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February 10, 2023

Lamont budget plan puts UConn’s XL Center sports deal under microscope

HBJ PHOTO | GREG BORDONARO The XL Center in downtown Hartford.

After Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal Wednesday left state colleges and universities with less money than they say they need, students and faculty at UConn are prepared to fight back.

“We’re not a corporation. We’re not a business asking for a tax break. We are the future of Connecticut,” said Mason Holland, UConn’s student body president. “We are going to be the front-line workers. We’re going to be the lawyers, and the doctors and the teachers. We’re going to be people that ultimately serve [future] students … and we want to make sure that we’re in the best position to continue to do so. We want to invest in our future.”

Holland said he hopes up to 1,000 of his classmates will join a campus walk-out Wednesday and travel to the state Capitol to protest Lamont’s budget, which proposes approximately $350 million less than the university asked for over the next two fiscal years.

Recent budgets included hundreds of millions in American Rescue Plan Act funding, money that officials said the university knew wouldn’t last.

“The federal ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] Funds, everyone knew full well, was an emergency, one-time injection of funds … to keep the doors open and keep everyone working,”  state Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham, Lamont’s budget chief, said Wednesday.

“If they have structural [budget] problems, they should deal with their structural problems.”

The Daily Campus, UConn’s student publication, reported Wednesday that the university’s president threatened to remove its sporting events from Hartford’s XL Center to help cover the budget shortfall.

“We pay to play there, so the money that we generate there doesn’t go to us and athletics, it goes to Connecticut … When I go and talk to owners of the restaurants, hotels and the parking lots, they say that [their] business only spikes when UConn is playing in Hartford, and that’s when they generate revenue,” Radenka Maric told a journalism class on Tuesday. “So, I was telling the governor, if there is a cut that I have to do, I’m not going to put the cuts on academic quality, I will do the cuts and make the decision to pull out of the XL.” 

UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said that last academic year, the university spent over $4 million to compete at the XL and Rentschler Field, including nearly $41,000 per basketball game and $20,500 per men's hockey match.

“UConn is also charged an average of $20,000 to $30,000 per game in ticket surcharges, resulting in a total cost per basketball game of $60,000 to $70,000,” Reitz said. “UConn also does not receive concession proceeds and other forms of income available to most of its competitors. The University would generate millions in estimated additional revenue if UConn basketball, hockey and football competed under the structure more typical of its competitor institutions.”

Reitz said Maric’s comments illustrated that “when faced with budget challenges, UConn seeks to protect academics above all else and could be forced to make painful cuts elsewhere to close any large budget gap.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, was asked before Thursday’s House session about the UConn president’s statements regarding future basketball games at XL Center.

Ritter said his caucus wasn’t happy with the level of funding Lamont recommended for public colleges and universities in his new biennial budget.

But the speaker also was confident that the matter would be resolved to allow UConn sporting events to continue in the capital city.

“Is UConn going to play in Hartford? You betcha,” Ritter said. “And do we agree with the president, though, that we’ve got to help them with this budget? You betcha.”

Beyond sporting events, there’s fear that the budget cuts could cause financial strain on students, and although Maric said the university would not cut financial aid, there is a possibility of a tuition hike.

“If the university tried to cover the Storrs portion of these shortfalls by raising tuition, it would mean an increase of 19% or $3,000 more per student next year alone,” Maric said in an email distributed to faculty and staff. “The university will spend more than $175 million on financial aid this year, an increase of 7% over the prior year. … We are doing our own cutting and consolidation whenever possible: In the last five years alone, UConn and UConn Health have successfully achieved more than $215 million in savings through Financial Improvement Plans. We simply cannot provide less while asking our students to pay more.”

This academic year, it costs over $34,000 for an in-state student to attend UConn, and upward of $43,000 for out-of-state students. About 65% of undergraduates receive financial aid.

“I have a couple of friends I was talking to about this, and if this was to happen, they don't know what they would do,” Holland said. “They don't know how they will fund their education. And in some cases, these are students that are already working one or two jobs. They’re working straight after class just so they can pay for books or just so they can pay for their meal plan. … So, if it’s a problem for one or two members of our community, it is a problem for all of us.”

Holland added that on-campus organizations often provide student services for their peers, including accessibility to free contraceptives, menstrual products or even Shop & Shop gift cards up to $300 for those struggling with food insecurity. It’s possible these services can disappear without the proper funding.

“It's frightening to think that if we ask for increased institutional support, that the university gets to the point where they say ‘We don't have the capacity to offer you any support,’” Holland said.

Faculty support will also become a question.

Last year, Lamont negotiated a four-year package of raises for most state employees. The package included $3,500 in bonuses last spring and summer for about 46,000 unionized state employees. Each year includes a 2.5% general wage increase, as well as a step hike for all but the most senior workers.

“The governor’s proposed budget would not cover the total amount of salary increases approved under the collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the state and state employee unions,” Maric wrote in her email. “The state funds the cost of collective bargaining agreements for other agencies, but proposes not to fully fund them for UConn.”

Representatives from UConn and the state university system told the administration they would need to retain temporary funding and also receive more money to help them cover the raises.

“To be clear: UConn is very supportive of ensuring that our workforce is fairly compensated; we believe that our employees earned the wage increases that the state committed to in the agreement,” Maric said. “Our request is that the state fund the commitments it made rather than pass the costs on to UConn.”

Staff writer Keith Phaneuf contributed to this report.

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