve added students,” he explains.

“Over time you can’t keep cutting budgets, adding students and still maintain the quality of the program,” he warns.

While the governor and many lawmakers want to “reinvent” government, Edie adds, there is little room for the UW to maneuver.

“We have already sharply reduced state-funded travel and equipment budgets and eliminated over 400 faculty and staff positions. We can’t ‘downsize’ because the state insists we keep the same number of students. They are giving us less money and no pricing authority, which in this case would be local control over tuition. We’re in a real box.”

Tuition rates are set by the legislature through state statute. A bill in the 1993 session allowing regents to set out-of-state and graduate-level tuition never made it through the legislature.

Hanging like a fog over the session is the impact of I-601. As it stands, the measure puts a strict limit on the growth of state spending starting July 1, 1995. Expenditures may not grow faster than the three-year average of growth in population and inflation. To exceed that lid, two-thirds of the legislature must approve any new revenues, and then voters must approve the increases at the next election.

In January, several Washington state citizens filed a lawsuit challenging the initiative and in particular its requirement for a “super-majority” vote to exceed spending limits. The suit contends that the initiative changed what the state constitution says about budget votes. Since the initiative process did not follow the rules for amending the constitution, I- 601 should be ruled invalid, they maintain.

Government Relations Associate Director Sheral Burkey says that lawmakers can’t assume the challenge will prevail. “601 is currently law and they have to follow it,” she says. But she adds that lawmakers are misreading the results of last November’s election if they continue to cut education.

“Remember that 602 (another tax-limit initiative) was defeated by a large margin. The big issue in that vote—along with the defeat of tax breaks for tobacco and alcohol interests—was protecting education,” she notes. “In addition, 601 passed by the slimmest of margins.”

Other issues facing the UW in the current session include selecting the final site for the UW-Bothell branch campus, Seattle Rep. Ken Jacobsen’s plan to free universities from most legislative controls, a bill to put students on the board of regents and a proposal for extending collective bargaining rights to faculty.

For more information about the current session, alumni can contact the UWAA Legislative Support Network at (206) 543-0540 or 1-800-AUW-ALUM.