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February 8, 2024

Lamont, CT legislature appear headed for a showdown over education

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Rep. Jeff Currey confronted Matt Brokman, a top Lamont aide, over proposed cuts to education spending he negotiated last year.

Gov. Ned Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority appear headed for a battle over education in the next state budget.

The $26.1 billion plan the governor proposed Wednesday for the upcoming fiscal year trims funding for public colleges and universities. And while a major initiative to expand K-12 funding remains, Lamont wants to scale it back and use some of those resources to boost child care.

“That budget makes our state’s largest ever commitment to child care, K-12 education, [and] our universities,” Lamont said in his budget address to the General Assembly.

But while the state’s base funding to higher education institutions has gone up, their overall budgets will go down when the loss of funding streams like pandemic-era funding is taken into account.

The Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees community colleges, four regional state universities, and the online Charter Oak State College, would see its base funding grow from $423 million this fiscal year to $440 million in 2024-25.

But the governor and legislature have been propping up public colleges and universities with hundreds of millions of dollars from temporary sources — state budget surpluses and federal coronavirus pandemic relief — since 2020. And now that aid is shrinking.

Overall aid for the regents’ system would drop from $647.5 million this year to $516 million next year. 

Similarly, aid from all sources for the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs and for its satellite campuses is slated to drop from $299 million this year to $251 million next year. And at its Farmington-based health center, overall aid shrinks from $198 million to $157 million.

The governor did recommend about $90 million in state borrowing — which is outside of the regular budget — to support capital projects and research faculty recruitment at UConn.

The administration says higher education systems should have been preparing to live without the temporary money. Those systems, and many legislators, counter that all state officials knew these funds were needed for ongoing expenses, including large pay raises the governor negotiated with state employee unions. The governor and unions negotiated general wage and step increases two years ago that boosted most workers’ pay by about 4.5% annually.

The regents recently ordered buyouts for senior faculty and other cost-cutting measures to close the shortfall — and may shrink course offerings — but still asked Lamont and lawmakers for an extra $47.7 million next fiscal year.

Education advocates are concerned because community college tuition next fall will be up 11% from two years ago, while tuition and fees at regional universities will be up 7% from 2022.

The University of Connecticut Board of Trustees voted last December to boost housing and dining fees 2.75% next fall. 

Former House Speaker Richard J. Balducci, who chairs the regents’ Finance & Infrastructure Committee, said he remains hopeful the governor and legislature are open to discussing more assistance.

“I know that the governor understands where we are and what we’re trying to do, … trying to help the students most in need,” he said.

The governor has said state budget controls, commonly called “fiscal guardrails,” must be followed to ensure Connecticut can continue achieving budget surpluses and using them to reduce massive pension, retiree health care and bonded debt that exceeds $80 billion.

But faculty unions and others argue the lean spending is indefensible given the state’s prosperity and that Connecticut can invest more and still achieve surpluses and reduce debt.

“When Gov. Lamont spoke today about the [regional universities and community colleges,] he said you can ‘see the opportunity.’ But what our students are seeing is … their friends maxing out credit cards or dropping out of school due to tuition hikes,” said Louise Williams, president of the CSU-AAUP union and a professor at Central Connecticut State University. “They see libraries shortening their hours and reducing staff by half in a span of five years. They see adjunct faculty living on food stamps. They see mental health counselors with no availability for weeks or months. And they see so few course offerings that they can’t graduate on time.”

Connecticut State Colleges & Universities Chancellor Terrence Cheng said the system will spend every day from now until midnight on May 8 — the last day of the session — working with the governor’s office, lawmakers and other stakeholders to receive “the funding it needs to continue to foster the next generation of teachers, nurses, manufacturers, and corporate leaders.”

Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, who co-chairs the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, also said the funding debate in this area is far from over.

“I think there’s no question that the need is real, and we want to make sure that we don’t undermine the quality of higher education in the state in terms of public institutions,” Slap said, of the problems facing community college and regional universities. Of the regents’ $47.7 million ask, Slap said, “It’s not that much money that we’re talking about that would really be a life preserver for higher ed.”

Slap added that UConn also faces challenges despite record-high enrollment, and that he worries about turning away in-state students for those coming from out of state, who often pay more in tuition and fees. “I’m advocating for some flexibility and having a conversation about what that right balance [for funding] is,” he added.

K-12 funding

K-12 would benefit under Lamont’s plan, but not as much as some hoped.

Lawmakers included $150 million for K-12 education financing reforms in the preliminary $26 billion budget adopted last June for the 2024-25 fiscal year. Lamont wants to scale that down to $111 million by trimming increases for magnet, charter and vocational-agriculture and science schools — and then re-direct some of the funds to help accelerate growth in child care funding. 

Legislators are already bumping heads with the governor regarding funding for primary and secondary education.

Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, who is co-chair of the Education Committee, and the governor’s top policy aide, Matt Brokman, had an animated conversation in the House chamber after Lamont’s speech about what Currey sees as an abrogation of the deal adding $150 million in education funding in the second year of the biennial budget.

Jeffrey Beckham, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said during the budget briefing that the administration’s only commitment in the final budget talks last spring was to add the provision to the second year of the budget — but not leave it untouched in this year’s budget revisions.

The deal had been struck by Currey with others in the administration, including Jonathan Dach, the governor’s chief of staff, and not Beckham.

“I remind Jonny of his conversation with me a couple of months back in which he jokingly says we keep reminding Jeff to keep his hands off your money because we agreed to that,” Currey said, interrupting his conversation with Brokman to take a reporter’s question.

Currey said he has been telling school boards they could rely on the state to pay the tuition costs, as outlined in a budget implementer bill.

“In the 2nd Senatorial District alone, the hit is $11 million,” Currey said.

The 2nd District is represented by Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, his co-chair on the Education Committee.

Stakeholders across the state continue to argue that the public education system needs continued investment, especially as districts across the country face fiscal cliffs with the expiration of federal COVID-19 funding in September.

“With this proposal, Gov. Lamont is neglecting the promises and commitments made to schools last year,” said Daniel Pearson, the executive director of Educators for Excellence-Connecticut. “At a time when the [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds] are running out and the teaching shortage is at an all-time high, taking a victory lap for himself and his own budget is a disgrace. … Our districts and boards of education are already creating budgets with the commitment of money, and to say it isn’t going to happen is outrageous.”

“These proposed cuts will have negative consequences for students’ academic achievement and emotional growth at a time when their needs are greater than ever. The impacts will be felt everywhere, but especially in our most vulnerable communities,” said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Lisa Hammersley, the executive director of the School and State Finance Project, a Hartford-based education policy think tank, added that Lamont is “exacerbating inequities in our state.”

The governor is “turning his back on the needs of students, families, and educators throughout the state, all while placing greater burdens on local taxpayers and town budgets,” she said.

And though the governor’s budget proposes rerouted funds from K-12 into early child care, some advocates say it’s still not enough.

“It’s commendable that Gov. Lamont has included early childhood education as an important tenant of his adjusted budget, but looking at the larger picture, it moves the sector backwards and runs the risk of being lip service,” said Garth Harries, president and CEO of The Connecticut Project Action Fund, an organization that advocates for policy change. “Every budget is a choice, and the question with our surpluses right now is whether the governor will choose to pinch pennies when it comes to kids, or whether he will prioritize giving kids the right start in the earliest years of their lives. We urge the governor and legislature to invest in our future by investing in kids now, with at least $50 million to help families afford … high quality child care.” 

The governor’s budget also continues universal school meals afloat for another academic year.

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